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Top 6 business intelligence mistakes

Top 6 business intelligence mistakes

These days, companies large and small have an insane amount of data to help with decision making.

A small mom and pop restaurant with a cloud based reservation system can forecast how much ingredients to order for the week. Yet we all still make bad decisions. Why?

First of all, let’s not blame the data. By itself, data can’t do anything.

If there’s anyone to blame, it’s us. That’s right: the human beings behind the data.

We are the ones that decide what data to record, how to record it, how to analyze it, and how to look at it. Between the moment we have a question and the moment we make a decision, there are numerous chances of misusing data and arriving at the wrong conclusion. It’s like walking through a minefield.

Working in the analytics field, I’ve seen hundreds of data analyses go nowhere, wasting thousands of hours of effort. So I’m going to share five of the most prevalent mistakes I’ve seen.

“What’s the actual problem?”

I once helped an e-commerce company analyze their top 10 sources of new visitors. After seeing the results, they were ecstatic to find that both their paid campaigns and their blog were top sources of new visitors. These were channels that they could actively control and scale. So they did just that: They invested more money in their paid campaigns and kept their blog active.

Yet a few weeks in, they started to complain that their effort didn’t translate into higher revenue. A lot of new people were visiting the site, but not buying. Why is that?

The simple answer is that the analysis they wanted answered a specific question: Which sources brought the highest number of new visitors? It did not answer which sources brought the highest number of new paying customers, or high lifetime revenue customers, which would both have been more helpful to their actual problem of growing new revenue. So to avoid wasting time, effort, and money, let’s ask the right questions to begin with.

“Is the sample statistically significant?”

I once observed a sales team cancel a process change after 10 prospects failed to convert under a new process (they handled on average 200 prospects a month). By no means was that sample size significant enough to draw any conclusions yet, scientifically speaking. It was not a data-driven decision. It was an emotional decision.

I’ve also witnessed a case where a company made product decisions based on half-a-dozen phone interviews with select clients that they had good relationships with. This particular company had 500+ clients. Half-a-dozen people among a population of 500+ clients does not represent an accurate view of growth opportunities. In addition, the quality of the sample was also questionable. All clients interviewed had good relationships with the company, which indicates that the opinion of unhappy customers and churned customers were not acknowledged.

Sampling problems, including selection bias and lower than optimal sample size, abound in business intelligence. Startups are especially prone to taking shortcuts and use poor samples. Sometimes, it’s because there is simply not enough data… If a company just started acquiring customers, there may not be enough customers to make the analysis statistically significant. Other times, it’s because of pure impatience… Teams want to take decisions now, not in two weeks, so they often fail to wait for their experiments to fully complete.

The result is a decision based on poor data.

“Are the numbers relevant?

I’ve also witnessed many companies set future sales goals based on historical trends, but then change their entire sales process and expect the same goals to be hit. How can one expect the the same forecast when all input variables have changed?

It’s like expecting to fly from New York to Los Angeles in 6 hours, but then change our plane for a car and still expect to get there in 6 hours.

Let’s recognize that the analysis or forecast that we do is only good for the scenario that we considered. Should we decide to tweak or change our scenario, a new analysis needs to be performed.

“Are you sure the numbers are right?”

NASA once lost a $328 million satellite in space because one of its components failed to use the same measurement units as the rest of the machine. Target lost $5.4 billion in Canada partially because its inventory system had incorrect data.

Time and again, huge mistakes were made because the underlying data fueling these projects was bad to begin with.

So to make sure that my analysis is accurate, I often ask a second party to check the numbers. One should never review their own essay. The rule applies to analyses as well.

“What does this mean?”

Having access to information doesn’t mean that we know what to do with it. I’ve seen many people confused by data reports and unsure of what decision to take.

I once helped a B2B company evaluate which customer group to target for an advertising campaign. Their product was used by customers from three different industries, but they didn’t have the resources to tailor their sales processes and marketing content to all three groups yet.

So they began by looking at revenue generated by the three industries. Then they looked at revenue growth over time, profitability, and lifetime revenue. The results showed that 50% of their revenue came consistently from one industry, but that another industry was the fastest growing, going from 10% to 35% of their revenue over the past year. Both were potentially good choices to target and they didn’t know which one to pick.

