Tag Archives: scaling

Why Product Leaders Fail

I’ve yet to meet a fellow Chief Product Officer or Head of Product say, “yeah, I’m crushing it right now.” In my conversations with fellow product leaders, there’s even a meme that’s started to form around product leadership roles. Effectively:

“Yeah, you just try to put some points on the board before you inevitably get fired.”

So, if a typical CPO feels their role is about trying to survive a couple of years i.e. long enough to help the business a little bit, what is causing that? Why is it so hard to endure as a product leader?

I would say there are three common failure modes depending on how far along the company is. The earlier stage of a company it is, the more likely the answer is going to be misalignment with the founder/CEO. What no one tells product leaders when they accept product leadership roles is that nine times out ten the founder and CEO still wants to drive the product vision. They want you to help execute that vision. And as founders scale, their founder intuition ebbs in effectiveness in comparison to product expertise in-house, but it takes a long time for founders to accept that. That transition period can be very rocky.

For later stage companies, the more likely answer is that the CPO is really only good at one type of product work, and the type of product work needed for the business changes over time. This can manifest in two ways: The product leader has skills that don’t match the type of job needed today, or as they execute, the skills needed change, and the leader cannot adapt. Not only is the product leader not good at that new job, they are also less likely to be interested in it.

Let’s talk about each of these failure modes and what both product leaders and CEOs can do to make them less likely to happen.

Failure Mode #1: Who Owns Product Vision?

Founders tend to have insanely good intuition about their customers and products because, let’s face it, no one has spent near as much time thinking about them and their problems. When startups tend to hire product leadership, it’s their first time hiring this type of leader. Interview processes can be clumsy or unoptimized, with the founder still figuring out how to articulate the real need. Commonly, what happens during this process is both the founder and prospective product leader end up jamming together on the future product vision. Both sides love this engagement, but for the founder, it’s not an effective test on how much the prospective product leader will help the founder, and for the product leader, it can give a false impression that they will have a ton of say in the product vision.

If at all possible, founders should leverage outside expertise to structure the recruiting and interview process for this type of role. One of the key questions to get explicit on before the process begins is what role will this leader play in setting the product vision? For non-product/eng/design founders, they may be asked to define it. For founders with product, eng, or design backgrounds, that is typically not the case until the company becomes much larger. Product executives usually play a consulting or execution role in a vision that is founder led. Founders need to tell candidates which one it is, and candidates need to ask. Neither of these happen as often as they should. 

Once founders understand their answer to this question, they need to vet for the appropriate skills. If what you really need is help executing on the vision, don’t spend much of the interview process jamming on the vision. Sure, candidates need to understand the vision, but what you really need to learn is are they comfortable receiving a vision from you and bringing it to life in the myriad ways that are difficult. 

Failure Mode #2: Does the Expertise Match the Type of Product Work Needed?

Different companies require very different approaches to their product strategy to be successful over time. Most of us understand there are different types of product work. There is tech and process scaling, there is building new products to find new product/market fit, there’s building new features and iterating on the user experience to strengthen current product/market fit, and there is growth work to get the maximum number of users to experience the product/market fit that exists. Traditionally, product leaders lean toward being experts in one or another. For example, I am definitely most known for my expertise in growth.

Founders often lack the understanding of what type of product challenge they are actually facing when they attempt to hire a product leader. Network effects businesses tend to focus more on growth because more users make the product stronger in a much more meaningful way than new features. DTC ecommerce companies / brands are always launching new products. SaaS businesses tend to need to launch lots of new features over time. Hiring a product leader that wants to build new features all the time into a network effects business likely isn’t going to work that well.

Failure Mode #3: Can the Product Leader Adapt as Needs Change?
Even if founders hire the leader with the right skills at the right time, as companies scale, how much weight they put on these will need to change over time. Today, the product leader’s job is to be what the business needs them to be. So while the old school product leader is a specialist, the new school product leader needs to be a chameleon, who can balance a portfolio across scaling, new product work, feature work, and growth weighted toward the needs of the business, and re-weight it considerably over time as business needs change rather than leave once business needs change. That’s hard, but inevitably how product leaders have to evolve to be successful over the long term within a company.

