Gong’s Akshay Verma on scaling a Research team of 1
You asked, Akshay answered. Highlights from our AMA on scaling a UXR team of 1.
Akshay Verma, the founding researcher at Gong, joined the Rally team on Nov 10 for an AMA on scaling a UXR team of one. Akshay answered questions about topics like his move from a large research team to a team of one, how research ops fits into his role, and making the case to scale.
If you missed it, or want to revisit some of Akshay’s gems, we’ve put together highlights from some of the questions he covered. If you’d like to watch the full AMA, head to our YouTube channel.
🔑 Being a team of one = lots of opportunities to experiment and be curious.
🔑 Be protective of your time and energy — you are the only one who can showcase what great research looks like and what its impact can be.
🔑 Ask leadership what is top of mind and what type of research gets them excited and prioritize that.
🔑 Be ruthless with your time, your energy, and how frequently you showcase your research and its impact. #AkshayTheRuthless iykyk 😉
🔑 When you utilize the right tools, like Rally, you can have more time to do research that inspires you and is meaningful to your org.
Akshay’s Action Items
✅ Start building a research portfolio (in whatever format you desire) that is a record of decisions and products that your research influenced.
✅ Set up a call and ask leadership what are the big questions you’re looking to answer and prioritize your work based on that.
✅ Ask people what excites them about research and identify trusted allies who can share insights with you and support the case for scaling in the future.
✅ Send out a monthly research digest to all your stakeholders (potentially your entire company) to showcase the research that you’ve recently done and the impact it drove.
✅ If you feel like you’re wasting precious hours every day doing ops work (like sending emails one by one @ Akshay), check out Rally, the User Research CRM.
Who is Akshay Verma?
Akshay leads User Research at Gong, an enterprise tool for salespeople to be more productive. Akshay has spent the last year building the research function as a team of one. Like many UXRs, Akshay comes from a non-traditional background, having studied humanities and urban studies. “I never really knew what to do with that and very serendipitously, almost 10 years ago before UX research really exploded, learned about this field.”
Akshay’s interest was piqued and he began working with a series of design agencies and startups. With user research, Akshay felt he could “learn about people and use that to build products and businesses and not just write a paper that no one’s ever going to read.”
Before coming to Gong, Akshay worked at both LinkedIn and Spotify. At LinkedIn, Akshay saw the research team grow and evolve. He led user research in Spotify’s personalization org and sought to understand how people listen to music and playlists and how Spotify recommends music to its listeners — something he described as a “total joy to study.”
Joining a high-growth org as the first researcher
Going from a research team of 60+ to a team of one is no small feat. It’s a change that can be both challenging and rewarding. One thing Akshay immediately noticed was that as the only researcher, the stakes felt much higher. “It can sometimes feel like you are representing your entire craft and discipline as the sole person in that seat.”
Despite being intense, being the only researcher is a fantastic opportunity to be entrepreneurial — something Akshay said has been a key joy that he’s leaned into and a big reason he joined Gong.
As the only researcher, Akshay has introduced and begun to set the foundations of the research function while also evangelizing and educating people on research. “It’s allowed me to be really curious and experimental,” he said. “You have a lot more of a runway to try things out and see what works and what doesn’t.”
Lessons from Year 1 at Gong
1. Since you don’t have other researchers to lean on, lean on people in your company.
At Spotify, Akshay had over 100 researchers he could reach out to for help, something he missed when he joined Gong. “Before you join an org as a team of one, you have to be at a comfortable point in your career where you don’t heavily rely on other researchers.” Luckily, he explained, you can still lean on people outside of your company.
“I found product marketing and data science are usually really good insights-adjacent practitioners you can lean on.” And you can still rely on people outside of your org. Throughout his user research journey, Akshay has collected many friends and mentors who he continually reaches out to.
2. It’s okay to push back and say no.
Akshay sits on the product team at Gong with about 25 product managers, 20 designers, and 5 UX writers. “I realized I really had to push back and say no, otherwise I would go crazy if I said yes to everything.”
3. Be protective of your time and energy.
As the only researcher, it’s your job to showcase what really strong research can look like. And to do so, Akshay said he learned you have to be intentional about your time.