I thus asked them to divide the total revenue by the number of clients/companies in each industry, effectively giving us the average revenue per client. My logic was that their sales and marketing efforts were going to be spent on a select number of prospects, so targeting prospects with higher individual revenue may yield a better ROI (e.g. between a $500/year client and a $5,000/year client, I’d advise to choose the $5,000/year client assuming that cost of support is similar). Based on the analysis, we saw that the fastest growing industry was also the one with the highest paying clients. This thus made the decision easier.

The point is that looking at the right information is important, not just information. This requires people that can interpret data, explain caveats, and tell a story. I thus highly recommend for all managers, data analysts, and data scientists to read Cole Nussbaumer’s Storytelling with Data book.

“We deleted what?

I once tried to help a SaaS company understand their user churn trends, only to discover that they delete customer account information 3 months after a user deactivates their account. This meant that there was only data on recently churned clients. The sample proved to be too small and biased to draw any useful conclusions.

Developers may delete data because they are running out of room on their hard disk, or because they think that a certain piece of data is unimportant. Regardless of what developers think, from an analytical perspective, we should never ever ever delete data.

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Checking our blind spot when making a decision

Checking our blind spot when making a decision

In a previous post, I discussed a tendency for startup teams to be blindly optimistic.

So today I’m going to share a simple exercise to help check our blind spots when taking decisions.

We start by asking ourselves…

… how do we tend to react by default?

Understanding our default behavior provides critical details on who we are, what we stand for, and how we behave in our job.

It helps us acknowledge where we stand, and whether we’re going in the desired direction. By reflecting upon our natural tendencies, we shine a light onto behaviors that we don’t usually notice. It allows us to make corrections to subconscious actions.

For example, I once asked my team: “what is the first thing that you do when you get to work and why?” 

To which a team member responded: “I check my emails to check for any fires to fight, but I really should review and adjust my to-do list before reacting to anything…” Simply thinking about something that is more or less a habit can trigger a correction.

To paraphrase famed author David Foster Wallace, a fish may not even know what water is, being surrounded by it since birth. Similarly, there are so many elements in our day-to-day that require our active focus that we may not know how our subconscious is behaving. Personally, I had a tendency to hyper-focus on my work and neglect chats I receive throughout the day, leading some people to think that I don’t care about them. I only realized it after a team member joked about the situation over lunch, after which I became more aware of my chats throughout the day.

In the context of an organization (or a team), default tendencies act as a reflection of its culture. A proactive diagnosis thus helps to ensure that the team’s culture is aligned with its desired culture.

To diagnose my team’s tendencies, I like to first recognize three entities including:

  1. The team;
  2. The team leadership; and
  3. The team’s relation with other teams.

Next, I ask each team member to reflect on the tendencies and behaviors from these three perspectives. Specifically, I ask: “In your perception, what does the team or the team leadership…” OR “In your perception, when collaborating and working with other teams, what do we…”

  • “…enjoy spending their time on?”
  • “…don’t enjoy spending time on?”
  • “…excel in?”
  • “…repeatedly fails to achieve?”
  • “…never get the time to do?”
  • “…usually ask about?”
  • “…not ask about?”
  • “…forget about?”
  • “…get confused by?”

Compiling results from all team members provides us with a comprehensive picture of our tendencies, our blind spots, and our culture in general. Our goal is not to judge, but to effectively observe differences.

Next, we need to ensure that our culture is moving in the right direction. I thus pull all team members together and review whether each trait is desirable or not. In the case that it is not, we try and identify ways to actively remind ourselves of our bias and compensate for it. For example, if we have a tendency to avoid working with other teams, we could compensate by first asking “Does any other team need to be involved?” before kicking off any new projects.

How often should we assess our tendencies? I recommend performing this exercise every quarter or two. Culture is slow to change.

I do advocate for someone to act as a culture champion to hold people accountable to any tweaks and changes we decide to pursue. In the example above, a champion would praise people when they remember to consider whether other teams need to be involved in a project, and reprimand when we fail to do so.

In my opinion, success does not translate into achieving our dream culture, but very much being conscious of our existing culture. Simply being aware our biases, weaknesses, and tendencies helps to avoid taking decisions blindly.


Recommended exercise

The next time that we’re faced with a decision, let’s analyze our immediate response (default tendency) and then take a day to think and see if we change our opinion. Is our default state of mind limiting our abilities?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

How to not let failure hurt morale and diminish ambition

How to not let failure hurt morale and diminish ambition

We had missed our quarterly sales target. Again.