As a growth oriented leader, I am actually spending more of my time at Eventbrite on scaling, features, and new product expansion work, because that is what the business needs right now.

Product leadership is incredibly hard. Both founders and product leaders can eliminate some of what makes it so difficult by aligning on expectations before hiring roles, and on aligning which problems the organization is focused on right now. It is then up to product leaders to be able to evolve as the product needs change over time. They are both the best equipped to understand when needs change and help the organization change with them.

Currently listening to Rare, Forever by Leon Vynehall.

Career Paths, Personal Missions, and Concentric Circles of Impact

Often, people ask me for career advice or how I got to where I am, or more tactically if they should advise companies, invest in companies, start a company or become an executive or whatever. My first instinct is to say, “Why would you ask me? You certainly don’t want to follow any of the steps I took!” To try to make my advice more actionable than that, I thought I’d document some of the key decisions I went through to make a signal out of my career noise.

My career choices have been somewhat unconventional from the outside. I graduated summa cum laude in undergrad to just take an internship at Apartments.com. I joined a 15 person startup to start a marketing team at 25. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. After building up a team and growing Grubhub over five and a half years into a public company, I took an IC role at Pinterest, instead of many executive offers. After three years there, where we tripled the user base and unlocked international, I then decided to… hang out at a venture capital firm. Then started an advising business. Now, I’m a Chief Product Officer at Eventbrite, a public company.

No one would draw up a career path this way, but I focused on learning potential at pretty much the cost of anything else, and it’s served me well. What a lot of young people don’t understand is that if you bet on increasing your learning potential, your earning potential compounds over time. The money will be there if you gather differentiated skills the market values (my knowledge of obscure electronic music, for some reason, is not one of those skills the market values).

This advice is fairly easy applicable and, I think, well understood by a lot of people. If you are making a choice between learning and earning, the former will almost always make sense not only from a happiness perspective, but also from a financial perspective long-term. I want to talk about what happens after you self-actualize in this direction.

Let’s say you’ve spent a decade plus collecting valuable skills, applying them in interesting ways, and you are differentiated on the market. Problem solved, right? You’ll never have to worry about a job. You’ll have all these opportunities. Well, not really. They say in startups the problems never get easier; they just change to different problems. I think optimizing your career is the same way. What people don’t tell you is if you optimize for learning, there are fewer and fewer jobs where you can mix all that you’ve learned together. And that you actually have to pick amongst many competitive opportunities. Not picking or not leveraging all your skills can leave you unfulfilled, like you’re not at peak potential, or lead to some of your skills atrophying from lack of use.

As someone who went through this issue after Pinterest, I did some deep reflection on what makes me feel fulfilled on a path to a personal mission. I’ll share that mission as perhaps a useful example, but yours will almost certainly be very different, or even optimize on different attributes like industry, problem type, relationships, etc. After reflecting on what I liked and didn’t like at all the different companies I worked for or with, I realized I really enjoy problem solving. Specifically, figuring out problems related to building businesses and ensuring those solutions can be shared with others. Now, those solutions aren’t growth hacks or tips and tricks, but generalizable frameworks that can be wielded in the appropriate situations. I eventually landed on a personal mission of discovering and scaling the best practices of building companies.

What I found from my advising work is that the best practices of building companies are very unevenly distributed. And it isn’t that one company has all of them and isn’t sharing. It’s that companies are good at different things, and there isn’t even cross-pollination of these best practices so that every company gets better at operating. In fact, I’d say most companies in Silicon Valley in aggregate operate poorly. It’s a weird paradox that the best performing companies are some of the most poorly run, because they can be. As Rick James might say, product/market fit is a hell of a drug.

Like finding product/market fit for a company implies a product people value and a way to make money at it and scalably distribute it, the next question comes in how to deploy this personal mission. I played around with almost every model: full-time employment, advising a handful of companies in-depth, investing and helping the companies I invest in, creating courses with Reforge that anyone can take, and blogging for anyone who wants to read. There is an implied breadth and depth of impact and learning from this model. Focusing all your time on one company has the most impact on how it operates, but that scales the least of any model. Blogging reaches the most amount of people in aggregate, but with no customized learning.

