Creating Understanding: The Premise Behind ClearFactr
Riding on the emotional roller-coaster that is a startup, it’s always great to have your core thesis affirmed by customer feedback. Recently I had the chance to ask a user what he was using for financial modeling prior to trying ClearFactr. He told me:
“I was using Google Sheets and it was okay. But as a model grows it just gets more confusing keeping track of what’s going on. Sometimes my boss calls me in to explain a cell, and I might not remember, so I have to stand there and figure it out in front of him, and it’s just embarrassing. Now I just read the formula in plain language. I’d rather be using a tool to learn about my model than waste time trying to create the tool myself.”
Someone once described a category of spreadsheet users to me as “The Priesthood.” These are the people that pride themselves on their spreadsheet chops, and there are some truly amazing Priests out there, producing some truly amazing things. They’re “makers”. They’re very often intrapreneurs. In the situation above, a Priest would say “Well yeah, that’s why we used named ranges.” (I’d ask them, “Do you name every cell?”) And that’s the thing about The Priesthood — almost no challenge is too great for an afternoon or late night sitting in front of that alluring combination of grids, function calls and keyboard shortcuts.
I actually know The Priesthood well. For much of my career I was paid a lot of money to replace their work with custom software, because more often than not, massive collaboration workflow problems and corporate risk supplanted the initially epic productivity gains. Why? Typically, such an expert is using the spreadsheet as a software development environment. What’s delivered via that .xls file is less of a “spreadsheet” and more of an “application.” But absent the rarest of discipline, they’ll wind up with a brittle solution and a maintenance nightmare (along with perhaps some temporary job security). Indeed, identifying and managing the resulting “spreadsheet risk” is a full-blown industry of its own. One study describes how nearly 90% of spreadsheets contain some kind of error, and at the worst, you’ll find things like Tibco’s $100 million debacle.
In contrast to The Priesthood, the overwhelming majority of spreadsheet users would say “What’s a named range?”
When considering the effect on society, the invention of the spreadsheet should probably rank up there with things like the automobile or air-conditioning: transformational tools that change the landscape and then actually become the landscape. It’s been said that much of modern finance wouldn’t exist without the spreadsheet.
At ClearFactr, we say: We love Excel, but not for everything.
More elaborately it’s this: Even if you’re a Priest, there is a point at which the mental burden of translating things like “Net Expenses in July 2016” to “$G$15”, back and forth, over and over and over and over and over, will cripple your productivity. And this is just for the mechanics of representing data and the important relationships within that data that transform it into information. We haven’t yet touched upon how to analyze it. Maybe you take pride in your ability to build good tools. But maybe building those tools isn’t the best use of your time.
Perhaps even more importantly, if your audience can’t understand your work, what have you achieved? Your effectiveness has been crippled, and the productivity problem has been levered up. And what if you don’t know if you even have an audience? Did they even look at the cool part of that attachment you pulled an all-nighter on, but the one that’s now also out of date that you’d rather recall? But have they already sent it along to someone else without you even knowing?
I’ve been asked, what led you to create ClearFactr? That’s simple. It was watching a bunch of pain, for more than twenty-five years, and wondering:
- What if we could replace that legacy formula syntax — the “$G$15” that’s been all anyone has ever known — with English, but in a seamless way that preserved the familiar grid representation?
- What if we then added a bunch of visualizations to identify, amplify (and when necessary, debug) the relationships between pieces of data that make for a highly dynamic and therefore highly interesting model?
- What if we then built the types of analytical tools which power modelers tend to code themselves, right into the product, even a full-featured Monte Carlo simulator?
- What if we made everything incredibly easy to share and monitor, and to empower the audience of the model to engage with it because they can finally understand what they’re looking at?
- And lastly, what if we hosted this in the cloud, to eliminate all the versioning nightmares — of both the application and the models — and could deploy it effortlessly to the entire world?
Just as a programmer enters a whole new realm when they replace their simple text editor with something like IntelliJ or Eclipse, how many spreadsheet users could become Priests to their audiences with better tools?
Financial understanding is essential at every level of the economy, from planning your own future to managing a business to running a country. Yet a clear financial understanding on any of these fronts is the exception rather than the norm. We believe this is because the existing tools are so poor. We built ClearFactr to solve this.