Why ROI Isn’t Ingrained in Our DNA

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling with measuring the ROI of my work. And it wasn’t until I brought it up with the rest of the team I realised I shouldn’t be trying to measure it at all. I’ll explain!

It’s no secret we take a different approach to business than most, particularly the SaaS world. We’re not driven by the need for more money and growth for growth’s sake isn’t interesting either. I’ve mentioned before, our measure of success is team and customer happiness.

Sadly, keeping that goal at the forefront of my mind has proved difficult. I’ve found the focus on money and growth is so ingrained in me, I find myself slipping back into such an antiquated way of thinking.

You see, much of my previous work had been measured by something financial, be it direct revenue increases, new customers, or growth in general. Even a simple website build was subjected to the question: what did it earn the company?

Marketing: Where Correlation Becomes Causation

The focus on financial ROI had always confused me—it’s probably why I’m not a great growth marketer or salesperson. I know it’s the inherent nature of businesses to make money at all costs, but shoehorning a link between output and financial growth seems like the worst idea ever.

Sure, it seems to offer something at least partially tangible—I think that’s why it remains the go-to measurement of success—but the downside is way too costly. Namely, the morale and happiness of the people judged by little more than a correlation.

How much did your blog post make the company? How much awareness did your video generate? How many new users did your PPC generate?

The truth is, trying to attribute sales or revenue growth is difficult. I’d go as far as to say really, trying to boil revenue growth to any single action or area is foolish. You can’t really track that in any real way.

I know, I know, you can use conversion tracking, right? But…can you? Really?

Let’s say someone searches for “HelpDocs”. They click on the top result—so most likely a search ad—and decide to sign up for an account.

Hooray! A new user! 🎉

But where do you attribute that new sign up?

The landing page?
Nope! We don’t do landing pages. We have our marketing website, but if that’s the attribution point wouldn’t everything end up being attributed to that?

The search ad then?
I guess you could go for that, but you’d be grasping at straws. Who’s to say the visitor didn’t click that first result because they were in a hurry and it was the first result. It might have been nothing to do with the copy. Or it might have. Point is, we can never know for sure.

The person had also searched for “HelpDocs”, which suggests an intent to find HelpDocs already. They might have been coming back with the intention to purchase, having seen a blog post or a video. Perhaps they’d spoken to us before.

The point is, attribution is a guessing game. Anything beyond handholding through the signup process is little more than a correlation.

Yet, so much pressure is put on these correlations. Work is judged by it because growth is the end goal.

Hours and hours of hard work shouldn’t be reduced to moving the needle on a single metric. Fuck that.

As a team, we’ve become good at resisting the urge to attribute growth and revenue to one specific area. This, I’m finding, makes for a more positive work environment for everyone.

”I don’t give a crap about ROI”—Jake Peters, CEO

I’d slipped back into wanting to measure ROI, for whatever reason. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s to do with my imposter syndrome rearing it’s ugly, vicious head once again.

Or maybe I’m just feeling too comfortable right now, and am looking for something to happen.

The thing is, I’ve always been in jobs where there’s a big project to focus on, or—more common—a huge problem we’re trying to solve, all in the name of increased growth and revenue.

When you’re not focused on Growth, and doing good work becomes the priority, the fires you’re used to fighting seem a lot smaller and manageable. More like tea lights and scented candles than blazes you’re trying to control.

I’m comfortable right now. I think we all are, basking in the glow of thousands of candles and enjoying the ride. 🕯

It doesn’t mean we stop working. It means the work we do is work we want to do. As Jake very astutely put it, “We build stuff because either a) lots of customers want it (happiness) or b) we want to build it (happiness)”.

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

On a personal level, having such an intangible measure of success is both a blessing and a curse.

As I mentioned, I suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s not a constant problem, but it is a constant. It’s always lurking. Always waiting for the opportunity to strike. And when it strikes, it has frustrating consequences.

The worst, for me, is a kind of anxiety block. I question the worth of everything I’m doing, and everything I’ve done that hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to. Most recently, it was a bunch of feature focus videos I made to help educate our users.

The thing is, I loved making the videos. At the time of making them, I believed they were helpful and if a single customer got something out of them, they were valuable.

But imposter syndrome is volatile. As many sufferers will attest, you can’t control it. Much as I might have perceived some value when I made the videos, I became convinced they weren’t any good. And I mentally blocked my ability to create more.

In a scenario where you’re forced to attribute growth and revenue to specific areas or projects, the volatility of imposter syndrome is magnified.

When things are going well, you can see explicitly “other people can attribute this tangible result to my work”. On the flip side, when things aren’t going well, it swings to its fullest extent in the opposite direction. People can attribute no value in what you’re doing, and therefore your work is not valuable.

The intangible ROI scenario is more a Schroedinger’s cat of value—your work can be thought of as both valuable and not valuable, which is ok! Sharing my anxieties with the team helped me open the box, and overcome any fear I had of being an imposter seeing the innate value in doing good work as the value in itself.

I need to remember happiness is the only value that matters. It can be very easy to slip back into the traditional mindset, getting lost down the rabbit hole of attribution.

When you’re not focused on making more money, you can focus more on making a great product. And the truth is, if it feels good, your happy, and the company is still ticking along, everything else is a bonus.