I ended last year by reading two books. The first was Competing on Analytics, The New Science of Winning. The second was 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. “Competing on Analytics” changed my thinking, and “18 Minutes” changed my life.

A core tenant of “Competing on Analytics” is that in order to make correct decisions, you need data.  Data requires measurement. And, as I’ve come to learn, it requires determining which data, among all of the data that one could collect, is the most important data.

A core tenant of “18 Minutes” is that getting the right things done requires that you decide, among all of the possibilities, the relatively small number goals that you want to achieve over the coming year. These are the things that you absolutely want to get done, and get done right. Another core tenant is that you need to evaluate each of your activities against those goals.  It suggests, among other things, that you start your day by evaluating what is on your calendar, not in your email InBox. Almost immediately upon rising, ask yourself,

What am I scheduled to do today?

Is my schedule consistent with progress against my goals?

If not, what changes do I need to make?

As I write this, I recognize that the above statements may sound very basic to some of you. Some of you already live your lives based upon very specific goals and measurement.  I suspect, however, that many more only think you live your lives this way, and haven’t actually taken the time to determine your personal goals, separate from everyone else’s goals. Nor have you decided what specific data will tell you whether you are making the correct choices in achieving your goals. I recently made that embarrassing admission to myself. It was especially embarrassing for me, given that I love science and studied, among other things, mathematics in college.

I won’t bore you with my own specific goals for this year, but suffice it to say that by measuring my time against my priorities, I have determined how long it takes me to complete certain tasks. I’ve learned what work is profitable and what work is less profitable than I had previously thought. I’ve learned the direct impact of diet and exercise on weight and heart rate. And I’ve learned that if I schedule things as soon as I make a verbal commitment, that I almost always keep my commitments.

I met a few weeks ago with a friend who is the CEO of a startup company based in the Boston area. He’s not a first time CEO, and he’s had at least one successful exit, selling his company to a major system company. How good was the exit? Lets just say that he didn’t have trouble raising money, when he was ready to do his next venture. When he did his last round, it was significant and at a very nice valuation, by IT infrastructure standards.

I think data is important, and I like to know what corporate executives care about, so, now, every time I meet with a startup company, I ask the CEO what they measure. Typically on the finance side, I’ll get answers like revenue, cash flow, burn rate. On the sales side, they tell me they track new customers, number of deals, repeat sales or renewals, and average deal size.  And on the development side, they will track the total number of bugs, sometimes by criticality, and the bug retirement rate. These are all good things to measure, so, if you are measuring these things, good for you.  And if you’re not measuring them, time to break out a yardstick and some monitoring tools.

My very successful friend gave me one more number to track before all others. Given his track record, I paid attention. The most important number for him is the percentage of customers that say they would recommend the  solution to a colleague. He actually has someone call every single customer and ask only one question:

Would you recommend our solution to a colleague?

This is not the same question as “Would you be a press reference or allow us to do a case study on your installation?” That brings with it the usual baggage of legal and PR approval processes. No, for an early stage company, this question, “Would you recommend our solution to a colleague?” encapsulates the only truly important metric into it. It answers the question, “Am I building the right product?”