A Superpower That Can Help Start-Ups Succeed

I have always known that the ability to measure things is an ability that can never be overstated. Without it, life as we know it will be impossible. (No clocks, no planes, no computers) But I’ve had difficulty using it. When I am with my father, I am sometimes tasked with making semolina for lunch. Anyone who has prepared this meal knows how easy it is to mess things up. But I rarely do: my semolina almost always comes out smooth and tender. The problem is, since the number of people at lunch always fluctuates, the quantity of semolina is usually either too little or in excess. My father, an engineer, is always quick to intervene: why don’t you have a measurement for one person, which you can then multiply, based on the number of people available for lunch? It is a simple solution that will, undoubtedly, solve the problem. But I never take the advice.

My obstinacy comes, partly, from my belief about what it takes to be a good cook. A good cook does not need to measure things, he just knows, by looking at what is on the table, what is enough. If I start to take measurements, then I am naïve, a beginner. This attitude, while it has won me some boasting rights among friends, has resulted into some grand disasters in the kitchen.

The second reason, for my unwillingness to change, is that taking time to implement that measurement system would take some time and effort. Of course, I am aware that the future gains will be far greater, but what’s the point? If the semolina is too much, we can store it for dinner; if it is too little, someone will have to find something else to eat. (I’ve had to take the fall, severally) The problem is not solved and it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in most other things, unsolved problems do matter. When I co-ran my first start-up — a university newspaper — we encountered several problems that we could not solve. And it did matter: it collapsed without turning a profit. Even though we ensured our investors (classmates) got back their money, my co-founder and I lost everything we put into it.

Last week, I spotted a book ad on my kindle ‘Measure what matters: how Google, Bono and the Gates Foundation rock the world with OKRs’. The author was John Doerr and there was a foreword from Larry Page. I knew I wanted to read it. I’ve been toying with setting up another start-up next month and it seemed like a book that could be useful to my backend thinking. So I shelved my reading list and settled in for a ride.

The book is about a management philosophy, OKR, developed by Andrew Grove, the former Intel chief and it contains stories of how several world-class companies and institutions have used it. In summary, it preaches that to get things done, one should have clear objectives that are tied to key results, which must be measurable. (“It is not a key result unless it has a number” — Marissa Mayer)

There are a lot of gems in the book, but the most valuable, for me, is its message on ‘measurable’ key results. I am primarily a writer, so my sense of precision is mostly subjective. This would not be a thing to worry about if all I wanted to do was write fiction and poetry and engage in discussions around philosophy and politics. But I also want to start a business, which means I have to engage with the real world, where no one cares about my subjective precision.

Making up objectives, for someone like me, is easy. What is demanded is imagination, the foundation upon which all great companies, from Apple to Facebook, are built. But imagination is never enough. You need to figure out how to make your dreams come true. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people walk out of meetings saying, ‘I’m going to conquer the world’ . . . and three months later, nothing has happened,” Bill Davidow, a former Intel executive, recounts in Doerr’s book.

John Doerr, an American billionaire investor, is a great proponent of OKR

Knowing that you have certain key results to accomplish by a certain date also helps you to focus on the important things. My second start-up — an e-book platform — failed to launch because I wanted every feature of the software to be developed before we shipped. I wanted to do everything and ended up doing nothing. Instead, using certain key priorities, I could have zeroed in on a particular problem, build a simple product, talk to users and then do it all over again. You will never have the resources to do all you want to do anyway. As Steve Jobs understood, “innovation means saying no to one thousand things.”

There are more ways through which OKRs can help to improve businesses — read and buy the book — but the main power it gives to those who use it is the ability to provide an objective scorecard of how a company or an idea is performing in the real world. So, before your bottom-line or those who rely on you are actually affected, you can know whether you are on track or not and adjust course accordingly. It’s like being able to, not just predict, but also make the future. I think that’s incredible.


– Elusoji Olayinka Solomon (Beijing, China)