Your Business Metrics Are Not High-School (or even College) Math

So stop behaving like they are.

Quick story — when I was interviewing for investment banking jobs coming out of college, people used to say to me that I must be good with numbers because I was a math major at MIT.

I was amused because by senior year my math classes actually had very few numbers — it was primarily variables, equations and proofs. But far be it for me to let people’s assumptions at what I was studying in college and what they thought I was good at get in the way of their advancing me in their process. (I got 1 job out of all those interviews in ‘94/’95, a nasty environment, but it only takes one…)

Let’s be honest, though. Looking at a marketing report or doing the type of math that’s required to run a business isn’t the type of math I did, or really that most people did, in college. I’d even argue that it’s barely senior year high school math — whether you were in Calculus, Geometry or Algebra II.

I also know that just mentioning those classes is probably causing a nasty emotional reaction in some of you right now.

And that looking at your marketing metrics is eliciting that same emotional reaction. But it’s not remotely the same thing. And so you shouldn’t be limiting yourselves.

For example, if you see that last week’s visitor count to your website was 20K and this week’s is 15K, are you really tapping into college-level math to know that something has changed and that you probably want to understand why? Or when you look at a report and see that you’re selling 1,000 units a week and that you have 2,000 in stock, that you better have a shipment on the way. Or make a phone call pretty quickly. Or plan on stopping selling in short order.

Now if you want to talk about critical reasoning skills and what to do with those results, that’s not math skills. That’s business sensibility. And why in that last example, I suggested a few possible courses of action — each business and individual has to come up with that list and then pick their best decision.

And so perhaps setting up data warehouses or running analyses in Excel takes some level of technical skill — how much is truly math or not, let’s not argue about.

But I continue to be amazed at how many people shy away from even asking for metrics and get intimidated by looking at business reports.

If you want to track your business results, you can hire a tech person to help set up your systems. If you want to look at pretty reports, there are tools like Tableau or Domo that can integrate with your platforms to make it easier to view your information. There are even companies like Fully Accountable that can help you interpret your data. And sure, if you want to dig in to more sophisticated analyses — such as knowing how to track your offline media to online orders, there are companies like Conversion Logic, which are tackling this more complex problem.

But fundamentally, the output of these reports doesn’t require the quant skills that I hear too many people feel like they do.

You certainly don’t have to be skilled in the technical aspects of getting these reports done — despite my MIT education, I don’t know much about building data warehouses. But that doesn’t preclude me from working with an IT department to describe what kinds of information I want to see. And while my own focus is now in helping folks interpret their data (whether quantitative or qualitative) to find their highest leverage opportunities, one of my personal missions is to ease people’s anxiety when it comes to asking for and looking at metrics in the first place.

Just like the fact that the Internet is here to stay and that every company has to have a presence on the Interwebs or face severe consequences, marketing is continuing to move towards being increasingly quantitative.

Whether it’s a new skill you need to develop, a mindset shift, or finally deciding that you just have to make it happen, the longer you delay, the more at risk you are putting your business. Clearly, this Is not to say that metrics will guarantee success. More that those not looking at them, and not taking advantage of information about their business, are putting themselves at a severe disadvantage.

So if you need that kick in the butt, then get over yourself. You’re not in high school anymore. We all want to be cool, sure. But being successful is a lot more likely to make you cool than not doing so. And using your business metrics is one of the greatest factors these days to increasing your likelihood of success.

Originally published at on February 17, 2016.

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