A Mother and Daughter’s Lesson About Return on Investment

“How much does it cost?” I asked my 16-year-old daughter last week as we were turning our attention to this upcoming summer.  Since my family moved to Singapore almost 3 years ago, the kids and I typically escape the blistering summers in Singapore and join the mass exodus of ex-pats going back to their home countries for those three months out of the year.  We usually stay with friends and family in San Francisco and Florida while I work, and the kids do their thing at camps, with grandparents and otherwise.  Because I’ve been a telecommuter for many years now, I’ve had the flexibility to work from any location…although, if I’m honest, probably not perfectly.  But, it allowed me to stay balanced and near my family and do my work.

Planning these summers requires a lot of time and coordination.  My calendar quickly becomes cluttered with an array of entries and colors that represent where each person in our family will be at any given time.  First world problems, I know, but an organizational nightmare nonetheless.

This summer planning has been somewhat different.  I will need to spend the majority of my time close to the ShiftRunner team in Singapore this year, as we launch our new game and begin to implement the go-to-market strategy and program.   And, the kids are beginning to take more ownership in figuring out their own needs as well.   My 18-year-old son will have finished his first year at Loyola in Chicago, and after a couple weeks visit with us in Singapore, he will likely settle down in Florida (where the grandparents live) with a summer job to make some much needed college spending money.  My daughter, who is beginning to stress already about the whole college application process, created her list of things that she “needs” to do or attend this summer in order to increase her chances of getting into the “right university.”  There is a whole other discussion topic regarding stress and the amount of pressure that kids are under today in order to “succeed.”  But, I won’t get into it here…at least not now.

However, one of her requests was to do a two-week stay away camp at UC Berkeley for SAT prep and coaching on college application essay writing.  A noble request.  Believe me, though – it isn’t cheap.  She laid out her argument half-heartedly thinking that it was a done deal, and how could we say no.  After all, she wasn’t asking for a frivolous adventure to an island beach somewhere – that was another discussion.  But, after a brief deliberation, the answer was indeed no…too much money.  There were other, less costly alternatives.  What followed was not the proudest moment in my years as a parent.  My daughter reacted, shall we say, in a less than mature way to the news.  And, I, in turn reacted back.  We both spent the next 24 hours stewing.

But, while I was working the next day, it hit me.  Personally, I had been struggling with the development of the Pandoo Nation go-to-market plan.  My mission is to create a “bullet proof” plan that will enable our game to garner 1.5 million registered players in the first 6 months after full launch later this year.  This plan will be presented along with the overall business plan and financial analysis to future investors as they consider whether they want to participate in the Series A Funding round. No pressure.  My first draft attempts were never quite headed in the right direction.  I was too focused on the bigger picture (my preference tends to be there) and never got into enough of the specifics to make it useful for our needs.  So back to the drawing board I went.

As I sat at my desk mulling over the plan, the conversation with my daughter came back to me.   The big picture was clear and well communicated.  She wanted to improve her test scores and her chances of acceptance at a high tier university in the US.  But, for the overall dollar amount that she was asking us to consider, her analysis and argument were much too flimsy and simply based on her gut instinct and desire to do so.    It was assumed up front that taking an SAT class actually has an impact, that the results would make a difference in her college opportunities, and that this particular stay away camp at Cal was better than other options and worth the overall cost.  Basically, she didn’t do enough to understand and communicate the overall value versus the cost.  In business terms, we would call this return on investment or ROI.

But, she was only 16.  What did I expect?  Even I, someone with over 20 years of business experience, was making a similar mistake in my own work.  How could I expect others to accept the proposal to spend a great deal of money on a plan that did not have enough detail backed by strong analysis?  Big picture, gut feel and instinct are important and good.  And sometimes, that’s all that is required depending on the level of investment.  But, in those cases where the stakes are higher and you are asking someone else to participate in the investment, gut feel and instinct backed by critical thinking and the right amount of analysis is key.

So, my daughter and I are going to revisit the SAT prep course discussion again.  This time I’m going to look at it as an opportunity to help her understand a little more about ROI, as we look at what questions should be asked and what research is needed to answer those questions.  I’m sure we will both learn a lot in the process.  Hopefully, she can take that learning forward and apply it later in life as well.  At the very least, maybe we can be a little more mature with each other as we discuss this topic and other future requests.  Maybe.

I’ll keep you posted.

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