The news was given during a company all-hands. All over the room, I saw people staring at our CEO, not sure how to react. Frustrated, confused, and scared.

We had extremely ambitious targets to begin with, as is the case with most VC backed companies. Most individuals knew we’d be lucky to meet them. Yet as results were announced, we all felt like failures.

In the following weeks, the mood in the house was grimmer than usual. People were doubting the company’s ability to succeed, ever. Many feared losing their job as this downtrend continued.

Personally, the bad news didn’t surprise me, nor did it hurt my optimism. I never expected to hit those numbers, knowing full well they were best-case scenarios. They were not set based on what we could realistically achieve, but rather on numbers investors wanted to see (~somewhat imaginary). So it didn’t affect my outlook of the future. I knew we had a strong team and we did the best we could.

To help my team get back on track, I set up a meeting and said something along the lines of:

“Team, I know that some of you are feeling grim about the fact that we missed our sales targets again. I’m not going tell you that things will be better in the future or that the sales team will do better next quarter. I can’t predict the future.

However, I will remind you of the reason all of us are here for. Every single one of you told me that you wanted to join a startup to make an impact and to learn by doing. And the only promise that I ever made to you is that you’ll be able to do both. Does anyone in this room feel cheated by my promise?

Nobody ever promised you that it’d be an easy ride. In fact, you knew from the beginning that it was going to be a challenging and chaotic ride. Yet you still joined.

Many of us are doing things for the first time. It’s my first time leading a team. It’s our founders’ first company. For many of you, it’s your first job. So I don’t expect us to always get things right.

What I do expect of all of us is to work hard and work smart. To never let bad news and missed results beat us down. To always get back up and continue our journey.

We’re all here to do one thing and one thing only: Give out best shot. So I don’t care if we missed our targets. Let’s focus on the day-to-day and do our best.”

My point isn’t that a pep talk will fix things. Rather, it’s that people are too emotionally and mentally attached to results. So much so that when they fail to achieve their goals, regardless of how realistic it was, they lose confidence. I needed to remind my team that hitting targets, winning deals, and achieving milestones only play a small part in our overall success. It’s our day-to-day work, the time that we spend grinding and planning, that matters.

We missed our targets. So what?

I attribute our team’s grim reaction to prevalence of a fixed mindset in our culture.

[To quickly remind readers of the meaning of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, allow me to quote Carol Dweck (top researcher on the subject): “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).” I find it fascinating how these two mindsets affect how we approach life. To learn more, I highly recommend readers to checkout Mrs. Dweck’s book: Mindset.]

In my opinion, people with a growth mindset would look at the missed targets and say to themselves: “Well, looks like there’s more work to do and things to learn. Let’s try harder.” On the other hand, a person with a fixed mindset would say: “Shit. Maybe we’re just not cut for this.”

I like to think I have a growth mindset, and that my team does as well. Yet fact is many of my colleagues have quite fixed mindsets. I don’t blame them for it. It’s my opinion they’ve received too many praises supporting a fixed mindset.

Allow me to elaborate… Every time that we compliment someone with “Wow, you’re so good at…” or “You were really born to do…,” it gives the impression that success is tied to who that individual is. Their genetics. How they’re wired. It couldn’t be more wrong. Ask anyone successful and they’ll tell you that success comes from thousands of hours of practice, bouncing back from failure, and many iterations. To quote Thomas Edison: “Success is 99% perspiration.” If that’s not enough evidence, I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. I believe that. I also acknowledge that some people are better positioned to achieve those 10,000 hours faster than others, but nobody said that life was fair. The point being that success is correlated to work and effort, not simply our genes.

Are targets detrimental to the team’s motivation?

No. Targets are absolutely necessary.

Targets and goals provide direction to our teams and help gauge our progress. Without them, we’d be all running in different directions and without a clue about whether or not we’re successful.

But hitting our targets is not the only thing form of success out there. People need to feel good for having tried really hard and giving their best.

How do we prevent missed expectations from de-motivating our team?

In my opinion, it comes down to setting realistic goals, having an underdog mindset, and rewarding a growth mindset. Let’s explore each in detail:

Set realistic targets

Set targets too high and we’re bound to miss them. Team members will feel like we’re asking the impossible. Set targets too low and the team loses the ambition to achieve more (they’re already there, why try harder?). I thus recommend to set targets slightly higher than what we can achieve today.

