Ruth Stevenson

About Ruth Stevenson

I am an experienced primary research consultant who has provided research services for many public and private sector organisations covering an extensive variety of subject matters. I have worked for leading research agencies (IpsosMORI focusing on branding and PR research, and TNS) as well as not-for-profit organisations (The Audience Business focusing on arts, and Scottish Development Centre for Mental Health focusing on mental health and wellbeing).

A research generalist, I have expertise in all elements of the research process: identifying research needs and designing appropriate methodologies, conducting and commissioning fieldwork, analysing quantitative and qualitative data, and providing reporting and recommendations. I am a professional and pragmatic consultant who is skilled in working with those with no prior research knowledge as well as those who are highly research literate. I take pride in enabling others to appreciate the significant role that research can play in information-based decision making, and ensuring that I provide clients with useful and usable insight.

Through Ruthless Research I provide research services for organisations that benefit the community such as charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations.

Minimising the risk of sub-contracting a sole trader

When a client sub-contracts a research project they have to make decisions about who they want to work with and who they think will get the job done.  Imagine you could choose a university, or an agency with hundreds of staff, or a boutique firm with ten staff.  These are my competitors.  And then there’s me, a sole trader.

Well sometimes they pick me and sometimes they don’t.

And often when they don’t, they tell me it is because I’m a sole trader and that choosing a sole trader would be risky:


Consultancy Week- Sub-Contracting a Sole Trader

Sole Trader

Real example 1:  “Slight risk of non-completion as sole trader.”

 Real example 2:  “The only factor which scored lower was around contingency arrangements and project risk.  The panel had specific discussion around the small business model and in terms of the contractor being incapacitated the panel did have some concerns.”


For a client, the worry is that if something goes wrong with me there will be no-one there to pick up the pieces.  They worry that my personal life will intrude into my work and their project won’t get done.  They’ll be stuck with no outputs, and a mess to clear up.

Well they are right in the sense that things do happen and I do have to deal with them myself.  As a sole trader I can’t just call in sick, I can’t just forget about my responsibilities, I don’t have a colleague to take on my tasks.  I need to man up and rearrange my own appointments from my death bed, and the fallout of being away is all still there for me to deal with when I come back to my desk.

And I know, because I have had personal stuff that I’ve chosen to or been forced to fit around my work.  I’ve had a few days of sickness, I’ve had a few days when my computer was down.  Some of it has been unexpected, some of it has been quite awkward to rejig.  Some of it has been really really important to me personally but of no relevance to my working life.  I’ve been on holiday…  I’ve taken a degree…  My cat became sick, and required constant care for a time, then died…  I have had some time consuming and inconvenient medical issues to deal with…  I’ve received bad news…  This has all happened, and in the vast majority of cases my clients don’t know.  They generally don’t need to know.  They don’t need to know because I have excellent time management and prioritisation skills, I plan ahead for the unexpected, and I am 100% committed to presenting my clients with a professional service and delivering on my promises.

To start with, I only get involved with a project in the first place if I am as certain as I can be that I can complete the project on time.  I never over-promise.  If there is any doubt I don’t put the tender in, I don’t get involved in the conversation, or I decline the work.

When the project comes around, I make a plan which has plenty of contingency time built into it, particularly around risky areas.  Risky areas are large tasks, or times when I will need to get something from someone else, whether that is corresponding with members of the public or getting a sign off from a client.  If I find myself with a bit of unexpected time, I use it to get ahead.  Maybe I brainstorm some ideas, or start drafting a document, or set up a template or some charts for a report.  And I always give myself an internal deadline of completing tasks one day earlier than the official deadline.

This means it is really easy to accommodate short-term absence of up to a week or so, especially if I have a bit of notice.  If I’m sick, well yes I might have to rearrange things if I’ve got fixed points (meetings, appointments) but it would be very unusual for this to actually disrupt the critical path of the project.

If I was running uncomfortably close to a deadline (and I don’t recall this happening in two and a half years of self employment), I could work long hours or pull an all-nighter.  If I was sick I could take a meeting remotely and then go straight back to bed.  I’ve done that – I’ve pitched for work by Skype on a day that I was technically off sick with a dress over my PJs, and I won the work.  As a sole trader and a home worker it is relatively easy to do that sort of thing.  And you can always take the day off afterwards to recover.

Consequently, all Ruthless Research projects to date have been delivered on time.  Some have been delivered early, and many have been delivered on a tight turnaround.

I will concur that if I was run over by a bus or (god forbid) actually killed there would be a bit of a problem.