4. Experiment as much as possible.
“Experimenting is a core part of being the first researcher, especially at an org that is growing really fast.” No two orgs are the same, so you have to try a lot of things out and recognize what works and what doesn’t. “Being experimental, flexible, and nimble is what is going to lead to the most impact.”
5. Lean into your unique skills as a researcher.
Researchers are great at connecting the dots, telling compelling stories, and making meaning of messy data, Akshay explained. Utilizing those skills to parse through the years of culture, traditions, history, and data at Gong helped Akshay gain support and trust within the team and evangelize research. “There was no way I could synthesize all the work the team had done, but I could push them to connect the dots.”
How Research Ops fits into the role of a solo researcher
Before joining Gong, a mentor told Akshay he’d been spoiled being at bigger orgs and having access to resources like a participant recruiter. She told Akshay to be mindful because he’s “going to spend a lot of time doing things you haven’t done in many, many years — if ever.”
So, Akshay knew when he joined Gong that he would handle research ops on his own. This added a lot of extra tasks to Akshay’s plate. For example, Gong didn’t have a research NDA in place, so Akshay spent a few months talking to legal and setting up an NDA. Another thing Akshay found himself doing was emailing participants — one by one.
“I was spending literally half a day just copying and pasting emails because I didn’t have a more sophisticated tool,” he said. “Until I learned about Rally.”
When Akshay discovered Rally, he “was going a little bit crazy.” He recognized that he was using up precious time and resources managing participants. “Rally was really influential for me to be able to automate a lot of the recruitment that I was doing.”
Surprises of building the research function
Partly due to Gong’s size and the nature of the company, Akshay found it surprisingly easy to do many things on his own. In previous roles, Akshay encountered more guardrails and bureaucracy. “You had to have the right credentials to pull a list of participants.” At Gong, “there is a lot of trust in doing things right and doing it ourselves,” he said.
The autonomy Akshay experiences at Gong can also come with a cost. “There are lots of people talking to customers and it’s been a bit unruly.” Akshay is currently trying to decide how to streamline the communications his teammates are having with customers. “We’re leaning on Rally to help with that.”
How do you make the case for scaling beyond a team of one?
First, Akshay explained, it’s important to recognize that you’re joining an organization that has its own unique culture, norms, and systems in place. “I spent the first six months really just trying to soak that in.”
Akshay recommended investigating your org with these questions in mind:
- What’s expected of product managers regarding discovery — are they expected to have calendars full of customer calls or rely on others to communicate with customers?
- What is the norm around product and design conducting their own research?
- What skill sets do the designers have?
- Does your org intentionally hire designers who have past experience in research?
- How does your team talk about user needs and frameworks?
- Do the product specs have a section that cites qualitative or quantitative evidence?
- How have adjacent disciplines scaled their own teams? What is their reasoning and approach for scaling or not scaling?
Once you’ve gone through that initial process, Akshay recommends “being ruthless about documenting and measuring success.” It’s important to recognize and record what works well and what doesn’t. “Replicating success when you’re starting out is much easier than taking a bunch of bets.”
Other steps Akshay recommends taking to begin building the case to scale are:
- Know what type of research has people talking and has leadership excited.
- Identify your champions and allies and understand what about your work has them excited.
After you’ve successfully built out a small team of researchers, “you can be more experimentative when it comes to growth.” But when scaling from one to two to three researchers, Akshay recommends “being mindful of your successes and trying to replicate them.”
Choosing the right researchers for your team
When it comes to scaling research at Gong, Akshay is aiming toward a model where each product manager within the multiple product pillars has a dedicated researcher. With this embedded approach, “there’s a lot of value to be had in building an archive of knowledge and expertise over time,” he said.
Picking the right people for your research team is very important when scaling the research function. Akshay has three goals that guide the type of skill sets and experiences he would look for in additional researchers:
- Replicating success
- Aligning with leadership’s most strategic priorities.
- Having a model where someone can really build expertise and co-own the product roadmap
The goals of your research and org will help you determine the types of researchers you want to add to your team.
When should you hire contract researchers?
