Aug 9 2010

The Value (and Limitations) of Benchmarking

The Value (and Limitations) of Benchmarking

I think I am starting to drive my team nuts a little bit. I have suggested, prodded, and executed a ton of external benchmarking projects this year, all of which have different leaders inside Return Path doing both systematic and ad hoc phone calls and meetings with peer companies and aspirational peer companies to understand how we compare to them in terms of specific metrics, practices, and structures.  It’s some combination of the former management consultant in me rearing its head, and me just trying to make sure that we stay ahead of the curve as we rapidly scale our business this year.

Why go through an exercise like this?  One answer is that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.  If a non-competitive comparable company has solved a problem or done some good creative thinking, then I say “plagiarize with pride,” especially if you’re sharing your best practices with them.  The reality of scaling a business is that things change when you go from 50 to 100 people, or 150 to 300, or 300 to 1,000 — and unless you and your entire executive team have “been there, done that” at all levels, or unless you are constantly replacing execs, there’s not exactly an instruction manual for the work you have to do.

But a second, equally valuable answer, is that benchmarking can uncover both problems and opportunities that you didn’t know you had, or at least validate theories about problems and opportunities that you suspect you have.  Learning that comparable companies convert 50% better on their marketing funnel than you do, or that they systematically raise prices 5-7% per year regardless of new feature introduction (I’m just making these examples up) can help you steer the ship in ways you might not have thought you needed to.

What are the limitations of benchmarking?  As our CTO Andy said to me the other day, sometimes no one else has the answer, either.  We do run into this regularly – for example, a tough technical problem where literally no one else does it well like disaster recovery.  Or in how to solve channel conflict problems or streamline commission plans.

Also, sometimes you find out that you are actually best in class at a particular function.  In those cases, while one could just chalk up the exercise to a waste of time, I still think there is learning to be had from studying others.  And if there are a couple other companies who are also best in class, I always encourage group brainstorming among the top peers about how to push the envelope further and be even better.  This can even take the form of a regular peer group meeting/forum.

On the whole, I find benchmarking a good management practice and in particular a good use of time.  But like everything, it’s situational, and you have to understand what you’re looking for when you start your questioning.  You also have to be prepared to find nothing – and go back to your own drawing board.  Good entrepreneurs have to be great at both inventing and, as I noted above, plagiarizing with pride.