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?”