March 8, 2018
I was having breakfast with the CEO of another SaaS company the other day, as I often do to network. He was telling me about his experience working with his company’s new Private Equity owner.
There are always a mix of pros and cons that come with any particular shareholder, Board member, or owners, of course. In his case, my fellow CEO was bemoaning the 29-year old associate who acted like a know-it-all in every Board meeting. Lots of CEOs have been there. There’s a lot of value you can get from an associate or VP-level person at an investor who is the Master of the Spreadsheet and who has access to a lot of data about your company. And there is certainly a lot of value to be gained from investors with large portfolios of similar companies who can identify learnings from experience you haven’t had as a CEO and help you apply that experience thoughtfully to your company in any given situation. In The Value and Limitations of Pattern Matching, I quoted my father-in-law, who noted once that When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra. I am still a firm believer that it’s the “thoughtful application” that matters as much as recognizing the pattern.
But this breakfast conversation led me to another conclusion, which is less about pattern matching and more about the pattern matcher. And that is:
You don’t know how to drive a car because you know how to read a map
Being a Master of the Spreadsheet is a great starting point to coming up with ideas and insights for a business. Quantitative analysis can tell you a lot of things, including a lot of things that you wouldn’t be able to get on instinct or experience alone, like slow, subtle changes in customer behavior, customer-level profitability, the impact of pricing changes, or compound effects of salary or benefit changes on a cost structure over time. Think of quantitative analysis a bit like a road map. It can show you the shortest distance and combination of roads and turns to get from Point A to Point B.
But quantitative analysis stops there. It is not the same as actually getting yourself from Point A to Point B. Driving a car in and of itself is a skill that requires a lot of learning and practice. And it certainly doesn’t forecast traffic or road hazards that require a last minute detour. Being right about what roads to take is a lot less important than actually getting yourself to the destination safely and in a timely manner. The value of having experienced executives operating a business is those things – the actual driving of the car. The knowing of the customers or the employees. The skill of managing change and emotions.
At the end of the day, there’s value in both ends of the spectrum – the reading of the map and the driving of the car. As long as the two sides agree that there’s value to both tasks and that the two sides bring different expertise to the table, there’s a great partnership to be struck. But too often these days I hear about investors who think that reading the map is all that needs to happen for a company to be successful. Until someone comes up with the self-driving car of management, this metaphor should hold!