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Life In The Start-Up Lane: When “Standards” Keep Changing…

September 25th, 2013

As I’ve mentioned in some of my prior posts, whether it’s just another day in Finance or within the life of a start-up, there is no normal day. Take that a step further and you’ll likely find that there is no level of “normal” reporting that you can rely on to measure what is happening with the business.  At least not the “standard” level of reporting that you would have relied on at a prior company, which was likely much larger and more mature. As we are about to kick-off our sixth fiscal Quarter, the reporting that we relied on two Quarters ago is far different than what we are using now, and what I expect to be using in another few Quarters.

Part of the challenge within a start-up is balancing the integration of new systems while developing the rest of the business. This is not a sequential sequence of events, but a series that run parallel, often forcing business decisions based on experience and gut instinct. This is probably where I highly value the time that I spent in equity research covering 20 different retail and apparel companies. Monthly comp sales unleashed a flurry of data that had to be quickly assessed, reported on, and subsequently disseminated to clients. It had to add value, and above all, it HAD to be correct. Making business decisions in the absence of data, or at least incomplete data, is a very uncomfortable position for most folks.

So how do you measure the business when the standards are constantly changing? The absence of standards is not indicative of an absence of accountability or transparency, but part of the evolution that naturally occurs within a start-up. Yes, there is a Budget that is developed and based on certain assumptions, but it’s not long before that Budget becomes a distant reference point as you begin compiling data and assessing the potential trends that are developing within the business. However, one to two Quarters of data certainly is not a “trend” within a start-up, but it sure helps in refining the assumptions used in the Forecast. As with our business, while we are cognizant of the metrics that we will ultimately be using to measure our performance, some of those metrics are simply meaningless at this point since the business is still young and there isn’t enough data yet collected. That doesn’t mean that we’re not tracking our bookings, revenues, margins, and other macro indicators, but the detailed view is in a bit of a holding pattern at the macro level until we can drop down to the next level for more meaningful reporting.

As our business continues to grow and prosper, I absolutely expect a fundamental shift in our reporting abilities as we collect more data. We’ll move from the “spirit” of building the business to “fine tuning” the engine and driving increased performance through the data distributed to our key internal stakeholders. In these early stages of a start-up, it’s a delicate balance between giving the teams the latitude they need in developing the business, tracking their activities to the Budget, and determining whether their invested time and expenses will deliver an ROI in the immediate future. In the initial phases, that ROI may come in the form of customer satisfaction, referrals for new projects, potential new hires, and if all are executed properly….bottom line profitability.

Living the day-to-day life of a start-up is not the black & white mechanical structure most are used to working under. It necessitates the development of comfort in change and knowing that will be the case for quite some time. However, at the end of day, just take a step back, look at the evolution of your bottom line results, the trend in customer engagements, customer feedback….and you’ll know exactly how well you’re performing.

Thanks for reading…

Jeffrey Ishmael

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