But even in that case, I have systems in place to ensure that the appropriate parties would be notified and that my immaculately maintained and backed up files would allow someone else to easily pick the project up and run with it.  I have expert colleagues who could do this on an Associate basis and I have made arrangements with my next of kin and a specific trusted Associate just in case.

Is this enough?  No.  Some people will never pick a sole trader.

Which is a shame, because I think the benefits that I can provide in terms of flexibility and expertise and seniority and price and a guaranteed personal service may well be worth the risk.

How to commission the best researcher

Sometimes you know that you need to get some research done, but it is difficult to know how to go about employing the best researcher for the job.  Maybe you don’t know what you want to do, or how you want to do it – and so the whole process seems daunting and it is difficult to choose between one and another.

Either way, the commissioning stage is vital because if you get the commissioning wrong you could end up with a researcher that doesn’t fully meet your needs.

So what do you need to do to commission the best researcher?

Issue an ‘Invitation to tender’

The first stage is to either call some researchers or agencies and ask if they would like to tender for your contract, or issue a public ‘Invitation to tender’.  To do this you just need the briefest of outlines (a paragraph or so) saying what you want to do and post this on your website, or in industry e-bulletins / job boards / forums.  Those who think they are suitably qualified to take part in the process will let you know.  You should then send interested parties a full written Brief explaining the research that you need and they will respond to this with a proposal outlining methodologies and costs.

You might already have a relationship with a researcher or agency, and you might know that you want to sub-contract them.  If so you might choose to go directly to them with your Brief rather than undertaking a tendering process (unless you are required by some authority to ask for quotes).

Issue a Brief

A Brief should be a few pages long, and in it you should tell the researchers as much of the follow as you can:

  • The background to the project (about your organisation, product and/or service)
  • The aims and objectives of the research (what you want to get out of it)
  • The required methodology (but only if you have one in mind – they will propose a methodology)
  • The required outputs (report, presentation)
  • Your timescales for the research (when does it need to be complete, relevant key dates such as Board meetings, launches or events)
  • Your budget (this helps the researcher to gauge the scale of the project and means you are judging all submissions against the same metric)
  • Your contact details
  • Your timescales and submission requirements for the tendering process (give them at least a couple of weeks)

Things to think about:

  •  It might seem like a great idea in theory to receive 10 quotes, but consider whether you have the resources to appraise these.  3-5 would be more manageable.  If you want to pre-select your suppliers, ask colleagues for recommendations based on cost and quality.
  •  If you issue a public ‘Invitation to tender’ you might receive 30 proposals back, so it may be better to add in an ‘Expression of Interest’ stage.  In your public notice, ask interested parties to explain their relevant skills and experience in one page and get back to you by a specified date a couple of weeks in the future.  From those who get back to you, select 3-5 whose skills and experience appear most relevant, and forward your Brief to them.
  • The full proposals that you receive back could each be around 30 pages long, so consider whether this is what you need and if you have the time to read them all.  If not, ask for a word limit or page limit on the proposals.

Select a researcher

When you have received your proposals, you can use these to select a researcher to do the work.

Things to look for:

  • Does the style and tone of the proposal fit in with your organisational ethos?
  • Does the style and tone of the proposal make you think you can personally work with the researcher?
  • Does the proposed methodology make sense?
  • Is the proposed cost within your budget?
  • Are you being ‘tied in’ in some way? (Will you be using a copyrighted methodology, meaning that you will have to go back to the same supplier in the future?)
  • Which researcher is offering the best methodology (the most interviews, the most senior staff, the least compromises)
  • Which researcher is offering the best project management (frequency and type of contact, number of meetings)
  • Which researcher has professional memberships (Market Research Society, Social Research Association, Association for Qualitative Research)
  • Which researcher assures you of the best quality standards (sign offs, archiving, back checking, MRQSA or ISO accreditation)
  • Which researcher assures you of the best ethical standards (treatment of respondents, disclosure status, data protection)
  •  Overall, which researcher will add the most value to the project?

If you find it difficult to choose between proposals, or if it is important to you to meet the researchers in advance of selection, it is acceptable to invite potential suppliers in for a short face-to-face interview.

It is also acceptable to go back to a potential supplier and ask for a revised proposal if the original does not fully meet your needs.  However, normally this would be done after the researcher has been contracted after an initial Briefing meeting.

If you would like to search for specialist researcher agencies, or researchers in your area, the Research Buyers Guide is a good place to start.  Alternatively, do a google search or ask around (or ask me!) for freelance consultants.