What I have found interesting about my personal mission is that while there are clear trade-offs, there are also win-wins. The blog creates advising opportunities. Operating full-time at one company makes me a better advisor, course creator, and blogger by the depth of problems I get to work on. Advising allows me to see fresh perspectives that broaden my problem solving at my current company. I have not found a perfect formula to optimize the ratio of time spent between these different avenues to deploy against my mission, but what I did learn is that it is likely best to vacillate between the different circles, which is part of the reason why I am not a full-time advisor like I was in the past. This is basically a form of optimizing for different steps in my learning loops to continue to unconstrain my personal growth, much in the same way I optimize for unconstraining growth in the companies I work with.

Finding a personal mission and thinking about how to deploy against it is something I would recommend more people spend time exploring for themselves. I think it helps optimize for personal happiness and growth in an environment where there are seemingly competing opportunities all the time that are hard to judge against each other.

Should You Pay Attention To Competitors? It Depends On Your Company’s Conflict.

I don’t remember much from high school literature classes, but one of the key frameworks I do remember is the different types of conflicts in storytelling. Now, the internet is confused over how many types of conflicts there are. Much like the 4P’s of Marketing are now 7, scholars are adding more types of conflict in storytelling over time. When I was taught this, however, there were three we focused on; whether the protagonist was fighting against:

  • nature
  • another person
  • themselves

Why am I talking about high school literature frameworks? Because every company has a conflict as well. The type of conflict a company is in will determine how you think about competition. I’ll describe these conflicts in more detail, how they apply to companies, and how to think about what to do in each situation.

Company Vs. Nature

Every founder I speak with can name dozens of competitors. That does not mean they are in conflict with another company. Take Grubhub, for example. When I joined, we had raised $1 million in venture capital, and had three competitors all about the same size, but with different strengths and strategies. But this was not a competition about who would become the leader in online ordering for food delivery. This was a competition against nature and to make food delivery more attractive to consumers, and if they were ordering delivery, competing against calling restaurants on the phone. At the time, 99% of people were not ordering food online.

Most startups are in a conflict against nature. There is a status quo in the market – or some other type of barrier to adoption like, say, a global pandemic (“too soon!” shouts my co-workers) that has to be overcome for any type of company in the space to be successful. Normally, startups engage in trench warfare to grind against the status quo over time. Online ordering for food delivery went from a very fringe thing to a completely normal thing that everyone does. Mike Evans, Grubhub co-founder, famously said, “we were an overnight success ten years in the making.” Occasionally, nature provides catalysts to growth as well. Just talk to any telemedicine startup, grocery delivery service, or remote work tool about what happened to them when the pandemic started. The technology already existed for all those companies, but consumers needed a forcing function to accelerate adoption.

If your main goal is to grow the category and make people want its value prop in general, obsessing over competition isn’t very helpful. This is how we felt at Grubhub. We didn’t care too much about competitors at all and focused on our customers. This prevented us from wasting precious time analyzing our competitors instead of our customers, which is what would really help us be successful. Eventually, Grubhub acquired those initial competitors or made them irrelevant. When we acquired those companies, we found they spent a lot of time thinking about us. Now, one can make the counter-argument that that is because we were winning. This is a very important point. If any competitor working to grow a category is being materially more successful than another, you may shift into another type of conflict.

Company Vs. Another Company

In many markets, companies fight vehemently against competitors. Companies are embroiled in a Red Queen effect, where each company is trying to out-innovate or outwork others in the market to gain market share. Think of Uber vs. Lyft as a recent example. Startups frequently think they are in this type of conflict when they are not. I have seen quite a few startups emphatically compete before they are even sure the category will be successful. In many of those cases, it would be better to cooperate and grow the category faster by being coordinated. Stripe and Shopify are an interesting example of this. The categories of ecommerce and online payments are growing so fast that instead of competing with each other, they have tightened their partnership to make sure the category continues to grow quickly. Uber and Lyft however tracked each other’s moves, and responded in kind to new product launches, pricing changes, and market launches. Both of these moves look correct in hindsight. Uber and Lyft’s market, while growing fast, would ultimately be capped by consumer transportation needs, and lean toward a winning take most model due to the strength of the local network effects involved in the model. While Uber and Lyft have been competitive, they ultimately saw value in presenting a unified position on local regulations and working together to ensure its services would remain available throughout cities worldwide. So company vs. company can change depending on the fight back to vs. nature.

