If Nadhim Zahawi, 41, had never been attacked by a political activist, he might never have set up YouGov, the political pollster, in 1999. As an engineering student at University College London in the 1980s, he encountered a "guy from the Socialist Workers Party [who] didn't understand why I didn't want to talk to him and decided to get physical. So I said, sod this, I want to go and see what the other side thinks."
He eventually became a Conservative Party councillor and parliamentary candidate for Erith, and in 1999 found himself working on Jeffrey Archer's campaign for London mayor. He and a colleague Stephan Shakespeare, 51,were frustrated that poll results took so long to come back. This was their "light bulb moment": a polling firm, producing results "in real time", would be hugely valuable.
Armed with £300,000 from Angel investors, they set about compiling over the internet representative samples of people who could be contacted at a moment's notice for an instant response. Rather than rent an office, they gave some equity in the firm to a PR company in return for a "garden shed" in Great College Street, Westminster. They then did a deal with an internet service provider who agreed to direct people to a polling survey on their new site. "Then we'd say: 'If you enjoyed giving your views, why not log on to our website and we'll pay you 50p to £5 for giving them'." The pair gradually compiled a large enough database to conduct proper polls but it was the 2001 general election that gave them their real break.
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All elections are monitored by a group of academics who write up their conclusions in a study. Looking for some real-time polling to back up findings from firms such as NOP and Gallup, they contacted YouGov and asked them to supply it. "We jumped at the chance," says Zahawi. YouGov predicted a ten-point win for Labour, who in fact won by 9.1%, "not bad when most pollsters come in with 3% margins of error". Impressed by the study, Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore asked them to track the Tory leadership election for his paper. Again, YouGov beat its rivals. The Guardian and The Times gave a win to Ken Clarke, while YouGov and The Daily Telegraph tipped Ian Duncan Smith by 61 to 29. They were right on the money. "To be fair to Charles Moore, he stuck it on the front page."
The business mushroomed, hitting the £2m turnover mark in 2004 and expanding overseas into the Middle East and America. "We then stretched the brand to cover market research for companies," says Zahawi. YouGov went public in 2005 and now boasts a market capitalisation of £50m. "We used political polling as a springboard to go and sell our story." Yet so far, they're only scratching the surface. "I strongly believe that primary data from people who they're going to vote for, what soft drink they like, or airline they prefer is still one area of research that's been lagging behind everything else. And I'd like to think that YouGov will be leading that charge."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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