Curious at Prolific: A look behind the scenes of a fast-growing startup

Hannah Lettmann
|September 11, 2018

In spring this year, Prolific turned 4 – time to pause and look back on how it all started. But Co-founder Katia also gives us a glimpse into Prolific's future.

In one sentence, what does Prolific do?

Katia: Prolific helps researchers of all kinds (for example, academics, data scientists, market researchers) collect high quality data quickly from people around the world.

Prolific initially started out as a side-project to help you (Katia) collect data for your PhD – when  did you reach the point where you decided to take it a step further and open the platform up to everyone?

Katia: We reached that point really early, I believe in April 2014, which was only 1 month into having created Prolific. We opened it to all researchers for various reasons. One is that many researchers faced the same bottleneck that I had: How to find the right participants for one’s research quickly and at a low cost? At the time, MTurk was only available in the US, but I needed to recruit British participants for my PhD research. Although there was a ton of survey sites out there, they either looked untrustworthy, or they were too expensive, or not tailored towards my needs as a researcher (for example no prescreening, no assurances of data quality). This is why we had created Prolific to begin with. Opening it to fellow researchers seemed like the ethically right thing to do to and it made sense to get some feedback from fellow scientists. Plus, it was pretty clear that more researchers would lead to more available studies and therefore grow our participant pool faster. It seemed like a win-win-win, so we just let anyone sign up (initially in the UK only).

What were the biggest challenges on the way? What would you do differently now?

Katia: Whew, there are many. Just to name a few that I think are most important:

A unique challenge we’ve had is that both Phelim and I were doing PhDs while running Prolific. This year, we’ve completed our PhDs. It was a huge challenge to do both a PhD and a startup at the same time, and it’s a bit of a miracle that it all worked out. Huge thanks go to our PhD advisors for being super flexible and open-minded and to our fantastic team for holding everything together when Phelim and I were writing our theses and having our vivas.

One thing I’d do differently now is to better block out time to do more deep, focused work. I used to switch too much between tasks: I would answer some Prolific user emails for an hour, then work on my PhD for an hour, and then switch back to Prolific to help some customer, and then back to my PhD to run some analysis. The switching cost in this approach is too high and you end up being less effective and efficient. Also, I’ve learned to respect quality downtime: I really treasure my time off on weekends and on evenings during the week. It helps me recharge and stay sane. 🙂

Domain expertise about how to build a business was a big challenge: In the beginning we were clueless about accounting, due diligence, legal questions, fundraising, project management, hiring, and other areas. Having some experience or knowledge in these areas goes a long way. The good news is that you can acquire all this knowledge by reading books and blogs online, chatting with people who’ve been there, and by building an awesome team.

Competing priorities: Figuring out what’s important and needs attention now, and which things can wait. There are many tasks which in the early days of a startup might appear important (e.g., preparing marketing materials, ordering business cards, or attending networking events), but if you really think about it, they actually distract you from your key goal of building a neat product. In the early stages of a startup, building a decent MVP (minimum viable product) is key, so all efforts should be directed towards that goal. Luckily, we realised that quite early on (thanks to the lean startup approach!), which allowed us to stay laser-focused.

Hiring faster: We waited too long with hiring. Building a great team makes all the difference; we should have realised that earlier. It allows you improve the platform and grow it much faster. And it makes everything a lot more fun. 🤘

How much has Prolific changed as a company within the past year?

Katia: Prolific is currently changing drastically. Our product is much better and easier-to-use now that we’ve launched our new site for both researchers and participants. Our participant pool has grown a lot and we have significantly improved our data quality checks. A year ago we were a small team of 6 (4 in Oxford, 1 in Glasgow, 1 in Newcastle). Right now we’re a team of 9, and two more people (a backend developer and a data analyst) will be joining us in September and November 2018. Plus, we’re hiring! If you have any colleagues interested in this space and looking for a new challenge, feel free to circulate our job opportunities.

Is Prolific’s initial mission still the same? What has changed?

Katia: Initially, we wanted to solve my own problem of recruiting British participants for my PhD research. But, the more we learned about online participant recruitment, the more problems we saw that we could solve. Our mission is now more ambitious. We’ve recently converged on the following mission statement:

Prolific’s mission is to empower great research by enabling fast, high quality, and reliable data collection from diverse populations around the world, serving the broader goal to improve human knowledge and decision-making.

Where do you see Prolific in a year from now? What’s the ‘next big thing’?

Katia: Two of our next big things are: Enabling representative samples at a low cost (we think this will be a game-changer for academic research) and launching a Prolific mobile app, so anyone can take part in research from anywhere. In a year from now, Prolific will probably have a team of ~20-30 enthusiastic and bright people working towards our mission to empower great research. Chances are we’ll be working from Oxford, London, San Francisco, Berlin, and other places around the world. We’re considering fundraising to accelerate our growth in new countries and markets (although we might not need to raise because we have a reliable revenue stream).