Company Vs. Self

The third type of conflict within a company is one many founders and employees seem to forget: competing with themselves. In this type of conflict, the primary fear of the company is not that the market doesn’t unlock or that a competitor will take your opportunity; it’s that the opportunity isn’t realized because the company cannot execute on the strategic vision. This type of conflict can be dominant for many reasons:

  • Internal politics
  • Lack of focus
  • Execution issues e.g. technical and process debt

Investors frequently call this “execution risk.” A company in conflict with itself means the vision is definitely technically possible (hence, not technical risk), but the company struggles to build toward it either due to being unfocused, people internally competing vs. cooperating, or building is very difficult due to technical or process issues. These types of companies can be appealing to certain types of executives who think they can fix the underlying execution issues. The reason for this is that if these companies do everything right, they win. This is certainly true. But it is not easy. Evernote is a recent example. Technical debt slowed their progress to a crawl, so the new CEO spent two years rebuilding everything. During this time, growth was slow, and more competitive risk emerged with companies like Notion, Coda, and Roam Research. If the company is finished with its conflict with itself, it likely finds itself in conflict with other companies now.

It is tempting to say in this example that Evernote should have paid a lot of attention to these competitors early on, but I think that would have been a mistake. The entire issue with Evernote seemed to be that they spent too long building new things on top of a technology stack that became unbearable to maintain. Movements in the market have no impact on fixing that core problem.

The type of conflict you are facing affects a lot of how you build and what you focus on as a company. Spending some time to think through where the real conflict is can help focus the company on the right activities to win. This can affect how much you invest in marketing, the focus of the product roadmap, and even organizational structure. Tackling the appropriate conflict is where the real leverage is in growing a company.

Currently listening to my Vocal Tones playlist.

Product Visionary vs. Product Leader

Many people want to work in product management. One of the most common questions I receive is how to break into product management. It’s a hard question for me to answer, because 1) there is no default path (the same is true for trying to land a business development role), and 2) most of these people really don’t know what they’re asking for. My most common response is, “Are you sure? Product management can kind of suck.” The reason for the dichotomy of people who haven’t done product management finding it so alluring, and people who have done it cautioning people trying to get in is the difference between what I call a product visionary and the product leader.

Product visionaries are who we all hear about in the press. They are the people who come up with brilliant products that go viral or solve real needs in the market that no one else thought of. They appear to be masters of finding product/market fit. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few of them in my previous jobs and a few in the portfolio at Greylock. These tend to be founder/CEOs, and they generate brilliant insights that create product opportunities others don’t see. Ev Williams is on his third breakout product in Medium after Blogger and Twitter. Ben Rubin created two products that hit product/market fit in two years with Meerkat and now Houseparty.

Anyone working in technology hears these stories, and they think the shortest path to that sort of glory is becoming a product manager. They are excited to get to a role where they can drive the vision of a product, even if it’s only one part of the company. This excitement is exacerbated by the commonly propagated myth that the product manager is the mini-CEO of their product. The reality is that in 90+% of cases, product management is not about being a visionary. It’s about being a leader.

What does a product leader do at a tech company? It’s actually very little of creating a vision and a strategy from scratch. It’s about helping everyone understand what the vision and strategy is. It’s about communicating to the entire team why the company is doing what it is doing. It’s about building a process that helps a team execute on that vision. It’s about when there are competing visions, aligning and motivating the team to focus on one, and getting people to disagree and commit (including sometimes yourself). It’s about looking at data to measure if product changes are having a positive impact on the customer and the company’s growth. It’s about talking to users to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and the problems they still face even though your product exists. It’s about mentoring more junior people on your team, across product as well as engineering, design, and analytics. And they don’t have to listen to you, so you have to use influence rather than authority to be successful.

