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Dashing Looks

Want to see your company's latest data? A dashboard puts all the information you need in one clear display.

Lewis Farsedakis wants to know a lot about Blinc Inc., the $5 million cosmetics firm he founded in 1999, which has grown more than 300 percent over the past five years. He wants sales figures for the current and previous month and year. He wants to know how many customer service calls came in and how many are unresolved. He wants a count of phone orders made and orders filled. He wants to know website hits, the number of online shopping carts abandoned and more. And he wants to know now, if not sooner.

The 36-year-old Herndon, Virginia, entrepreneur's need to know was once seriously frustrating. It required as many as a dozen paper reports. Each report demanded the attention of one or more of his 16 employees, and because of the time and trouble it took to prepare the reports, the data was always stale. Then Farsedakis began using an online service called NetSuite to generate all the key data he wanted in an easy-to-read, constantly updated dashboard-style readout. "The dashboard enables me to measure the business on a daily basis," Farsedakis says. "It also enables me to catch business problems as they emerge, as opposed to later."

The dashboard's direct ancestors are the balanced scorecards introduced in the early 1990s to help businesses track nonfinancial measurements in addition to common accounting measurements, such as sales, says Tom Bayer, a Springfield, Illinois, CPA who trains business leaders in performance measurement. Like the gauges on a car's instrument panel, a business dashboard gives an entrepreneur vital real-time information in a way that makes it easy to read and react, Bayer says.

If you want your own dashboard, Bayer says you should first identify your company's critical drivers. These usually include revenue and sales as well as marketing data, such as new sales leads. Also look at customer satisfaction, work force productivity and employee satisfaction, focusing on the critical measurements that usually alert you to trouble or opportunity. "What are the magic numbers that influence your business?" Bayer asks.

Critical data can come in any format, but the newest way to present it is with a software or online web service tool. Mini Peiris, vice president of product management for NetSuite, says the San Mateo, California, software firm has more than 7,500 users, most of them SMBs. New customers are signing on fast; NetSuite ranked second on the 2005 Deloitte Technology Fast 500 list.

From hundreds of reports, graphs and key performance indicators, NetSuite users select a handful to view on a single screen. Clicking on any number lets you drill down to individual transactions. "For somebody in a small company, it's a huge amount of power they didn't have before," says Peiris.

Getting there takes some effort, however. It only works perfectly if all the company data you want to track is entered into NetSuite. That means switching from whatever accounting, contact management and spreadsheet programs you've been using, converting existing data and entering future data into the web-based application.

That also applies to the other major player in small-business dashboards-- Peachtree by Sage 2007, which includes NetSuite-like dashboard capabilities in its new version. The rest of the leading small-business accounting software packages, including Intuit's QuickBooks, have powerful reporting tools, but so far haven't tried to duplicate the dashboard look and feel.

NetSuite Small Business costs $99 monthly for the company and $49 monthly for each additional user. There are also setup costs: Bayer charges up to $30,000 to set up a company's dashboard, or $5,000 to train entrepreneurs to do it themselves. And a dashboard's value is limited to the availability of accurate information. "A dashboard is only as good as the data that goes into it," Peiris notes.

But Farsedakis isn't complaining. "I never used to get this information," he says. "Now I get the information in real time, whenever I want it."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the August 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Dashing Looks.

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