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Google released their Correlate tool last week. Just for kicks I put in “ATS” to see what searches correlated tightly with Applicant Tracking Systems. I was astounded by the result:

Google Correlate on ATS

The #1 term searched for in conjunction with Applicant Tracking Systems was “vlookup excel“. In fact, 4 of the top 10 searches were Excel terms!

This tells me that ATS users are trying to manage their data using Excel spreadsheets. They’re having trouble doing it. And they’re going to The Google for help.

Here are 5 signals that you’ve graduated from Excel and should think about a reporting tool so you can keep an eye on your business.

1. You’ve Got Over 100K Rows Of Data

Excel 2003 and older can only handle up to 65,536 rows. Excel 2007 and later can handle up to a million in theory but you’d better have awesome hardware. I’d recommend looking for a real reporting suite once you get past 100K rows of data. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not. Consider this:

5 employees * 50 actions per day * 250 work days in a year * 2 years of data
= 125,000 rows

So, if you have 5 or more employees you are probably starting to outgrow Excel even for basic activity analysis.

2. You’re Analyzing More Than Two Types Of Data

The above example was for just activity analysis.

What if you also want to analyze:

  • Revenue data
  • Job orders
  • Candidates
  • Employees
  • Clients
  • …more?

The effect of adding more input data is multiplicative: working with 50k rows of activity and 10k rows of revenue will feel like 500k rows, not 60k.

By the time you get to the third data type, your spreadsheet will be so complex that you’ll spend more time troubleshooting it than running your business.

3. You’re Using Vlookups and Sumifs

Excel has a lot of functions — 329 functions in Excel 2003, and 341 functions in Excel 2007. You’ll need heavy use of these if you want to aggregate and analyze big tables of data:

If you don’t know what all of those are, don’t worry! That means you’re normal.

It also means you’ve probably outgrown Excel for your analysis needs. Yes, you could learn these functions and “program” in Excel to get it done, but…don’t you have a day job?

4. Your Data Is Not Perfectly Clean

In a one-person business if there’s a fishy data point you can spot and fix it yourself. The overall quantity of data is low, plus you did all the deals yourself.

In a five- or 10-person business, that’s not so easy. Bad data will get lost in the sea of numbers. And since you didn’t do the deal yourself you’re less likely to spot the abnormality.

We see these errors all the time:

  • Zeroes or empty cells
  • Mis-attributions of activities/deals
  • 20% instead of 0.20%, or $90,000 per hour instead of $90,000 per year

These kinds of errors can single-handedly render your averages and analysis useless.

If you can’t scan a spreadsheet and recognize or validate the numbers yourself, you’ve outgrown Excel and you need a reporting system that can algorithmically detect errors for you.

5. You’re Updating Spreadsheets More Than Twice

Excel is wonderful for ad-hoc analysis. You can get to an answer once in minutes.

However once you start updating a spreadsheet each week you’ll notice these growing pains:

  • Data needs to be exported, imported, and recalculated
  • Tables get longer, so references to them need to be re-defined
  • New names get added, so inclusion/exclusion filters need to be redone

Invariably something breaks and you’ll spend hours troubleshooting. Or even worse — you won’t notice and your analysis will be flawed and cause you to make a bad business decision. Imagine firing someone because you overlooked updating a formula.

If you are creating a “living” report, you can save yourself both time and risk by using reporting software where you can bake the report once and have updates happen automatically.

PS. Thanks goes to @SueMarks for the inspiration for this.

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Samuel Clemens
Sam is founder and chief of product & marketing for InsightSquared. Previously, Sam was VP Product at HubSpot, VP Product at BzzAgent, and on the founding team at Elance.com. His background also includes venture capital with Greylock Partners, the Algorithms group at Amazon.com, and management consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton. Sam has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a B.S. in Applied Math from Yale. In his off time he dives shipwrecks in the New England area.
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