The best laid plans of founders and spreadsheets…

I have seen founders live and die by their spreadsheets. As if all of the meaning and promise of their goals and desires were accurately predicted by a series of small numbers in a series of small cells. The meticulously crafted formulae migrating data from sheet to sheet representing guarantees of what is and what must be. Color-coded rows and bold text indicating the fulfillment of grand ambitions. This here, is red — wherein all things are bad and not yet on the up-and-up, but fret not my friend, because after four months of this guaranteed customer growth as you can see clearly, things suddenly become green, the color in which all happiness and joy is naturally signified.

We tweak and fiddle with the numbers in those cells like master storytellers, weaving a yarn of numeric satisfaction. A little less churn here, a little more acquisition there, and here — ah-ha — a few tenths of a percentage higher in conversion rate and I do believe we have a masterpiece. Or maybe not storytellers…for if the daily fiddlings were malignant in nature I’d instead think first of the quaking, addled mad scientist, who can’t help but keep at his dubious experimentation. Alas, I would not quite call founders and their spreadsheets evil, as I imagine that the graphical maneuverings are rarely intentionally deceitful. Instead they are a self-imposed and self-directed illusion, meant to trick oneself in to warm and cozy assurance. One can’t help but feel sorry when you hear, off in the distance behind a not quite closed door “I’ve updated the projections again…”

What dismay and shock those founders must feel then, when the numbers become more than just numbers. When the increase of an extra .8% conversion rate seemed so purely simple a calculation to count on, to model every quarter, suddenly becomes an expectant mother, an unreliable junior hire-in-training, an entire team that needs a leader. How betrayed we have been by the numbers in those cells, those black and white and green and red boxes. Not all is on the up-and-up, not all is truth in projections and the world can’t be saved by tweaking the models. Your promised .8% increase is no more than a symbol of effort and skill, and the latter promises the former, not the other way around.

How scary it must be to close the spreadsheet, forget the model, and measure what is. To return projections to their rightful place, and the numbers in the cells to all the complexity and incalculable truth they actually represent.

The work. The product. And the people.