For example, if we forecast $100 in revenue based on historical performance, and $150 in revenue under a best-case scenario, I’d set our target as a range between $120 and $150. I’d proportionally increase the reward should we hit higher than $120. This challenges the team to do more than they have done historically, while incentivising even better results should they actually hit the lower goal.

If the team fails to meet the target in their first try, I’d keep the target unchanged until we achieve it. The goal is to keep learning and iterating until we succeed. The critical part of this approach is learning how to leverage scenario planning to set targets, instead of forecasting based on the best possible outcome. I thus recommend checking out author and VC Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start, which has a great section on how to set realistic goals from the bottom up.

Maintain an underdog culture

The moment that we think we’re successful is the moment that we stop trying.

I therefore believe we need to support an underdog mindset. We need to feel like we’re always chasing a bigger fish with limited resources. We cannot be too positive in our assessment of the company – the best underdogs feel that they’re behind and need to work harder.

For example, we need to avoid saying things like: “We have a ton of money in the bank from our investors;” or “We’re growing faster than any competitor in the field, ahead of the game by a good margin.” Even if these statements were true, it creates the perception that we’re successful and can relax a bit.

In addition to saying the right things, we also have to act like underdogs. Buying $2,500 Macbooks for everyone, giving free lunches and craft beers, and stocking the office with $1,000 chairs and standing desks does not paint the picture of an underdog company. These “perks” create a culture of entitlement, where people fail to value what they have, and perceive that they are in a pretty comfortable spot.

We don’t want our people to feel comfortable. We want our teams to feel like their survival is at risk. We need people to work hard to win. If we’re going to give perks, people need to earn it: e.g. Food should only be offered when there’s progress to celebrate, like when the team pulled an all nighter, or made an awesome attempt at hitting their goals.

We can’t give anything for free.

Praise effort and progress

Creating a growth mindset culture starts by praising team members’ daily effort. As leaders, we need to make the time to observe team members regularly.

A couple years ago, I’d only high five people when they hit their targets (which meant rarely), and had 0 hours dedicated to observe and praise people. Little did I know that I was actually supporting a fixed mindset.

Nowadays, I spend at least 30min to an hour every day to see if team members are trying harder than usual, and praise people’s efforts. For example, if I see someone is practicing ahead of a presentation, I’d stop by and say “Hey, I see that you’re working hard on the presentation. Feel confident yet?” Or if I see team members brainstorming solutions to a problem, I’d approach them before the end of day and say “I saw you spending a good amount of time brainstorming in that room with so and so. Looked like there were some good ideas on the whiteboard. How are you feeling?”


Recommended exercise

Let’s observe team members when they fail to achieve a goal. Are they optimistic and already thinking about how to improve, or are they simply feeling down?


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

What, you’ve done this before? I really could have used your help…

What, you’ve done this before? I really could have used your help…

I once participated in the design of a new sales process. Our existing process had too many people involved, making prospects confused about who they should be speaking with on our side. It added unnecessary complications to an already challenging process.

After three different experiments, we decided to go with a process that would only involve a sales exec and a sales engineer, cutting out an account manager from the process. While we now know that such a process is quite industry standard in the software world, the majority of our team had no experience with this new structure.

A few weeks later, I had lunch with with a colleague on the sales team and our conversation went along the lines of:

“Hey, how’s the new sales process going for you guys?”

“Oh, it’s going well and we’re learning to collaborate much better. I actually worked under a similar structure at my previous job, and I can tell that this is much better than the model we had before.”

“Wait, what? You’ve worked with a similar sales process before?”

“Yeah, I guess I never brought it up…”

Now to add some context… The team member was still relatively new to the company, having joined us a few months before, and was probably still uncomfortable speaking up and proposing ideas. During team meetings, I had noticed that he only gave his opinion when it was actively sought, but remained silent otherwise. And during the sales process redesign, he wasn’t directly involved with planning and decision making, so didn’t actively provide feedback.

It also never occurred to him that he was the only individuals with experience on the new sales structure. He assumed that the leadership and those involved in the process change knew more than he did.

As result, we failed to leverage a valuable source of insight during the planning stages of our new sales process. It definitely could have helped us avoid some newbie mistakes when we implemented our sales process.

