North Star Metrics: Picking the Right Direction

Let’s start with the obvious. You should measure whether your product is actually successful.

That’s not the problem. The mistake I see PM’s make is not that they don’t have a success metric.

Nope. The mistake I see PM’s make is that they have more than one.

This week, let’s get into the first ingredient: the North Star metric. And why you really need to make sure you only have one.

North Star: A Definition

A north star metric is the answer when your customer asks, “What have you done for me lately?” They are the numerical form of your product’s purpose, of why it should exist in the first place. Like the explorers of old, north stars are also critical to help you prioritize your product’s roadmap.

Book FYI: Fit for Purpose calls these the fitness metric.

Strengths / Weaknesses

Your north star is a critical part of your toolbox for two reasons.

  1. They tell you if you’re making progress over the long term.

  2. They help your team put into words the nebulous feeling if things are going okay or poorly.

The tradeoff is that north stars are very slow to move. Good products tackle big problems. And big problems take time to solve. Your metric is going to have a lot of inertia, and will be slow to react to current events. If you ship an improvement, expect that it’ll take awhile for you to see the effects, possibly weeks, months, or even quarters after.

Because of their slow nature, north stars are best saved for your big picture strategy meetings, think annual or quarterly updates. They can be useful for monthly team updates as well, just set the right expectation that the thing you shipped last week might not be visible just yet.

Some Good Examples

Let’s go over some examples from famous software products.

Company / Description / Mission

North Star

Shopify -

Tool for entrepreneurs run their own online e-commerce store

Making commerce better for everyone

Gross Merchandise Value (GMV), or the total dollar amount sold through their store

Box -

App that allows users to store and sync files across computers and the cloud

Powering how the world works together

Number of file actions users take

Greenhouse -

Applicant tracking software that helps companies manage their job opening and interviewing candidates

Help every company become great at hiring

Number of hires made

Zoom -

App to host online meetings and run online webinars

Help people connect, collaborate, and get more work done, together

Number of hosted meetings

What makes these examples great is that there is a clear cause/effect relationship between the north star, the company’s mission, and why their customers purchased.

  • Company mission = why customers purchased the product

  • Company north star = how much progress the company has made towards its mission

That’s our finish line here. That’s the clarity we want to achieve.

How to Find Your North Star

So we have good examples of north stars. How do we find yours?

The way you’re supposed to start is to look at your company’s mission. Is there a way for you to directly measure against that?

If you’re stuck though, that’s okay. In my experience, a north star’s link to your mission is more obvious in hindsight.

The better way to start is to talk to your customers and users. Ask them why they first bought bought your product, why they continue to use your product, and why they keep renewing their subscription. You’re looking for comments like “You were the best one at XXX.” or “I just need you to solve YYY.”

Think back to those previous examples and what those customers would say.

  • Shopify: “I wanted to move my store online where my customers were.”

  • Box: “I needed to move this file from my coworker’s computer to mine.“

  • Greenhouse: “I couldn’t keep track of all the people we were interviewing.“

  • Zoom: “I still needed to meet with my team even though we were in lockdown.“

Find that need, and you’ll have your north star.

Stick to Only One

As you’re brainstorming, you might find it exceptionally difficult to boil down your product to one number. You might say to yourself, “Self, my product is really nuanced and it can’t possibly be described by a single number.”

Yeah. Don't do that.

Having multiple north stars gives everyone licenses to use the most convenient one for their agenda. Do yourself the favor of having clarity of purpose. Stick to one.


Let’s wrap this up.

  • North stars are the answer to “What have you done for your customers lately?”

  • They show if you’re making progress over the long term.

  • But they’re also really slow to react to current events, taking weeks, months, or even quarters to see results.

  • Use them in annual or quarterly strategy meetings. Possibly monthly if people understand that have a delayed picture of whats happening.

  • And make sure to only have one.

You got this. Go point your product in the right direction!

This post is the second in a 5-part series talking about product KPIs and metrics.

Next week, we’ll talk about Improvement metrics. What they look like. How often to use them. Examples to be inspired by.

Catch up with this series’ first article here.


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