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Paint by Numbers. Harness the Power of Data Visualization.

The spreadsheet is an object of obsession for data analysts and quantitative thinkers. But for business leaders, sorting through countless rows and columns of raw data isn’t ideal because their time is precious.

When you’re given unprocessed information, it’s hard to understand what the numbers mean — much less how you can act on them. What’s more, when a business leader is regularly bombarded by tons of coarse figures, this can hamper day-to-day productivity and that might means the data is working against him or her.

Data is crucial to your business’s success since it can drive some of your most important decisions. But to get anything out of it, the data has to tell a story. And that’s where data visualization comes in. The easiest way to tell a data story may be with visuals (an infographic, a chart or a graph) and this can be very effective.

Such visualizations of data can tell you about trends, patterns and problems at a glance, and you can even use colors to tell the story of your business in seconds. The key is to know how to put all these elements together.

You don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci to effectively tell a visual data story. Simply use the tools already at your disposal and you can be free of rows and columns — for a little while, at least.

By turning your raw data into a visual story, you can empower your team to make quick decisions and create more time to use the data, develop solutions and grow your business. You don’t have to go back to school to become a visual storyteller. Just follow these six steps:

1. Focus on data quality.

Just because you’re using pictures to tell your data’s story doesn’t mean you can skimp on the information. You need to have your data sources secure and “cleansed.” Filter out all irrelevant data so it’s not distracting you from the main point.

Plus you should develop a process to collect data and provide easy access to it so that creating a visual narrative is a natural next step.

2. Determine the audience.

Before you start crafting a visual narrative for your data, understand the intended viewers and how they interpret visuals.

For your story to be effective, design it keeping in mind your audience, whether it’s composed of investors, employees or customers.

3. Ban all bias.

This sounds simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is to interpret data based on presumptions rather than the patterns uncovered.

Try to approach your data narrative without preconceived notions. When you let the data lead you (rather than the other way around), you’ll get more from it.

4. Choose tools wisely.

Select tools that help you but don’t overwhelm you. Don’t try to get fancy with a huge arsenal of software. You can start by creating very basic visual representations with Microsoft Excel.

Then carefully employ other software, for example, to make easy-to-use charts via Tableau, high-impact visual presentations through or dashboards and desktops using Qlik.

5. Understand the visual elements.

When you’re telling a data story visually, shapes, patterns and colors become your words. But use them appropriately so that your story is clear and concise.

Pay attention to the colors selected. For example, some people are colorblind and won’t be able to detect certain tones, so use an accessible palette from a resource like ColorBrewer.

6. Let the viewer make the conclusion.

Often, the best stories are unresolved. You don’t have to shape your data into a pie chart and find all the answers. Sometimes, just one lead or suggestion from a visual story can prompt the viewers to arrive at an educated next conclusion.

When data storytelling is done well, it engages the intended audience and allows for quick, clear communication. It can guide your business in the right direction and help many parties make informed decisions.

With Open-Source Software, You Don’t Have to Start From Scratch

As an entrepreneur, you always have questions to answer: “How do I efficiently manage my people?” “How can I keep track of my projects?” “Where do I start with my website?”

It can all feel pretty overwhelming, but luckily, there’s a fantastic resource you can use to solve an abundance of entrepreneurial problems: open-source technology.

It all began in the ’90s when there was a big push to create operating systems to make using new computer technology more efficient. Companies saw the value in these operating systems and acquired creators such as Linux to write the code.

Then, when the code was written, databases were created to store the information that was relevant to the company. Finally, the era of applications that execute functions within an operating system began, which brings us to open-source software.

Open-source software allows you to customize applications to suit your business’s needs. Companies can take a developer’s open-source environment and build on top of existing platforms to create a customized solution at a relatively low cost.

Gauging open-source software. With 86.3 percent of companies in non-technical segments adopting open-source software, it’s pretty clear that it can be leveraged to benefit your business. However, as with any new technology, you should always understand the pros and cons of utilizing it before making any decisions.

A big advantage of open-source software is that it reduces supplier risk. One VentureBeat post put it really well: “Selecting innovation involves risks.” But with open-source software, your customers know that your product and community will endure.

What’s more, open-source software saves you money because many are entirely free. WordPress, for example, lets you build your company website with little web-design knowledge. Even big brands such as The New Yorker, Sony Music, Xerox and Best Buy use the platform.

Not only is open-source software free, but it’s also readily available. This may seem like a good thing, but remember the code is available to everyone, your competitors included. Economically, however, it’s still a better choice, and it’s just as effective as the licensed software that costs an arm and a leg.

Lastly, like anything in business, you need the right people. If you’re going to leverage open-source software, you need team members who really know how to use it and understand your business’s needs. If you don’t have the right people to customize and build on open-source tech, you’ll simply be moving in circles.

Which path will you choose? After you’ve looked at the pros and cons, you have to decide how you’re going to leverage this great resource — and don’t be afraid to get creative.

Elasticsearch, for example, used open-source software to build something entirely new: a cheap, light search technology that provides companies with actionable, real-time insights from almost any data source — structured or unstructured. Before you can start revolutionizing the business landscape, however, you have to decide which path you’ll walk down when using open-source software within your startup:

1. Enabler. Open-source tech can be used to help you execute what you already do and assist your preset processes to become more efficient as a whole. Think of it like using an HR or customer-relationship management system to better manage the company structure you already have in place.

2. Business model. You can also use open-source tech as a foundation for building your own apps or creating a new product. This allows you to make money off of existing tech by using open source as a key ingredient with which to build a software model. A word of caution, though: Using open source as a business model only works if you keep building and adapting the tech.

Whether you use open source as an enabler or a business model, it’s a gift. Use open source to differentiate your business or simply to get your business up and running quickly from a relatively advanced stage.

The available options are organized, low-cost and sophisticated — you don’t have to start from scratch, so why would you? Entrepreneurs have enough to do already.