DEERFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio - The heart of the dream that Karri Bass has made real comes in soothing doctor's-office neutrals. In this room, on the second floor of an office building near a Deerfield Township movie palace, she works to get deep inside your head.
She searches for the mystery of what makes you buy shampoo.
And you will tell her because Bass knows that you want to know the answer, too.
"It's fascinating," she said. "People spend their money for all kinds of reasons."
Bass, 39, of Loveland, is the chief executive officer of Illumination Research, a market research and strategy firm that she started in a spare bedroom in 2005. She is also a wife and the mother of three children, with the full complement of weekend sports activities.
Last month, she went to Washington to collect the award as Ohio Small Business Person of the Year from the federal Small Business Administration. She met with other entrepreneurs and titans of industry who started from scratch, like Angie Hicks of Angie's List. "It was a great experience," Bass said. "We talk about how we come back from conferences like that incredibly energized about what we can do next."
Former P&Ger 'Extremely Charismatic'
Bass started Illumination Research to offer companies portals into consumer understanding, from focus groups to surveys to online tools to social media mining. The company has between 25 and 30 regular customers, including global players such as Procter & Gamble, The Kroger Co., Pepsi, Nestle, ConAgra Foods and dunnhumby. She declined to release the company's annual revenue as a proprietary matter.
Clients appreciate Bass's approach.
When Daniel Jahnke worked in marketing at P&G, he brought in an "extremely charismatic" Bass for shopper research. One project concerned the layout of a shelf for body washes, where consumers told Bass that they didn't see nearby signs. But Jahnke, now a senior manager for Naked Emerging Brands, a subsidiary of Pepsi, said Bass knew that, in fact, the signs registered.
"What Karri was telling us was, the consumer may have said she didn't see the sign, but she was clearly looking up and it was registering in her subconscious," he said. "In the shopper-research space, it's not just taking the consumer at her word. It's how she reacts, and Karri sees that. It's like she was in neuroscience before neuroscience was cool. It's a rare breed who can sense the body language piece of it."
Bass grew in Centerville, the younger of two daughters; her mother Kay was a nurse and her father Kent was an electrical project engineer. Her mother remembered that Karri was a quick student who savored competition in the classroom and on the playing field: She ran hurdles on the track team and excelled at soccer, getting named defensive player of the year as a senior at Centerville High School.
She enrolled at The Ohio State University intending on a biology degree that would lead to medical school, but she got into some business classes, got an internship, "and I started thinking, wow, maybe I've found my calling."
What intrigued her was the connection that consumers made with products and companies. "This is really fascinating, to think about how consumers buy things, what motivates them." After graduating from OSU, she went to work for with a company that raised brand management to an art form: P&G.
"I love talking to consumers. I worked on Pampers, and while I wasn't a mom at the time, I loved talking to new moms, understanding their frustrations with diaper care," she said. "That was my favorite part, and it prepared me for running a business."
From Spare Bedroom to Boardroom
She met and married Jeff Bass, a Boston-born P&G finance executive. In 2002, she left the corporate world to go out on her own. From that spare bedroom, she took in clients from the start and did not even need a small-business loan. It helped that Jeff stayed at P&G until 2005, then he joined her, and they founded Illumination Research. He's the chief financial officer.
In 2011, Illumination Research moved out of the spare bedroom and into a second-floor suite in the office complex on Deerfield Boulevard near the Regal Cinemas.
They've had challenges. One client not only wanted the market research and required Bass and her company to ship 12 pallets of hair-care products to various stores around the country. "Not what we expected," said Jeff Bass, "but we found a way to make it work."
In an age when the Internet generates vast amounts of raw market research every day, Karri Bass said she seeks the nuance in consumer choices.
"There's lot about Big Data, that there's so much data available, with the Internet and all the technology. What we do is bring all of it together and understand it, and get that dimension of ‘why?' behind the data."
Despite the frenetic life of running a business and rearing a family, Bass nurtures her connections to people, said her friend Shannon Eisenhardt.
"Karri is 100 percent reliable – when she says she'll do something, (babysit your children, go shopping with you, partner on a project), she does it," Eisenhardt wrote in email from Geneva, Switzerland. ""It's as though her capacity is limitless."
Jeff Bass nominated his wife for the Small Business Person of the Year award, and the good news arrived the old-fashioned way, in a postal envelope so thin, they nearly threw it out unopened by mistake
In the Illumination Research office, most of the space for the 30 employees is creative-industrial chic with bold colors.
The calm space of the focus-group room is where Karri Bass can show you a bottle of shampoo and then take your pulse about it.
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