My goal for these articles
I sometimes ask myself why I started writing these articles. In a space already crowded with many good resources, what new voice did I have to add? What readers were I hoping to reach? What level of notoriety was I aiming for, if any? It’s been helpful for me to remind myself that I wrote most of these articles over a two-year period simply because I had to.
I thought I was in good shape after leaving a strategic consulting firm where I spent years learning and implementing the tools of business building. I joined a venture capital-funded startup that needed to determine the next major path for growth. And there were fifty employees that needed to quickly contribute to that decision-making process and align around the outcome. The questions for us at the time were:
- How do you determine the next major future paths for growth?
- How do you know what we can uniquely build and what customers will buy?
- How can you inject data and analytics into products to make them relevant to C-Suite users?
- How do you align employees around the new direction?
We were successful enough that three years later, a larger company acquired us and I found myself in a lead corporate strategy role for a large organization with multiple products, buyers, and office locations. My team and I were charged with building a strategy from the framework that they had already aligned on. Questions appeared again:
- What, exactly, is a strategy? What are the fail-proof steps we can take to build one (while many eyes are on us, the clock is ticking, and everyone wants to know what the process is and when we’ll be done)?
- Is “international expansion” a strategy? (It’s not; that’s an idea which doesn’t yet identify who our specific international buyers will be, what their critical needs are, and how we can uniquely serve those needs.)
- How much customer research needs to be done before we can call something a strategy?
- How do you realign a large organization around insights that challenge the status quo?
Then a few months later, strategy reappeared again in a new form: some colleagues and I founded a new company. A new round of questions appeared:
- How do you take a blank sheet of paper and build a new product and company?
- Why us? Why should we believe we are uniquely positioned to build anything?
- How new and innovative should the idea be?
- How do you go into a room, demo a product to a broad set of different stakeholders that serves a need none of them have ever considered before, and, one hour later, have everyone believing that, from this point going forward, they can’t live without what we built?
In addition to all these questions, as a student of strategy, I wanted to know how what I was reading (e.g. Michael Porter’s books on strategy) informed these questions. What was the one universal theory to strategy, innovation, and business building that tied all of these concepts together and gave me a discrete set of how-to steps?
In short, when I said that I wrote these articles because I had to, what I meant was I needed to capture and structure all of these threads, with all the lessons I’d learned along the way, and document them so my brain could be cleared out to make room for new challenges.
. . .
As a builder of analytics-based products and companies, I often think of my role as the middleman between data analysts, engineers, investors, and customers.
On the one side, you need analysts and engineers to build something while investors help pay their salaries. You can call this labor and capital. And on the other side of the fence, you have customers who need to be reached out to and given a message that compels them to buy and use your product.
Strategy is the organizing framework that allows you to connect these stakeholders and make the whole process run. Sound easy? I can only say it’s proven to be hard work for me!
. . .
My lifelong passion has been building products and companies that are powered by data and analytics. Data and analytics has often been the easy part; knowing what to build has proven more difficult. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of strategy while a consultant at McKinsey & Company. Since then, I’ve been trying to put everything I’ve learned to work by growing, founding, and sitting on the board of analytics/tech companies.
I wrote the first few of these articles after my colleagues and I sold our last company. It was a good time to go through my notes, ideas, and personal lessons on strategy and remind myself of the fundamentals and how to apply them. And then I started a new company, learning many more lessons along the way—new ideas for fundraising, building a sales engine, and getting to daily product usage. Those steps were all stronger and easier for us by being grounded in strategy.
My focus is on three areas: product strategy, analytics, and agility. Analytics is particularly interesting to me in the startup world as companies can leverage it as a source of competitive advantage relative to less data-savvy incumbents. In addition, a strategy that is not continuously informed by data and analytics nowadays is likely to be a weak one.
There are a lot of books and resources on how to start a company and strategy. Some of what I include here may recap what’s already out there. But on the topic of launching analytics-based companies and products specifically, I believe I have something new to add.