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Every company I’m involved in keeps track of numbers. Daily numbers, weekly numbers, monthly numbers. Ultimately, all the numbers translate into three financial statements – the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. While these numbers are sacrosanct in the accounting and finance professions, they are lagging indicators for most startup companies. Important, but they tell the story of the past, not what is going on right now.
I’ve formed a view that every young company should be obsessed about three magic numbers. Not two, not five, but three. Before I explain what those numbers are, I need to tell a story of how I got to this point.
My brain works better with numbers than graphs, so over the years I’ve conditioned most people I work with to send me numbers on a regular basis. Words are good also, but I love numbers. Early in the life of the company I request numbers daily. Some of this is for me; most of it is to try to help the entrepreneurs build some muscles around understanding the data and how to use it.
Recently, I’ve noticed a cambrian explosion of data among several of the companies I work with. The number of different numbers being tracked daily is massive. When you walk into their office there are screens full of graphs on the wall. Everyone in the company has access to the trends over time across a number of dimensions. These graphs are pretty, the numbers are dynamic, and there are often blinking lights to go along as a bonus.
A few months ago I stood in the middle of the office of a 30 person company and stared at the flat screen TVs hanging from the ceiling showing an array of graphs. I’m sure my mouth was open as I tried to process the data and make sense of it. I knew this particular company well and could reduce the number of different data points to a small set, but I was completely overwhelmed by the visual display. As I systematically looked at each of the graphs, I realized very few of them mattered much, nor where they particularly helpful in understanding what was going on in the business.
At the moment I realized these were no longer magic numbers. Instead, I was looking at wallpaper. Data porn. The entrepreneurial aeron chair equivalent of 2012. Pretty, but a bad allocation of resources. The 30 people in the room might be looking at the graphs. They might be looking at one of the graphs. But they probably weren’t seeing anything.
This particular company runs off of three numbers. Daily active users (DAU). Live publishers. Trial publishers. That’s it for now. In the future, there will be a daily transaction metric (Daily transaction revenue) that replaces trial clients. But that’s probably a quarter or two away.
I then started thinking about each company I’m on the board of. This rule of three applies. For many of the companies, DAU is one of the numbers. In others it’s daily orders. Or daily revenue. Or daily activations. Or total publishers. Or new publishers. But in every case I could reduce it to three numbers that I felt were the most important to pay attention to.
The absolute number is what matters. The trend is driven by day over day changes. If during the week (assume the week starts on Sunday) the numbers are 47, 67, 69, 72, 174, 80, 53 this prompts the question “what happened on Thursday to drive the number to 174?” If the next week the numbers are 53, 75, 214, 83, 80, 73, 45 this prompts two questions: “what caused the spike on Tuesday” and “why is the week over week trend downward?” Clearly there is seasonality within the week and there is a new high, but the overall trend going into the weekend is negative.
My brain can focus intensely on three variables like this in a business. Once I add a fourth, I have trouble figuring out the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that the leadership and functional managers shouldn’t track and analyze the detailed data. They should. But they should realize that when they show this to everyone in the company, no one knows what to care about.
Instead, my new approach is to focus on three numbers. These three numbers should reflect “what’s going on right now in the business” and the trend of the numbers should be a predictor of what’s going on. As I think about the companies I’m involved in, I can define these three numbers in 60 seconds – they are almost always painfully obvious. Sometimes I do end up with four and have to make a choice, but I rarely end up with five.
The technology for displaying these three numbers is remarkably simple. They make this thing called a whiteboard that you can write them on. An email can go out to everyone in the company with the three numbers. That’s it.
What are your three magic numbers?
I’ve started a new category on my blog called “Best Practices.” These are going to be posts inspired by my experiences with various companies that I feel are above and beyond the normal activities you’d expect. The first one comes from Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path. Earlier this week the board received an email from him that included the following:
“Although [our CFO] approves my expenses in our accounting system, inspired by Mark Hurd, I decided it would be a good idea to add a level of transparency to you in terms of my expenses.
To that end, I’m doing two things:
- I’ve asked our auditors to include some analysis/testing of my expenses in this year’s audit
- Attached, please find a spreadsheet which details all expenses, with a summary tab that has the overall picture and a few explanatory notes
Trash or treasure, as they say, but please feel free to ask any questions or poke any holes you’d like. I can assure you that I’m pretty disciplined about expenses (both in terms of not being profligate and in terms of not abusing company money for personal use), but I did think it would be good housekeeping for you to have visibility.”
To a person, we responded that while unnecessary, this was a nice gesture of transparency. The spreadsheet that Matt sent around had every expense item he was reimbursed for in the year. The summary was helpful for putting it all in perspective, but I could look and see where (and with whom) Matt ate dinner, which hotels he stayed in, how much he paid for plane flights, and what he charged to the company as miscellaneous expenses.
I thought about it more and decided it was an awesome display of trust. I have immense respect for Matt, his leadership, and his management skills. But more than that, I’d go to the ends of the earth to do anything for him. Unilateral, unexpected gestures like this one just reinforces that for me. So, more than just transparency, this best practice increases the level of trust between a CEO and his board.