In the scaling phase of a startup, it’s product leadership that drives performance, not vision. Vision is needed early to find product/market fit and plot a course to scale, and then the less that vision wavers over time the better. This vision is usually done by the founder/CEO. The reason founders hire product managers and VPs of Product is not to set vision, but to help execute the vision. Don’t get me wrong; that will sometimes mean coming up with solutions to problems your customers face. If a company is scaling by having the founders solve all the customers’ problems instead of product teams, it will struggle. But much of the time, it will be wrangling the ideas of the individual engineers, designers, and analysts on your team and matching that to an overall vision set by the founder(s). It’s very rarely your ideas you’re executing on as a product leader, and it shouldn’t be.

I also don’t want to make it sounds like I am devaluing visionaries. They are, of course, critical in finding the initial idea(s) that create a growing company and maintaining a vision for that growing company. Having visionaries also becomes more important as you saturate your core market and need to tackle new value propositions to drive new growth opportunities. That is the ideal time for non-founder visionaries to enter a growing company. These are not going to be typical product managers or VP’s though. They are usually ex-founders. The best outcomes for these people entering an organization that is scaling is giving them a team and space to experiment with ideas until they find their own product/market fit, where a business unit is built out around that vision with product leaders to help them scale.

As you’re thinking about your business, think about whether you need a product visionary or a product leader. Most founder/CEOs are already visionaries, so they need a product leader to help execute. Some businesses minded founders need the opposite to be successful. If you’re thinking about product management, think about whether what you really want to be a is product visionary instead of a product leader. In that case, it might be a better idea to start a company than take a role expecting to execute on your vision and instead managing other people’s visions.

Currently listening to Ambivert Tools Vol. 3 by Lone.

Why Focus Is Critical to Growing Your Startup, Until It Isn’t

When I was a teenager, I told my dad about a friend and his dad and how they had seven businesses. He immediately replied, “And none of them make money.” I thought it was an extremely arrogant thing to say at the time, but later, I realized it might be the smartest piece of advice he ever gave me.

When I joined Grubhub, I quickly noticed the founders were incredibly good at staying focused. They said we were building a product for online ordering for food delivery — and only delivery — not pickup, not delivery of other items, not catering, and that’s all we would do for a long time. I remember thinking, “but there’s so much we could do in [XYZ]!” I was wrong. By staying focused on one thing, we were able to execute technically and operationally extremely well and grow the business both very successfully and efficiently. When we added pickup functionality four years later, it proved not to be a very valuable addition, and hurt our conversion rate on delivery.

If you have product/market fit in a large market, you should be disincentivized to work on anything outside of securing that market for a very long time. There is so much value in securing the market that any work on building new value propositions and new markets is destructive to securing the market you have already validated.

There is an interesting switch in the mindset of a startup that needs to occur when a startup hits product/market fit. This group of people that found product/market fit by creating something new now have to realize they should not work on any new value propositions for years. They now need to work on honing the current product value or getting more people to experience that value. Founders can easily hide from the issues of a startup by working on what they’re good at, and by definition, they’re usually good at creating new products. So that tends to be a founder’s solution to all problems. But it’s frequently destructive.

If a product team can work on innovation, iteration, or growth, they need to quickly shift on which of those they prioritize based on key milestones and value to the business. In this scenario, it’s important to define what innovation, iteration, and growth mean. In this context:

  • Innovation is defined as creating new value for customers or opening up value to new customers. This is Google creating Gmail.
  • Iteration is improving on the value proposition you already provide. This can range from small things like better filters for search results at Grubhub to large initiatives like UberPool. In both cases, they improve on the value proposition the company is already working on (making it easier to find food in the case of Grubhub, and being the most reliable and cheapest way to get from A to B in the case of Uber).
  • Growth is defined as anything that attempts to connect more people to the existing value of the service, like increasing a product’s virality or reducing its friction points.

I have graphed the rollercoaster of what that looks like below around the key milestone of product/market fit.

Market Saturation
The time to think about expanding into creating new value propositions or new markets is when you feel the pressure of market saturation. Depending on the size of the market, this may happen quickly or slowly over time. For Grubhub, expansion into new markets made sense after the company went public and had signed up most of the restaurants that performed delivery in the U.S. The only way the company could continue to grow was to expand more into cities that did not have a lot of delivery restaurants by doing the delivery themselves.

