For early-stage startups, figuring out if you’re making true progress or just spinning your wheels is tough. Traditional accounting metrics don’t work well. Revenue and profits are misleading when you lack a proven business model. This is where the lean startup concept of innovation accounting helps.
Innovation accounting uses specially designed metrics to assess real progress when there is huge uncertainty. This allows startups to see if their core hypotheses are valid. In this article, we’ll explore how innovation accounting works and key metrics to utilize.
Problems With Traditional Accounting
Standard accounting metrics are designed for established companies with defined products or services. Startups operate differently with lots of unknowns. Vanity metrics like:
- Total customers
- Gross merchandise volume
- Web traffic
These seem positive but don’t necessarily equal a viable, scalable business. Beginners may obsess over driving vanity metrics higher. But more users won’t fix a flawed product or business model.
Likewise, financial statements are misleading pre-product/market fit. You want falling expenses and rising revenue. But chasing traditional profitability too soon often kills startups. They waste time perfecting untested ideas versus learning what Innovation accounting uses more meaningful metrics customized to startup realities.
The Lean Startup Approach
Eric Ries’ lean startup methodology emphasizes rapid iteration based on customer feedback over prolonged design upfront. This accelerates learning. Key mindsets like:
- Start small with a minimum viable product (MVP) to test assumptions fast at low cost
- Design experiments that rigorously validate if users want your solution
- Respond to empirical data from experiments, not opinions or intuition
- Be willing to quickly pivot based on evidence
Instead of executing a rigid plan, your goal is learning to build the right business.
Key Innovation Accounting Principles
Innovation accounting aligns with lean thinking to guide startups through huge uncertainty. The core principles help startups learn efficiently.
For example, innovation accounting emphasizes using actionable metrics that clearly measure indicators tied to your core hypotheses about your product, customers, pricing, and other aspects of your business model. You need to launch minimum viable products (MVPs) – stripped down product versions that let you test key ideas quickly without investing lots of time and money upfront.
The focus should be on accelerating your rate of learning through rapid experimentation and iteration. In addition, you need to let quantified customer data drive priorities, not just hopes or assumptions.
Finally, sharing ongoing metrics openly with stakeholders ensures accountability. The point is that with innovation accounting, you use metrics that offer clear, measurable guidance to make decisions, rather than vague vanity metrics. This type of actionable data is invaluable when you’re trying to figure out how to viably build your business amidst huge uncertainty.
From Vanity Metrics to Actionable Metrics
Vanity metrics like pageviews or social media followers feel good but don’t actually demonstrate real product/market fit.
Innovation accounting ignores vanity metrics and focuses on actionable metrics revealing key insights. For example:
Customer Discovery Interviews
- Rate of qualitative learning about problems and needs
- Cost per customer acquired
- Churn rate
- Net Promoter Score
- Revenue per customer
- Conversion rates by price point
- Months to securing target major customers
Quality actionable metrics validate you have product value worth scaling. They also uncover flaws to refine.
Getting to Viability
Innovation accounting uses the framing of viability thresholds to structure experiments. There are three linked viability thresholds startups must cross with their business model:
Value – Product/Market Fit
Does your product offer sizable value to a specific target customer? Do they repeatedly use and engage with it?
Growth – Channel Fit
Can you acquire and convert enough customers through a cost-effective channel? Positive word of mouth? Viral growth? Paid marketing ROI?
Scale – Business Fit
Can your startup sustainably deliver its solution to customers and earn profit at scale?
Startups must prove hypotheses and cross each threshold sequentially through measurable experiments. Don’t assume you have product/market fit without data!
Creating an Innovation Accounting Plan
Turning innovation accounting principles into action involves:
Map Key Hypotheses
Identify the core assumptions that need testing about your product, pricing, customers, channels etc.
Determine clear, measurable metrics that will validate or invalidate those hypotheses.
Establish key viability milestones for demonstrating product/market fit, growth, and scale potential.
Develop Experiment Roadmap
Create a timeline of minimum viable product and channel experiments to perform that aligns with viability milestones.
Build Rapid Prototypes
Quickly build simplified product prototypes and assets needed to execute planned experiments.
