Thursday, January 12, 2017

Using dashboards to manage your startup

Every startup is an experiment and the reality is that most of them fail. This is because they're complex systems with multiple moving parts, all of which have to work properly to make sure that the company continues to grow. This can be extremely challenging for the founder, who has to juggle multiple balls , and make sure he doesn't drop any of them. This is daunting task, because you need to learn on the job - which is why it's very hard to know whether you're on the right track or not. Are you chasing the right customers ? Is your product delighting them ? Is your competition catching up with you ? Will you be able to find investors to fund your next round ? It can be extremely hard to track all this stuff, especially when there is so much uncertainty , and it's easy for things to fall between the cracks.

Because there are no pat formulas you may find yourself disagreeing with your investors - for example, if you should go international , or whether you should stay in India. The only way to find the right answers is to run low-cost experiments, and track the results, so that you become progressively smarter. This is why tracking the key metrics is vital - so you can quickly see if you are on the right track or not.

Most founders use Excel to monitor their company's vital signs, but a dashboard can be much more helpful.
The secret is to follow open management principles, and keep an online dashboard which is accessible to everyone . This way, all employees can see how the company is doing; how it's progressing; what their personal contribution is; and what they need to do to make sure that the company continues to grow. It's far better to put it all out in the open, even when things aren't going well. You may be worried that this will affect morale, and that your staff will quit, but the truth is that most of them can sense when the company is doing badly, and they are already worrying anyway. It's far better to acknowledge this, rather than try to hide the truth from them, because this just makes matters worse. Being open about it will help to dispel rumours and gossip; and will reassure them that you have a plan of action to deal with the crisis. Even better , it will bring them all together and help them to pitch in , so that you can tackle the problem as a united team - there is strength in numbers , and employees should be empowered to provide solutions !

The dashboard should be simple, and should focus only on a few key metrics. You need to define what these are, because they will vary from company to company. You will also need to modify them as your company evolves. The beauty is that a dashboard creates a sense of ownership amongst all your staff.

As a CEO, your dashboard allows you to check how you've progressed; and whether you're headed in the right direction or not. You can set up access privileges, so if there's some information which you think is confidential (for example salaries ) , then you don't need to put that up on the publicly accessible dashboard.
Even better, a dashboard allows you to share information with your investors proactively , without your having to do any additional work. They will be happy to provide support and insights when they can see you are treating them as partners in your journey.

A dashboard can be a very useful tool, and you should explore the available options. The standard is www.geckoboard.com, and there are many inexpensive alternatives as well , such as http://finalboard.com/. You can use also the open source JSlate code at https://github.com/rasmusbergpalm/jslate to create your own free customised dashboard as well.

As a startup founder eloquently said, " Without a dashboard, running a startup is like flying a plane through fog with no instruments. " Life as a founder is hard enough as it is - why handicap yourself even further ?

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