What Makes Me Good at Making Spreadsheets

Before you start thinking that I am a narcissistic idiot for writing that title, let me explain. I often get people saying that I must know all the functions, or that I must be great at pivot tables, because that is their understanding of being ‘good at Excel’. I’m sorry if I disappoint, but those things are not what makes me good at Excel. Let me tell you a few things that are true at the time of writing this post.

  1. It’s been years since I last did a pivot table.
  2. It’s been months since I last did VBA or a macro.
  3. I probably only know about 30 functions (like VLOOKUP) without having to look them up.
  4. As an estimate, I’d say that most spreadsheets don’t contain more than about 20 functions.

If you’re now wondering how on earth I have a business which makes custom spreadsheets, let me explain. The above list covers things that people perceive as a sign that someone is advanced at Excel. Let me tell you that it doesn’t necessarily mean that. I believe that there are other skills that outweigh the above, and that is why I have a successful business doing what I do, and why my spreadsheets are better than most others. Here are the reason why I believe I’m good at spreadsheets.


I understand how they fit into the process


I often ask prospective clients questions like “Why are you using this spreadsheet”, or “What do you do with the data gathered here”. I don’t do that because I’m nosey, but because I need to know what happens before the spreadsheet is used, and what happens afterwards. This helps me to understand the purpose of the spreadsheet. I get sent so many spreadsheets which people are using, but after a few such questions, it becomes apparent that the spreadsheets are not made as well as they could be. I think very often it is a lack of Excel knowledge that leads people down this route, because they can’t do what they want it to do, but not all the time. I’ve remade spreadsheets that were made by people who seemed to know more functions than I did, they just didn’t use them properly.


I am logical and understand maths


This is also a big thing, because knowing how to do functions is the first step, knowing how to use those functions in formulas is a whole other ball game. As you can have many functions within one formula, this is where you can bring the functions to life and get the most out of Excel. If you can’t do this, then you’re stuck doing what the individual functions will allow. I said above that I only use about 20 functions per spreadsheet, and that is true. However, 20 functions used in different ways and combinations, can open up hundreds if not thousands of possibilities. Seeing the project as a completed project before you start, and then making sure that all of these small components add up to what you want to achieve. That is where the real skill comes in, and many seem to lack that ability.


I make spreadsheets with the user in mind


So many spreadsheets are made in the way that is easiest to do using Excel. I don’t care how easy it is to make, I make it with the user in mind. What may take me an hour longer to make, could save you 10 minutes each day. Most people would rather have me spend an extra hour and give you a product which is easier to use, which constantly saves you time and effort. This is something I rarely see in spreadsheets that are sent to me. I can often follow the process of the spreadsheet and see that it was done like that because it was easier to make. I then look at the people using the spreadsheet and realise that it is taking them so much longer than required, because it is not user friendly. I’m more interested in user-friendly than maker-friendly. I also look out for the ‘usual’ user errors. I would estimate that around 20% of the work I do on any spreadsheet, is putting checks and balances into place. These will flag up if something is done incorrectly. For example, people have a drop-down list available (which you can edit) and then you can select the options somewhere else on the spreadsheet. They then have a report which adds up values based on your selection. The user could make selections, and then changes the drop-down list options. This means that they have selected options that now no longer exist, and therefore will not appear on the report. I check to make sure that all the selections are currently available and flag up if not. I have never seen another person do this in a spreadsheet.


I use Excel to do what I need, not necessarily what it was created to do


This is what you usually don’t learn from courses and trainers. The courses are usually created around what Excel is designed to do. I understand what functions and features are available in Excel and I understand what they can achieve, even if they weren’t designed to do so. For example, I know what a pie chart does, and I know what a donut chart does. I also know that if you cleverly combine the two, you can create a ‘speedometer’ in Excel. It was not designed to do that, but you can make it if you know how. I intentionally develop this skill by making games in Excel. They are often more visually appealing that most business software, and they constantly challenge me to find new ways of making Excel do what I want it to do. I have developed new ways of doing things for games I make, only then to use that exact new method in future business spreadsheets. This has happened a few times.


I focus on the design, layout, and look of the spreadsheet


While I agree that spreadsheets need to be about functionality, there’s no reason why they can’t look the part. I concentrate on the design and look of a spreadsheet, and specifically the layout. I also look at ways to make it look less like a traditional spreadsheet and more like a software programme. I don’t do this to try and trick people, but to make the user experience better. This includes using conditional formatting it ways that many don’t, in order to bring more life to the spreadsheet. This is also something that I practice when making games in Excel. When I tell people I make games they look at me like I’m weird, but I tell you that it helps me develop more skills so much faster than just making business spreadsheets. Many Excel users are very logical, functional, methodical people, as am I. However I do have a creative side, I even made some art in Excel for an exhibit. I am not an artist, however I do like to be more creative than many Excel users, and that helps me to make better spreadsheets.




So, why am I telling you all of this? Is it just to get you to outsource your spreadsheet-creation to me? No, but if you’d like to, I won’t say no. You can find more about bespoke (custom) spreadsheets here. I genuinely want to help people to make better spreadsheets, and not just focus on the cliché things like pivot table and VLOOKUP (which I don’t use either by the way). In order to do this, I have created an eBook entitled A Step by Step Guide to Making Better Spreadsheets, which you’re welcome do download for free. If you want to make your own spreadsheet, I hope that this helps you do so. If you want better spreadsheets, but don’t want the hassle of making them, I’d love to make them for you, so please get in touch.

Here’s to better spreadsheets!