Measuring Your Way to Success

The following story will remind some German readers of the great Loriot. As a teenager, I wanted to eat the perfect egg for breakfast. So naturally, I set up an experiment where I would vary the time the egg would cook in the boiling water as well as the heat setting of the stove. It took me about five or six tries to find the perfect procedure. My eggs came out consistently perfect. Then one day, my mom offered to make my egg for breakfast. Lazy as I was, I agreed. I tried to tell her about the perfect time and heat but she ignored it. She had 30 years more cooking experience than I did and boiling eggs was the first day of cooking 101. She never used the clock and she didn’t care much about the stove setting. Naturally, her eggs were different every day and only rarely perfect. I guess that’s when I switched to cereal.

There are many similar situations in business. From the tales of Patrick McKenzie, it sounds like he measures pretty much everything he does — mostly experiments in advertising / marketing — before settling for the best result. Of course, he is successful in his own niche. It’s a very scientific process. Many of us, however, rely on our gut feeling when we make decisions. And more often than not, that gut feeling is tainted by our desires and dreams. Why should I go with this specific start-up idea? Because I can do it better than my competitor. Because if I sell it for less money, people will buy from me instead. Because I’m a good programmer. Because I have the Steve Jobs mindset and I will build the iPhone equivalent for this market. Because I will use a superior programming language. Because people surely must need something like this.

Well, duh. This is like my mom cooking eggs. Nine out of ten of these start-ups will fail miserably. There is just no evidence that people will pay for my product, that they will prefer me over my competitors, that they even need something like that. So I say let’s get that evidence first. Every pilot knows that there are many situations in which you will crash if you ignore your instruments. I guess it’s just hard to swallow that business is not so much about dreams but hard facts. You probably knew all of this already. But how often do you apply it? And I admit freely that I’m guilty of that same crime, more often than I would care to admit.

(By the way, if you like the scientific approach to cooking, check out Serious Eats.)