“There’s totally a time and place to have a solid researcher who may not be an expert in the space come in for a couple of months,” said Akshay. If there are resources available, hiring a contract researcher who can fulfill a specific need or provide specific expertise or skills can be very helpful to a team of just one or a few researchers.
Ultimately, it all depends on what will be most impactful, he said. If you have multiple high-impact projects and you can’t dedicate your time to each one, then it may be a great opportunity to bring in a contract researcher.
How do you measure the success & impact of research?
Measuring success and impact is often challenging and unique to every team. Akshay explained that so much of what he’s currently doing — large foundational projects — is more qualitative work, so it’s harder to connect the output to specific metrics.
When it comes to qualitative work, Akshay recommends conducting internal research to discover the influence of your work. “Explicitly ask product leaders what decisions they’ve made — or chosen not to make — with the help of research.”
As you do this internal research, it’s important to document what you find, Akshay said. Record what decisions have been made because of research and the results of those decisions. Once you’ve discovered and documented these things, you should have a clearer idea of what to replicate for future success.
Akshay also recommended putting together a research portfolio. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, he said, and can even be just a mental list. Ultimately, it should be some sort of record of “all the things that have happened or been done because of research.”
For a small team or team of one, Akshay said one thing he’s done in the past is sending out updates about decisions that have been made with the help of research or key research insights. “Send it out as widely as possible and at whatever cadence works for you,” he said.
When Akshay has done this he said he’s received great feedback. “Have some fun with it and be ruthless about it,” he continued. “Don’t be afraid to showcase your impact and showcase it widely.”
Collaborating cross-functionally on research
In any size org, you aren’t the only one talking to users. At Gong, Akshay found himself between customer service, sales, customer success, and product marketing. “Everyone’s always talking to customers — as they should — but there’s no way to track and know what everyone is saying and learning.”
To help increase collaboration and a shared understanding of research, here are some things Akshay recommends:
- Find reliable people on each team who you can trust and lean on.
- Create spaces and times, like a workshop, for members of different teams to come together and share common insights.
With both of these recommendation, start with disciplines that are most tied to research like product and design and branch out from there.
Another thing Akshay did that proved successful was create a “joint research roadmap” between pricing research, marketing research, and user research. This roadmap provided a combined initiative that Akshay said should help people understand each discipline. “It also should provide a joint narrative to help connect the dots more and triangulate different sources of research and data.”
How do you prioritize what to work on?
“Go directly to your head of product or even your CEO and ask what is top of mind for them,” said Akshay. This has been Akshay’s approach while at Gong and he’s found it to be a great strategy. “You’re setting yourself up for success,” he said.
By focusing on what’s top of mind, Akshay explained, you’ll be invited into those high-level conversations, which helps you build and evangelize research. “You’re going to see a lot more impact because you’re doing things that people care about.”
Eventually, as you get more comfortable and understand more what the company cares about, you can be more opinionated and vocal about what projects to prioritize and work on.
Advice to other teams of one
Be ruthless and carve out time to actually do research that inspires you and is meaningful to your org. “It’s easy to get stuck doing logistics, building infrastructure, and meeting with tons of people. All of that is great, but I definitely have felt like I was losing sight of actually doing meaningful research,” said Akshay.
As a team of one, you’re going to be expected to do a hundred different things at once, he continued. It’s important to protect your time and “don’t be afraid to say no so you don’t get stuck doing things that may not go anywhere.”
Lean on your org’s existing toolkit. “It’s tricky to make the case to purchase a tool that is quite established and expensive.” What your org currently has available may not be perfect, he said, “but sometimes it’s just easier to use what you have than spend months trying to get a new tool for every little thing.”
At the moment, Rally is the only tool Akshay uses. “It checked a lot of my boxes and was the only tool I was successfully able to onboard and use. And it’s been great.”
Power your team of 1 with Rally
Picking the right tool can make all the difference for a research team of one. At Rally, we’ve built a User Research CRM that helps teams of all sizes manage their participants (and stop sending emails out one by one!) and enable researchers to do what inspires them. If you want to learn more, join our waitlist!
We LOVED having Akshay come and share his experience as a team of one. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, head to our YouTube channel.