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No, you don’t need a real-time data dashboard by Mike Greenfield

My friend Mike Greenfield recently started blogging, and I couldn’t recommend his blog Numerate Choir more. I also had him on my list of growth hackers from a month ago. Mike is (as of today) 500 Startups’s first “Growth Hacker in Residence” and before that, co-founded Circle of Moms (acquired by Sugar), and was a data geek at Linkedin and Paypal.

Some of his excellent recent blog posts:

And with his permission, I’ve cross-posted one of his recent essays below.


No, you don’t need a real-time data dashboard*
By Mike Greenfield
Originally posted on Numerate Choir

When Circle of Friends started to grow really quickly in 2007, it was really tough for Ephraim and me to stay focused.

Many times over the course of a the day, Ephraim would turn and ask me how many signups we’d had in the last ten minutes. That might have been annoying, but for the fact that I was just as curious: I’d just run the query and had an immediate answer.

Rapid viral growth can be unbelievably addictive for the people who are working to propagate it. You tweaked a key part of your flow and you want to see what kind of impact it’s having — right now. You’ve added more users in the last hour than you’ve ever added in an hour before, and you wonder if the next hour will be even better.

That addictiveness can be a great asset to growth hackers; I’d argue that anyone who doesn’t have that sort of jittery restlessness probably wouldn’t be the right fit in a growth hacking role. Restlessness is a huge motivator: I want to grow the user base, so I’m going to implement this feature and push it out as quickly as possible just so I can see what impact it will have. And if this feature doesn’t work, I’m going to try and get something else out before I leave the office so I can see if I’ve uncovered something else before it’s time to go to bed.

One day, I came up with a feature idea as I was walking to the train station in the morning. I coded it up and pushed it out while on the 35 minute train ride. There was a ten minute walk from the train station to my office; by the time I got to the office I saw that my feature was increasing invitations by around 20%.

I loved telling that story to potential engineering hires.

Here’s the thing, though: if everyone in your company behaves like that, you may acquire a huge user base, but you’ll likely never build anything of long-term value. You’ll wind up optimizing purely for short-term performance, never moving toward a strong vision

Back during that Circle of Friends growth period, I decided to automate an hourly stats email to Ephraim and myself. It satisfied our curiosity about how things were growing right now, but it stopped me from running SQL queries every five minutes. At least in theory, that meant we were focused on real work for 58 minutes every hour. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that we needed stats updates every sixty minutes, but that actually was an improvement.

My distracted experience is why I worry about the effect of analytics companies that now promote a real-time dashboard as an awesome new feature.

It’s technically impressive that they’ve implemented real-time functionality. And at first glance, it’s very cool that I as a user can log in mid-day and see how stats are trending.

But the key distinction — and about 60% of analytics questions I’ve seen people ask over the years are on the wrong side — is if you’re looking at stats now because you’re curious and impatient, or because those stats will actually drive business decisions.

I’m afraid that in most cases, real-time stats are being used by people who aren’t iterating as quickly as growth hackers. The “need” for stats is driven more by curiosity and impatience than by decision-making.

Execs who are making big picture decisions are probably better served by looking at data less frequently. Growth hackers and IT ops types can and should attack problems restlessly — a big part of their job is optimizing everything for the immediate future. But executives are best-served waiting (perhaps until the end of the week), so they can take a long, deep look at the data and think more strategically.

* unless you’re a growth hacker or something similar
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