What did I learn? That when implementing new solutions, I need to always proactively ask team members whether they have faced similar situations before. I can’t just assume that people will speak up. Especially with new team members and junior employees, there’s a tendency for them to assume that the leadership knows more than they do, and that they are not in a position to speak up yet (takes a while for some people to understand that startups want people to speak up). I’ve also noticed that for many new employees, their top priority is to learn how to meet expectations of the existing system rather than question the system and improve upon it. We often mis these opportunities to learn from insight rather than trial and error.

So what do I ask people now before designing any new processes or changes?

  • Has anybody faced similar challenges and problems before, maybe at your old job?
  • What were similarities and differences between the situations?
  • Anything we should make sure to do, or avoid doing?

These questions alone won’t guarantee a successful solution, or allow us to skip steps in our innovation process, but they will definitely help us avoid unnecessary mistakes.


Recommended exercise

Next time that we consider changing a process, creating a new role, or even designing a new product, let’s ask everyone on the team: “Does anyone have experience with this?”


Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!

I disappointed myself by overestimating an employee’s capabilities

I disappointed myself by overestimating an employee’s capabilities

If there’s one thing that we do well at our startup, it’s hiring smart and ambitious individuals. Those traits are non-negotiable, and we do everything in our power to assess for both during the hiring process.

One realization I recently had about working with such amazing people is that I have a tendency to make inaccurate assumptions about their capabilities, often expecting much more than a person can reasonably accomplish.

In one instance, I asked a team member to give a presentation on a problem that we were trying to solve, and pitch his solution to the team.

I expected the team member to know how to give a powerful and dynamic presentation, assuming that they teach such skills at school. However, the presentation ended up being a reading of the dozens of bullet points found on slides. It was like reading an essay off the projector. The audience was tuned out and bored.

Armed with a better idea on the team member’s presentation skills, I then personally coached him and worked together on another presentation. I pointed him to some presentation best-practices, and also had him practice with me.

He eventually became one of the best presenters on the team, consistently able to capture people’s attention and be effectively heard.

I’ve thus learned the hard way to always start with a diagnosis of an individual’s capability with regard to a specific skill, before setting expectations. Chances are that even the best player on the team can learn a thing or two, and use some practice, when faced with unfamiliar work.

The whole experience also reminded me of three other coaching tactics that I often fail to execute. Often because of a lack of time and mindfulness. So I’m going to list them below, for my own sake:

When people are doing things for the first or second time, let’s show them how it’s done, not just talk about how it’s done. When I learn new physical skills, someone always shows me how to do it before I try on my own. When I first started to rock climb for example, a friend of mine showed me how to belay, tie knots, and climb before letting me try on my own. Nowadays, whenever I want to learn anything, I watch a youtube video of someone doing it first. Yet I tend to forget this coaching approach when it comes to intangible skills. Take project management, public speaking, or time management… I’ve repeatedly assumed, incorrectly, that people could succeed on their own with some verbal tips, but without witnessing how others do it, without doing it together. It usually led to failed attempts until we worked together. So when trying things for the first time, tangible or intangible, let’s make sure to show people how it’s done.

Repeatedly reference best-practices and rules of thumb when practicing a new skill. A couple rules of thumb that I like to reference when coaching people on giving presentations is 1. Let slides complement and emphasize our verbal message, but never become the message; and 2. Answer “So what?” to each slide to ensure that the content is relevant to our overall message. So when I find that the information from a slide repeats our verbal message, or that a slide doesn’t have a clear purpose, I reference either of the pointers above before giving any specific feedback. This helps to imprint the basic rules in the mind of the learner. The goal is for our mentee to have these basic rules imprinted in their brain. Just like we don’t need to think about breathing.

Reference the framework by which we’re doing something while we’re doing it. When someone is learning a skill that has many different milestones and stages over time, I like to remind people of the framework that we’re using before discussing specifics. I want to ensure that the mentee understands the purpose of each step, and that we don’t skip any. For example, when I coach a person to manage innovation projects, I first ask the team member to identify which step of the process we’re currently working on, along with its purpose. Only then do I start discussing specific challenges, status updates, etc. Another popular framework that I reference often is the decision making process.

Are you leading a startup team? Get started on the right foot with the Start-up Manager Handbook. And subscribe on the right for new insights every week!