It Starts with a Wall: Creating a Data-Driven Culture

by Tim Henningsen on December 21, 2012

If you’re a tech startup then you’ve probably heard something about big data. Big data is an unfancy word for using the data you collect to improve and grow your business. My definition of big data: a realization that current use of data is lacking insight. So, the overall goal should be making use of your data to provide greater insight to your business. This will in effect drive business process improvements and product growth over time.

Here, we’re going to talk about Day One to Day Thirty-One issues for founders. Because without a data-driven culture in place all this big data talk is just false hope. Or, worse, your data becomes a bird named “dodo” (extinct flightless bird).

It Starts with a WALL

Any data consultant will tell you that it really starts with answering questions like “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What is the research question?” The real problem an early startup faces is even knowing where to start with this type of exercise. You’ve already done this with your product and market. But apply this to your data already? That could be a mighty task, especially if your first customers are slow to move and your product is still in a state of flux. Let’s keep it lean for now.

Find a wall. Any wall in your office space or current work space will do. Start brainstorming things you want to track. If you’re just starting out, think about tracking the progress of building your product. At one startup, we actually did early screen design mockups by posting color print-outs on a prominent wall in our office. It was a very simple but effective way to track progress in the early design phase of the company. Any visitors to the office could be invited on a moment’s notice to view the current iteration. Or, as the founder referred to it, “behind the curtain of awesomeness.”

Later, we bought a cheap 40-inch monitor (we each sacrificed a burrito a week for an entire month!) and began displaying the status of development items and their burn down charts using Atlassian’s Jira project software. Once we got a better sense of the data we were tracking, we then began creating some key metrics. We’re now in the process of implementing different ways to track how our customers and their end users interact with our product to generate higher returns on engagement and revenue. And we just decided to roll-out a dashboard for displaying stats from New Relic application performance tools.

Smart, Actionable, Fun.

It’s about creating a culture that values and recognizes the hard work being done. You don’t need to be a data scientist or architect to begin creating this type of culture in your company. Creating a data-driven culture should also be fun. Data for most people, in itself, is anything but fun. Starting small, building up over time, and displaying the results in a visually appealing way to the rest of your company is a serious game-changer. You’re building a better decision-making engine. This is also important for attracting new customers, new talent, and even new funding. While you may not get it right the first time, it says a lot about how your startup thinks.

In a future post, I’ll dive more into some practical learnings and examples in the area of product growth — i.e. ways to make use of data to improve the product itself. Until then, get out your ladder or your roll of tape and put something on a wall.


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