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Case study: How The Motley Fool helps the world invest better by spreading data-driven Foolery

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The Motley Fool has been around since before the internet was even the internet. What started as a newsletter 21 years ago is today a multimedia financial-services company with a presence in five countries on three continents.

The founders, brothers Tom and Dave Gardner, were both English majors with no financial background. Inspired by their father, an experienced investor, they introduced The Motley Fool in 1993 with a mission to help everyday people ‘beat the market’.

Max Keeler, in charge of international operations, has been with ‘The Fool’ for almost 18 years, helping them spread ‘Foolery’ and empowering the individual investor. Max told us about how Geckoboard provides them with immediate feedback on their activities and helps them make the right decisions.

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How it all began: A newsletter with a mission

The Motley Fool started as a newsletter with a mission to beat the market. Two regular guys wanted to help everyday people take control of their investments. When the internet came around shortly after, it complemented the mission perfectly. It was sort of an ‘Anti Wall Street’ movement that built a strong momentum around advocating the individual investor.

In August 1994, we created a content partnership with America Online (AOL), and started to gain recognition for our early stock recommendations such as Amazon, PayPal and Starbucks. We worked almost exclusively with AOL for a number of years, things took off and we did really well. But at a certain point we decided to buy ourselves out of AOL and create our own presence on the internet.

Getting started: A constant cycle of feedback

‘The key to communication is feedback. The rate at which you get feedback, where an action you take is reflected in what you see, is why we use Geckoboard.’

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Our CTO and a colleague of his had a vision where they really wanted to get intelligence to our team of editorial writers that produce several thousand articles a month. We wanted feedback on how we were positioned in our most important partnerships. Where were the opportunities? Where were our articles sitting? At the top? In the middle? What if we knew that? I was able to get that information to them in just a few hours using Geckoboard.

Any piece of information begs for questions to be asked. The key to communication is feedback. The rate at which you get feedback, where an action you take is reflected in what you see, is why we use Geckoboard. Once something works people really start to take notice. At one point I had several hundred widgets on dozens of dashboards, updating every 15 minutes.

Working backwards: What are you trying to do?

Overall, Motley Fool is very, very data-driven. We’re a numbers company, we love numbers. Our CEO and some very intuitive people have a great knack for what the market wants, which is great, but what we try to do is make sure we get feedback on those decisions.

‘My test for whether a dashboard is useful or not is, if it breaks, does anyone care?’

Recently I’ve used the dashboards to talk through the strategy for each of the countries with the general manager of that country. I always ask, ‘What are you trying to drive?’ And work backwards from there. What are the two, three or 10, metrics that are going to help you drive that? And then I’ll put together a dashboard for those metrics. It’s really well received, it keeps them focused and it gives them good information.

My test for whether a dashboard is useful or not is, if it breaks, does anyone care? I get some people that literally go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is not working, what’s going on?’ I actually love hearing that, it tells me it’s really important.

Evolving dashboards: It’s about the result, not how you get there

A common mistake that people make is to wait for marching orders, particularly around dashboards. You’re sort of sitting there waiting, ‘What do you need?’ In our business, it’s important to do some of that, but more so is to evangelise and to be more active around it and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this? I was messing around and made this, do you like it?’ It gets them thinking and it gives them something to react to. 9 out of 10 times they’ll say, ‘That’s useless, but if you could do x that would be great.’ And that’s perfect. But if I just ask them if they need anything they’ll say, ‘No, I’m busy doing my own job.’

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The way our dashboards evolve is typically with me proposing something that ignites the spark that will allow me to get feedback and make changes. It’s all about the result and not necessarily how you get there.

Becoming data-driven: Don’t try to find the perfect metric

‘Don’t necessarily start with the most important thing, don’t try to find the perfect metric, think about what gives you an emotional reaction.’

It’s almost an emotional beginning. We all have a number we would be happy if it went up. At the heart of it it’s that kind of emotional curiosity that motivates and keeps people engaged. The more people that share that emotion, the better. My advice would be to find that number that you’re going to want to look at all the time - That number you would be delighted if it moved up, and crushed if it moved down. Start from there, then you’ll start getting used to it and you’ll want to do it more and more.

Don’t necessarily start with the most important thing, don’t try to find the perfect metric, think about what gives you an emotional reaction, and it starts to get fun that way. Once it’s fun then it just starts rolling. That’s very much our culture here, we really believe in motivation and the amazing things people can do when they’re pumped to do it. Sometimes what they’re pumped to do isn’t all that important, but that’s kind of okay. Let people find their passion, and then try to guide it toward a business outcome.

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Computer designed by james zamyslianskyj and Feedback designed by Attilio Baghino from the Noun Project

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