All markets are eventually saturated, and that means all growth will slow unless you create new products or open up new markets. But most entrepreneurs move to doing this too early because it’s how they created the initial value in the company. Timing when to work on iteration and growth and when to work on innovation are very important decisions for founders, and getting it right is the key difference to maximizing value and massively under-performing.

Starting and Scaling Marketplaces Podcast

Brian Rothenberg, VP & GM at Eventbrite, and I discuss how to start and scale marketplaces. We discuss certain topics such as the chicken and egg problem, going horizontal vs. vertical at the beginning, and traditional and non-traditional growth tactics to grow marketplaces. You can check it out below or read the summary here.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/328233174″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The iTunes link is here, and here is the Soundcloud link for email readers.

You Are Not Your Customer

Startups are successful in the early days usually for one of two reasons. One is having a unique insight or pain point in the world that you want to solve (usually for yourself as the founder first), and assuming it is pain experienced by others. The other is to listen to customers, deliver value to those customers, and make sure they understand and appreciate the value you’re providing. The second way requires founders to hone specific skills in the early days of a startup — which can actually make it harder to scale out of the early stage, but pays off with sustainable growth in the long term.

The people that try your product early on see the potential of your product and are willing to forgive flaws — at least for a while. They have done an incredible amount of work to make the product work for them. By most definitions, they become “power users.” These power users are heavily engaged with your product, but they also deliver a ton of feedback on how the product could be better for themselves.

The early employees of your company tend to be very similar to your early customers. They (hopefully) use the product quite a bit, and joined the company because they understood the long term vision. These employees then start recommending and building products for themselves also, especially in consumer businesses. Everyone is excited to build these features because employees want them and existing customers want them, so the company builds them. The features get built, and there is no impact on growth of the business. Our partner Sarah Tavel talks about this in her lessons from scaling Pinterest.

Why is that a problem? Well, in an old Quora question someone asked, “What are some of the most important things you’ve learned in marketing?”, and my reply was “You are not your customer.” As a company employee, even if you look exactly like the early customer, and you built the product for people exactly like you, you have way too much domain knowledge to truly represent the long term customer. Your early users are also no longer the customer. Both employees and early users have have built up too much domain knowledge.

Your customer focus should always be on new or potential users, not early users. Early users will bias experiments, prompt you to build more and more niche features, and stunt growth. Power users can’t be much more engaged, so building more things for them doesn’t usually help the business. It does, however, make the product harder to understand for new customers. Sure, you have to do enough to keep these power users happy enough to stay, but the much more daunting and important task is to find new people to delight, or to figure out how to delight people who weren’t initially delighted by your product.

This post originally appeared on the Greylock blog.

Currently listening to Ambivert Tools Volume One by Lone.

Starting and Scaling a Growth Team

I get a lot of questions about how to start and scale growth teams. Growth teams need to spend as much time thinking about how to scale themselves as they do on scaling the product. In this post, I’ll outline how I’ve seen growth teams start and evolve, define the ideal end state, and describe some of what you work on at each stage along the way.

The first question to ask is why you need to start a growth team. Why not just have traditional product and marketing teams? It’s a good question, and not well understood. Traditionally, product teams make the product, and marketing is in charge of getting people to try and continue using the product. Marketing can include traditional efforts like events, advertising, and PR, and perhaps some branding efforts and some online marketing. Of note, online marketers and traditional marketers have historically been very different, so depending on the manager, all of the budget and team allocation typically went to either online or traditional — not evenly split.

However, the best startups grow super fast not because of traditional marketing or online marketing, but because they tune the product to drive growth. This is why growth teams matter. Marketing teams typically don’t have access to the product roadmap to make changes to things that will impact SEO, conversion, optimization, or virality, nor the expertise to work with engineers and designers on making these changes. And product managers often prioritize new product features over engineering that will drive more people to the existing value. Growth teams are the connective tissue between product, marketing and engineering.

