Firm debuts faster data search engine

Field Agent, a Fayetteville-based mobile research and retail data collection firm, has spent seven years helping clients gain much-needed access to information in stores across the country.

The company, founded by Rick West and Henry Ho in 2010, recently introduced a product that should supply that information even quicker. Jicco, an on-demand, retail search engine, promises to provide real-time information for retail-specific topics like store-level promotions, pricing, availability and shopper sentiment.

Rick West, co-founder and chief executive officer of Field Agent, said Jicco has been seven years in the making and builds on Field Agent's foundation as a mobile crowd-sourcing platform.

"We started with a problem and solved it with technology," West said. "That's' really what's been driving us. We think Jicco is the same thing. We have a problem -- time-starved people. They need instant access and we think Jicco can kind of play that out."

The name is derived from the work Field Agent already does for clients. While most of the company's projects are larger in scale -- for instance, getting specific information about a price, product or a product display in 1,000 different stores -- the firm conducts smaller tests for companies to help them decide if it's worth moving forward. Field Agent calls these smaller tests, which could be conducted in 15 stores, a "just in case cutoff," according to West.

So Jicco was developed for clients who need quick answers. Subscribers simply have to visit and enter a question. Examples during the testing stage included queries about the price of store-brand toothpaste at Kroger or the types of signs that stand out the most in the baby aisle at Target.

Incoming questions are distributed to the company's field agents, who gather information, take photos and offer feedback from stores nationwide. A test conducted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette produced a response in 17 minutes with a few more arriving over the next 30 minutes.

"The search engine component and the crowd-source piece, it is a game-changer," said Clay Bell, president of Arena Sales and works with suppliers. "Just having the ability to ask questions about what is going on in a retail store about your product line and getting pictures and answers back in real-time is pretty incredible. ... What Field Agent has done is taken it from weeks to days to minutes."

That rapid response can be critical for companies, that are often in need of data quickly and may not be able to fan out fast enough to get it. West used the example of one client who needed data on the price of a competitor's product at Whole Foods. Within minutes, responses arrived from 10 states.

"In the past if we needed to know something that was happening in the field quickly it meant several calls to field supervisors," Danni-Lynn Kilgallen, a national retail account manager for Energizer Holdings, said in a statement provided by Field Agent. "And then a fire drill to stores to check something out. Jicco provides the information without the need for a real-time fire drill."

The service is the next step for Field Agent, which has carved out its niche as a well-known mobile crowd-sourcing solution for the retail and branded goods industry. Five Elms Capital of Kansas City invested $2.5 million in the company in 2013, then invested $2 million more in 2015.

The company has grown from a two-person operation to 55 full-time employees. It also boasts having more than one million app users -- its field agents -- who gather information across the country. In 2016, Field Agent was named Mobile Research Agency of the Year by MRMW, which recognizes excellence and innovation in market research.

John James, founder and CEO of Hayseed Ventures and also co-founder of Acumen Brands, said the company's accomplishments since establishing itself in Northwest Arkansas have been impressive.

So is Jicco, which he compared to Quora, a California-based website where a wide range of questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by a community of users.

"(Field Agent's) core underlining technology -- to be able to crowd-source answers -- it just lends itself perfectly to this," James said. "It reminds me a lot of a very specific Quora and for a very specific need and one that's pretty hard to do. It's really neat. If they can figure out how to get a ton of people to it and make a ton of money from it, that would be great."

Jicco, which will be a subscription-based service, is in the final legs of its testing phase.

West said hundreds were invited to try the service before a nationwide rollout scheduled for April 17.

Field Agent is taking a careful approach as well, vetting potential subscribers to make sure it won't simply receive questions "just for fun." West said late last month the company was confident it could handle close to 1,000 clients.

"Our scale allows us to answer these questions in real time," West said. "Seven years ago, this could've taken us hours to get the first question. Now it takes us longer to push the question out, turn it back around and submit it back to the user than it does to field it."

Business on 04/08/2017

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