The Importance of Knowing Your Numbers

As programmers we tend to think of reports after the fact, often when it's too late. I learned this the hard way over the last few days.


I’m on vacation for the next few weeks and one thing I have a hard time doing is sitting still. Yes, of course there’s family stuff to do but my kids are older and I’m on my own these days, so I find that I have a lot more time to myself.

This, to me, is a wonderful thing. I have a list a mile long of things I want to get done “when I have the time” and that time is now. But… what things, exactly, should I be digging into?

The Importance of Focus with a Side Hustle

I sell books and make videos on the side and I’ve done so for years. Much of that time I was on my own, living happily off the income but for the last 4 years or so I went back to full time work. I enjoy being able to do both, but what it also means is that I need to be rigorous when it comes to deciding what to focus on.

That means numbers, lots of them. Sure I could just wing it and follow my passion, but when you actually depend on your side hustle to provide for you, winging it isn’t your best option.

Anyway: I learned something over the last 10 days or so of vacation: if your numbers aren’t there, you’re lost.

Let me explain.

When Your Email Service Is Failing You

I have two email services: the first is this here blog which uses Ghost to manage newsletter-y stuff. It has some pretty slick analytics for everything and I know who’s here doing what and when. It’s good and I love it.

My other “list” is with ConvertKit and has been for years. If you don’t know: ConvertKit is a “marketing automation platform” which basically amounts to them sending emails to people based on certain events. It’s taken me years to figure out how to do this without being massively obnoxious and I like it but here’s the question: how do I know I’m not being massively obnoxious?

Moreover: how do I know if the monthly price tag of this service is worth it?

I pay close to $200/mo for the service and I think it’s worth it… which is a problem as I don’t know if it is. ConvertKit is famously light on reporting and analytics, but it’s also incredibly easy to use, which is why I decided to use the service in the first place. Unfortunately, when I dug in this last week to try and figure out where to spend my time… I was left completely in the cold.

To be clear: they do provide some measurements for you and give you basic indicators of how well you’re doing there… but that’s about it. If you have deeper questions, such as “which people are buying things and how often” you’ll need to find a way to track that on your own. I can see ConvertKit’s reasoning here: they’re not an analytical platform. At the same time, they hold all the interactivity data and if I want to tap into that I’ll need to get a PhD in Zapier and pay even more money to find out if ConvertKit is worth the effort.

So, what did I do then?

Back to Drip

I used Drip way back when it was shiny and new. I had been using Mailchimp forever but they didn’t have automations which were becoming the rage - and Drip did. Plus they have a tight integration with Shopify, so I jumped in.

One thing that I utterly love about Drip is that everything you do is trackable. Every email you send shows you who clicked, who left, and who read, which are incredibly important numbers. ConvertKit does this too, of course, but they don’t tie it back to revenue, which is the biggest indicator of all.

The trick to email marketing is to be your authentic self, give people good things and then give some more, and then let them know about other things you do which could hopefully benefit them. It’s a fine line between being a cheeseball sales person vs. sharing something you’re truly proud of that could really help someone!

So here’s the question: how do you know if you’re being cheesy vs. helpful? It’s all in the numbers. Let’s dig deeper.

A Real Example

Every year during the holidays I do something sales-y_._ I have to - it’s the biggest sales time of the year. I used to think “I don’t want to fall into this corporate capitalist consumer money scam” but then I actually had people email me - a lot! - asking if I did gift stuff or discounts of any kind.

So in 2012 I decided to give it a go and had a six-figure sales month. People were very happy with the discounts I was offering and also very happy that I let them know about them. We all win!

Anyway: every year I do something so this year I decided to do gift cards for the books and video courses I sell:

Gift cards make things very easy

Why did I decide on gift cards? Because I had the sales numbers, thank [Diety]! I keep everything nice and tidy in Postgres so I was able to see what kind of gifty things people like to buy for each other, and gift cards won out by about 30%.

Last year I tried something a bit different that wasn’t exactly a failure, but it required work on the giver’s part. You could buy something for someone but to do so you had to tell me their email and when to send it. I never used their email, of course, but I think people were hesitant to share someone else’s email like that.

So this year it’s back to gift cards!

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Analytics are one of those things that people don’t consider until they need them and, unfortunately, it’s often too late. On one hand I can shrug because it’s just me and my side hustle and I probably won’t lose my job. On the other hand, if I can optimize what I do based on solid numbers then I can save myself some valuable time!

I won’t say I made a mistake by staying with ConvertKit, their service is wonderful and does exactly what they say it will. At the same time I will say that I could have made better choices for myself if I would have stayed with Drip.

It’s critical to think about the question you’ll be asking in 1, 3 and 5 years down the line. What will you need to know to answer those questions? You can’t know for sure, but you can use tools that will think of this stuff for you!