Starting a Growth Team: Focus On One (Easier) Problem
Goal: Improve one area important to the growth of the business
Team: PM, Designer, Engineer(s), Analyst/Data Scientist (sometime PM or engineer assumes this role as well early on)

It can be overwhelming to consider all the problems you need to solve. When you start a growth team, do not to try to solve all those problems at once. A growth team should start by going deep on one carefully chosen problem:

  • Pick a problem the company is not currently working on (to prevent turf wars)
  • Pick one of the easier — not harder — problems to improve (to build up credibility and drive toward early wins)

Since growth teams are typically treated with a healthy dose of skepticism by other teams when they start, carefully choosing your first area of focus will help maximize the growth team’s chances for success. Let’s say a growth team starts with a hard problem: Trying to increase activation of new users. It takes a month to measure increases in activation rates, and it has one of the smaller sample sizes in the traditional growth area. You run an experiment. It doesn’t work. You run a second, and another month goes by, and it still may or may not work. Now two months have gone by without a growth team win. People on the growth team are questioning if this is the right team to be on, and other teams in the company begin to question your purpose. (Hat tip to Andy Johns from whom I am blatantly stealing this example).

There are common growth problems where you can likely show quick progress. One is conversion optimization. Another is returning users via email and notifications. Still another is improving referrals or virality. These areas allow you to run multiple experiments quickly because the metrics will move immediately (they don’t take time to measure like activation), and because they have high sample sizes (all new users or all existing users opted in to communication).

Last note: When starting a growth team, it’s important that they sit together and not with their functional team members. The collaboration between the different skill sets and short feedback loops is how the magic happens.

Growing a Growth Team: Own the Growth Funnel (And Some Real Estate)
Goal: Improve metrics across the growth funnel
Team: PMs, Designers, Engineers, Data Scentists/Analysts

As a growth team grows, the team can start looking at multiple problems. These problems are typically across the AARRR framework by Dave McClure, (however revenue is frequently a separate team in an ad supported business.) The growth team separates into sub-teams who have their own meetings, and entire growth team meetings become less frequent. PMs, designers, and analysts may work on multiple teams. At this point, the growth team assumes ownership of certain areas of the product, including (but not limited to):

  • The logged out experience, which can involve both SEO and conversion
  • All emails and notifications (sometimes coordinating with marketing)
  • The onboarding flow, sharing flows, et al.

Owning these areas creates easy swim lanes between teams and prevents turf wars with the core product team. Growth leaders have to determine how to allocate people to work on the most impactful problems across the growth stack, and if a sub-team does not have enough support to make an impact, the growth leader should consider whether to support that problem at all. Growth teams also have to own goal setting, which means understanding historical performance and setting absolute goals.

At this point, teams start to work on both improvements in infrastructure and experiments. For example, at Pinterest, I was managing both the acquisition and retention teams. The retention team was struggling to grow because of an unwieldy email infrastructure. The infrastructure was built to support triggered, social notifications, but our strategy had evolved to more personalized, content-based recommendations. These jobs were taking days to run and would send automatically when complete, even though someone might have received a social notification five minutes before. So we spent nine months rebuilding it to allow us to scale more effectively. The retention team saw a step change in its performance and actually hit its Q1 goal in the middle of January after it was complete.

Evolving a Growth Team: A Special Forces Team Operating Across Borders
Goal: Reduce friction across the product that prevents people from connecting to product’s core value
Team: PMs, Designers, Engineers, Data Scentists/Analysts, Researchers, Marketers, Operations

As the growth team continues to grow, it involves more stakeholders and expands its scope. Instead of having clear areas of focus separate from the core product, the team shifts to analyzing the entire product and trying to figure out the biggest obstacles that are preventing the company from growing faster. At this point, the growth team has built up enough credibility that it doesn’t fight turf wars — it is laser focused on finding and solving the biggest problems that prevent people from connecting to the current value of the product.

Usually, the problems at this stage are deep inside product features and go beyond improving SEO, signup, viral and on-boarding flows, and sending the right emails and notifications (though growth teams still work on those too). The growth team is now identifying the friction that prevents people connecting to the core value elsewhere in the product. A lot of this work is simplifying product flows or building country-specific optimizations for slower growth countries. Growth teams can also become service organizations to marketing initiatives around this time, and I’ll talk about that in another post.

