Start-ups are unique because of their ability to scale fast, and typically go through three stages – traction, transition and growth. Each of these stages requires different priorities that are reflected in different objectives, strategies, team etc.
In the early stages of your startup, you’ll have to manage so many tasks that you’ll often be overwhelmed with what needs to get done. But instead of being paralysed by what appears like an endless amount of work, know that you really only have one goal: traction.
The North Star has been used for navigation since man began sailing, and applying it as a metaphor to startups is useful to get clarity in the maelstrom of things to do. For me, your North Star is determined by answering the question:
How many people are getting authentic value from our product?
It’s a simple goal and easy to measure. I use ‘authentic value’ to avoid the ‘vanity metrics’ I’ll refer to later. The moment when a user gets authentic value means you are getting traction, and we can anticipate revenue, and when you have paying customers, you have a chance to turn your startup from an experiment into a business.
Simply, traction refers to the initial progress of a startup, seeking product-market fit, gaining market share and mind-share from its target audience.
You don’t necessarily need to be profitable to show traction, maintaining consistent growth in other metrics besides profit such as daily active users, monthly active users, monthly signups, or a decrease in churn rate are all indicators that your startup is gaining traction. Just as traction is important to you, it is important to potential investors too.
One of the first steps in generating traction is finding what the real drivers of your business growth are, which may take some time to discover, and developing processes to maximise each driver. When you have clearly defined processes, potential investors will also have a better picture of how your startup will progress in relation to the general landscape of the marketplace.
If you achieve success in the traction stage, you’ll have forward movement in the important metrics that drive your business. While being nimble allowed you to experiment during the early days of your startup - finding what moves the needle of your initial growth, testing different offerings, and nailing down your product-market fit - your aim is to maximise what makes you unique and what makes you valuable to customers.
Getting traction is hard. You’ll be working more ‘in’ your business than ‘on’ your business, and there is a dilemma: fundamentally, your focus has to be on customers, but the inclination is on product development.
What failed startups don’t have are enough customers, and it’s customers that investors are most focused on. When you’re talking to investors about your startup, it’s pretty much all about your traction, growth and velocity, and small numbers can have a big impact on their thinking. Is ‘20%’ enough for the big questions?
It’s important you’re on top of your numbers, and you can speak their language, so immerse yourself in your financial model and get as comfortable about churn, attraction, burn, runway, CAC and LTV, as you are your customer pitch. There are a lot of metrics and KPIs that startup founders are expected to have at the tips of their fingers, the vital signs that you live with day to day. These numbers show you have clear view of your key growth drivers.
In reality, the numbers should just confirm your instinct on performance and progress, but often they produce a reality check of where you are on the runway, offering a balance to the emotional ‘feel’ of what represents real progress on growth aspirations.
In my experience, startup founders can fall into the habit of innocently deceiving themselves with their own view on data, by only focusing on the KPIs and data that sounds positive and offers a positive outlook. We all have cognitive bias, tending to hone in on the metrics we know are improving over time, and ones that sound impressive without much context.
For example, I’ve seen startups ignore the hard stats of monthly active user numbers, but talk about the number of web site visits or downloads of white papers. Beware of ‘vanity metrics’ such as these, they don’t provide any meaningful indication regarding customer traction, pricing and cashflow – the metrics by which you should be making decisions. Focus on metrics and numbers that you can improve, and that inform you on your direction of travel in a meaningful, clear way.
To me, the indicators that matter most in the life of an embryonic startup are about customer development and attraction: customer acquisition, retention and conversion. If you don’t have a handle on these numbers, then you’re simply fiddling round the edges, and your actions will make far less of an impact on growth direction, velocity and scaling ambitions.
These measures, when combined, inform you about customer traction, offering data points to give a clear picture of the underlying growth: how many customers have found your product (acquisition), how long do your customers stay with your product (retention), and how many of these customers are willing to pay for the product (conversion)?
These data points define the sales funnel, starting with acquisition, a signpost indicator that there is customer value proposition in your offering. Acquisition doesn’t have to be expensive, it can be organic and relatively clunky and have some friction in the process, because at this stage it’s still about validated learning and building on your MVP.
Once you have initial users, your focus is on retention. What is the monthly churn rate - how many leave your product after the first month? If they stay a month, how much longer are they likely to stay? Your retention rate has a major impact on building your user base, and the scaling, and ultimately the width and depth of customer revenue.
If retention is low, then the work of acquiring new users will continually get more expensive in order to grow revenues as you’ll have to continually spend more and more to acquire new users. Investors want to see the opposite trend: as your customer base grows, unit cost of customer acquisition, on average, should decline.
