Know Thy Numbers

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Years ago, I worked with a product manager who, on virtually any topic, brought data. The data was typically financial in nature — our revenue in a certain industry, the number of customers in a given country, etc. It was before usage analytics were common — he dug up the data from our ERP and used it to great advantage. Over time, people started to look to him for guidance on key decisions and his career blossomed. Information is power.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin

Most people make decisions without much information at all. Sometimes the data isn’t available or easily located, but most often, we drive using our gut out of habit. After all, our ability to act with imperfect information is what allows us to function in the real world — we’re used to it. Most of our daily decisions are made without much data at all.

Don Norman, Design of Everyday Things

You might be wondering, what does this have to do with building a product? Well, as a product team, numbers are how you’ll ultimately be judged. They aren’t the first thing you should worry about, but they are not to be ignored either.

Your product is a system and systems generate data — tap into the stream. Of course, descriptive awareness does not mean prescriptive action — you don’t have to do what the data says! Yet, understanding the data is a superpower.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” ―Jim Barksdale

As product team members we should, of course, know our numbers, but also the numbers for the broader business. Some data should be on the tip of our tongue, and other at our fingertips. There are countless metrics we could track. For SaaS companies, a good start is to check out Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics or the ones A16Z recommends.

The ask I’m making is that you spend time to learn the data around your product and business. Most won’t, but you don’t have to be like everyone else.

Let data inform your decisions and provide shelter from your own biases. We all have blind spots — we’re human. In Star Trek, Spock’s logic and Kirk’s emotion were better together than either was on their own. Bring them both to bear.

Don’t lose your instincts and taste, but don’t be blind to data either, and know thy numbers.

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