Vanity Metrics, or Why Boxes Beat Billboards

Riding on the D train in NYC I was chuffed to see big ads for one of our portfolio companies covering the interior of the subway car. I snapped a few photos and sent the CEO a congratulatory message.

Shortly thereafter I had the good fortune to meet with Ben Fischman, the Founder of Rue La La, one of the few companies that managed to make money in the flash sale business. Though he sold the company for $350 million dollars, it never came up in our conversation.

Instead, he talked excitedly about the early days of the startup and how he would peek into the back of UPS and Fedex trucks looking for Rue La La boxes. When he spotted evidence of customer activity he’d take pictures and send them to the team for encouragement.

It was an inspiring story, but it did make me feel silly about taking pics of the subway ads. It was gratifying to see this brand that I’ve watched grow from exactly 2 founders to the stage where they can advertise alongside Nike and Google, but we paid for the privilege. The ads were extraordinarily effective, but they weren’t the same kind of organic endorsement that Ben’s boxes represented.

We paid for the ads, customers paid for Ben’s boxes. That is a critically important distinction and one that startup founders would be wise to internalize. It’s easy to get seduced by vanity metrics, press mentions, and the like. One of the best investments you can make is building your culture around tangible evidence of success.

In this case the best startup advice doesn’t come from Steve Jobs, but Great Expectations’ Mr. Jaggers to Pip: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule.”