Retaining more users obviously provides an ongoing growing population to convert to recurring annuity revenues or other monetisation strategies, and with opportunities to grow the business by broadcasting to, and engaging with, a wider audience, enabling more visibility on social media, and a range of use cases.
Once you have optimised user retention, you can start working on both ends of your sales funnel, bring more users in, and converting more of them to paying customers. But focusing on converting users, when your retention numbers are low, will yield few results, and over time, those results will diminish without strong retention numbers.
So recognising that whilst there are lots of moving parts in your startup, which you need to stay on top of, a focus on customers forms the core of a dashboard of basic metrics. Over time, new financially based metrics can be plugged-in as it’s important to put an emphasis on the numbers you need to actively improve profitability.
But that’s the key: don’t use numbers to measure a startup financially at the outset, use them to guide and drive growth ambitions and the direction of travel and development of your business model.
Equally there is a ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ orientation to metrics, some track was has happened, others can be used to look forward. Don’t start tracking things having made a change, start tracking before the change occurs. Progressions are far more important than numbers without any context: what was that number last month, compared to this month? How has it changed? What is the growth curve? Is it static? Is it dynamic?
Use your numbers to ask questions, the things you need to know to be sure that what you’re doing is having any effect at all. It is difficult to prioritise product and customer growth: Should we write a new feature? Remove a feature? Fix a bug? Redesign a user interface? Remove a step in the sign-up process? Write a blog post? Offer an e-book for a lead nurturing campaign? Change pricing? Hire a customer support person?
So having set your North Star and its associated metric, what are the key drivers to focus upon, the moving parts which will get you to where you want to be: How many people are getting authentic value from our product?
I’ve always liked the ‘startup metrics for pirates’ - AARRR metrics - developed by Dave McClure, which represent all of the behaviours of your customers which drive to your North Star:
- Acquisition: the customer finds you
- Activation: the user interacts with you
- Retention: the user likes you
- Referral: the user recommends you
- Revenue: the user pays you
You need to break down these five metrics on your product and analyse them separately, so that you can optimise each of them. It's important to understand AARRR, because only when you understand all the metrics, you will understand each of the moving parts in your startup, so you don't guess and make the wrong assumptions.
The truth is that many startups make the same mistake of thinking if something doesn't work, it must be everything, or they just guess the wrong reason why their business is not working. The truth is, any part of a customer's experience can influence them. Here are some other metrics to consider, my own 5C Scorecard:
Customer Numbers A simple, binary index, set and measured for each period, provides visibility, clarity and simplicity of your North Star.
Conversion Rate to be a very telling KPI in that it reveals a combination of the company’s ability to sell its products to its customers and the customers’ desire for the product. It is particularly instructive to track and review Conversion Rate over time and regularly run experiments to improve.
Customer Acquisition Cost (‘CAC’) CAC is the unit cost of spend on sales and marketing, on average, to acquire a new customer. This tells us about the efficiency and effectiveness of our marketing efforts, although it’s more meaningful when combined with other metrics detailed below, and when measured over time.
Customer Retention Rate indicates the percentage of paying customers who remain paying customers during a given time period. The converse to retention rate is Churn (or Attrition), the percentage of customers you lose in a given period. When you see high retention rates over an indicative time period, you know you have a sticky product that is keeping customers happy. This is also an indicator of capital efficiency.
Customer Lifetime Value (‘CLTV’) is the measurement of the net value of an average customer over the estimated life of the relationship. Improving the ratio of CLTV/CAC is critical to building a sustainable company.
There is also one financial metric you need to keep a track on at this stage:
Cash Burn This is simply the net cashflow per month and is critical to the survival of any startup. Runway is the measure of the amount of time until have in terms of cash, expressed in terms of months.
Short Runways cause entrepreneurs to be myopic and removes the liberty to tweak and iterate when necessary. It also forces them to focus on the next fundraising round instead of on growing the business. It’s a separate discussion from this blog, but fund raising should be focused on milestones, not the runway.
I’ve ignored the usual financial metrics - revenue growth, gross and net margin, as you must not be limited to the KPIs themselves, for they are merely measurements of outcomes. You must have an understanding of what levers can be pulled towards achievement of your North Star, which is then reflected in KPIs. The focus should not be on the KPIs themselves, but the meaning behind them and knowing what impacts each one.
Once we set our direction by the North Star and check-in on the underpinning metrics on a daily and weekly basis, you give yourself a mechanism for deciding where to focus your time to move your business forward, and for me, that’s all about how many customers see authentic value in your offering.