On Goals and Measuring Success

May 7, 2010 By

Worldreader.org’s social goal is pretty simple: we want to put a library’s worth of books into the hands of everyone in the developing world, so all can share in the world’s ideas. To achieve that goal, we’ll need to make it is as easy, inexpensive, and common to get a book anywhere in the developing world as it is to get a phone call.

Well, that’s all well and good (we think), but as we begin to raise money, funders will inevitably ask: what are you measuring?  What is your metric for success?  Everyone (ourselves included) who works hard or invests in programs wants to understand the impact of his or her work or money, and that requires clarity on not just the goal, but on how it’s measured.  Otherwise, how can we know if you’re working on the right things, or making the right investments?

Mike recently attended TED, and saw “short French person” Esther Duflo speak compellingly on the importance of measuring one’s results.  As we’ve been designing our next trials, we’ve been grappling a bit with whether and how best to quantify the cost side of the equation (e-books are less expensive to create and distribute) or the increased reading side of the equation (e-books give greater access to books, so kids read more.)  But in the end, our real opportunity will likely be to measure both, and drive them in opposite directions.

So: we want to lower the cost / book read in the developing world.  On the supply side (cost), we’ll work with e-reader manufacturers and book publishers to reduce their pricing for the developing world.  And on the demand side (# of books read), we’ll increase the quantity and availability of local and international content, so people can easily get books they like.  It doesn’t matter how many books are in the developing world unless they’re books people want to read!

By the way, whenever retailers think of how to increase sales and profits, they turn to their sales mix.  We, too, can play with the mix of content to help work towards our goals.  For instance, e-readers have access to hundreds of thousands of free books, as our friend (and volunteer researcher) Christianna Pierce has pointed out.    By testing and varying the availability of relevant free books alongside paid-for books, we can have a dramatic impact on the cost of the books in the developing world… again, as long as they’re the books people want to read.

We’re not yet at the point where we ‘re ready to set a precise goal—there’s much to learn before that.  But we’re confident that we’re beginning to understand the key levers we have and the directions we want to pull them.  In a few weeks we’re off to Ghana again to design the next set of tests… and starting soon, we’ll talk to funders to see who wants to help.