Review Results Rigorously
Analyze results deeply after experiments. Do they prove or disprove your hypotheses? Pivot if needed.
Continuously refine hypotheses, define new metrics and experiments, and rigorously assess.
Innovation accounting is not a single phase but an ongoing system for maximizing learning.
Choosing the Right Early Stage Metrics
Picking the most telling metrics is key. Some initial metrics to consider by viability milestone:
- Net Promoter Score
- Retention Rate
- Engagement by Feature
- Customer Lifetime Value
- Churn Rate
- Sales Cycle Length
- Customer Acquisition Cost
- Month 0-1 Retention
- 3 Month Retention
- Referral Percentage
- Paid Acquisition ROI
- Social Sharing Rate
- Organic Search Traffic
- Email/Social Click-Through Rate
- Average Revenue Per Account
- Customer Acquisition Cost at Scale
- Monthly Recurring Revenue
- Gross Margin Percentage
- Fixed Cost Ratio
- Cash Runway Remaining
- Burn Rate
Add, adjust, or remove metrics based on what you’re testing. Resist adding too many vanity metrics that lack clear actionability.
Putting Innovation Accounting Into Practice
Say you’re developing a mobile fitness app as a startup. You would:
- Identify your core hypotheses – ex. college athletes are an ideal target audience willing to pay a subscription for the app.
- Define value metrics to test those hypotheses – ex. acquire 100 college athlete app users through sponsored teams and track retention rate, engagement levels, satisfaction, and in-app purchases.
- Develop an lightweight app MVP to deploy with target customers.
- Rigorously analyze results after 1 month – assess metrics to see if target athletes retained and loved the app as expected or if hypotheses were proven false.
- Use those learnings to revise your model before investing more time and money. Explore different segments if athletes underperformed.
Continuous innovation accounting prevents wasted resources on assumptions while uncovering the best model.
Getting Stakeholder Buy-In
To gain support, educate stakeholders on:
- Traditional metrics that mislead early-stage startups
- How innovation accounting mitigates risk
- Why rigorous testing is critical upfront before scaling
- How pivoting based on data is smarter than rigid plans
Share examples of major pivots by successful startups that saved them. Highlight innovators using lean startup approaches.
Transparency using innovation metrics also encourages stakeholder input. By seeing objective indicators, they can better advise without relying on speculation. Patience is still required. But framing innovation accounting as controlled, evidence-based entrepreneurship reassures stakeholders.
Common Innovation Accounting Pitfalls
Some common missteps to avoid:
Don’t measure everything. Stick to the 20% of metrics offering 80% of insight. Vanity metrics distract.
Balance analysis with action. Don’t get stuck researching without making decisions.
Consider metrics together, not separately. The combinations reveal truths.
Ensure metrics are calculated the same way over time. Consistency enables trend analysis.
Metrics must be visible to all. Transparency and accountability matter.
Lack of Actionability
If a metric’s purpose is unclear, remove it. Actionable metrics guide your focus.
Avoiding pitfalls keeps your innovation accounting system nimble and practical.
- Traditional accounting metrics are misleading with an unproven business model.
- Innovation accounting uses specially designed metrics to assess real progress.
- The focus is accelerating learning with rigorous experiments.
- Key viability milestones like product/market fit must be quantified through metrics.
- Continuous innovation accounting prevents wasted time and money.
Adopting innovation accounting, even informally, is crucial to test assumptions thoroughly before you scale. With the right metrics framework in place, you can filter out speculation and confidently build your startup on evidence. Stop guessing and start validating your real progress with innovation accounting. It provides the metrics you need when nothing else makes sense.
What are some examples of vanity metrics to avoid?
Social media followers, website visitors, app downloads. These may feel good but don’t prove you have an effective business model.
When implementing innovation accounting, where should founders start?
Identify your core business and model hypotheses. Then define measurable metrics that would validate or invalidate those hypotheses through actionable experiments.
How can innovation accounting build confidence for securing investments?
By methodically demonstrating product/market fit and healthy scaling potential using metrics, founders can show investors evidence that startup risk is being carefully managed.
Does innovation accounting require complex analytics tools and data science skills?
No, core metrics can be tracked using simple spreadsheets. The key is structuring continual measurable experiments, not fancy analysis.