At Pinterest, we migrated to this phase rather recently. As we started to look at friction in the entire product, we saw in qualitative research that new users were getting bombarded with so many concepts it confused them: what a Pin is, where they come from, how to add your own Pins, what a board is, group boards, profiles, etc. The growth team made a list of the core things new people needed to know to get excited and start to build an understanding of the service. Then, we started experiments to remove everything else from the new user experience and only introduce it back once the core concepts were clearly learned. This helped improve activation rates.

What I described above is an amalgam of what I’ve seen in the market that works best. Of course, you should always tweak your approach based on the talent of your team and your company’s culture. I would love to hear what you think of this approach, and any additional insights you think would be useful to share with other growth leaders.

This posted originally appeared on the Greylock blog.

Currently listening to 28 by Aoki Takamasa + Tujiko Noriko.

The Present and Future of Growth

Quite a few people ask me about the future of growth. The idea of having a team dedicated the growth in usage of a product is still a fairly new construct to organizations. More junior folks or people less involved with growth always ask about the split between marketing and growth. More senior folks always ask about the split between growth and core product. Growth butts heads with both sides.

Why do more senior folks tend to turn to the difference between core product and growth than marketing? For this I’ll take a step beck. Now, I’m a marketer by trade. I have an undergraduate degree in marketing and an MBA with a concentration in marketing. So I consider everything marketing: product, growth, research, and I’ve written about that. I used to see what was happening in tech as marketing’s death by a thousand cuts. I now more so see it as marketing’s definition has gotten so broad and each individual component so complicated that it can by no means be managed by one group in a company.

So if marketing is being split into different, more focused functions, growth teams aren’t really butting heads with the remaining functions that are still called marketing over responsibilities like branding. They are butting heads with the core product team over the allocation of resources and real estate for the product.

So how do growth team and core product teams split those work streams today, and what does the future look like? The best definition I can give to that split for most companies today is that growth teams focus on getting the maximum amount of users to experience the current value of the product or removing the friction that prevents people from experiencing current value, and core product teams focus on increasing the value of the product. So, when products are just forming, there is no growth team, because the product is just beginning to try to create value for users. During the growth phase, introducing more people to the current value of the product becomes more important and plays in parallel with improving the value of that core product. For late stage companies, core product teams need to introduce totally new value into the product so that growth isn’t saturated.

My hope is that in the future, this tradeoff between connecting people to current value, improving current value, and creating totally new value is all managed deftly by one product team. That team can either have product people naturally managing the tradeoffs between these three pillars, or three separate teams that ebb and flow in size depending on the strategic priorities of the organization. All three of these initiatives – connecting people to current value, improving current value, and creating new value – are important to creating a successful company, but at different stages of a company, one or two tend to be more important than another.

We should evolve into product organizations that can detect which of these three functions adds the most value at a particular point in time naturally, fund them appropriately, and socialize the reasons for that into the organization so these different functions don’t butt heads in the future. I believe that is the product team of the future. I now believe this is more likely than marketers evolving to manage branding, research, performance marketing, and product effectively under one organization.

Currently listening to Good Luck And Do Your Best by Gold Panda.

Hiring Startup Executives

I was meeting with a startup founder last week, and he started chatting about some advice he got after his latest round of investment about bringing in a senior management team. He then said he spent the last year doing that. I stopped him right there and asked “Are you batting .500?”. Only about half of those executives were still at the company, and the company promoted from within generally to fill those roles after the executives left. The reason I was able to ask about that batting average is that I have see this happen at many startups before. The new investor asks them to beef up their management team, so the founders recruit talent from bigger companies, and the company experiences, as this founder put it, “organ rejection” way too often.

This advice from investors to scaling companies is very common, but I wish those investors would provide more advice on who actually is a good fit for startup executive roles. Startups are very special animals, and they have different stages. Many founders look for executives at companies they want to emulate someday, but don’t test for if that executive can scale down to their smaller environment. There are many executives that are great for public companies, but terrible for startups, and many executives that are great at one stage of a startup, but terrible for others. What founders need to screen for, I might argue about all else, is adaptability and pragmatism.

Why is adaptability important? Because it will be something that is tested every day starting the first day. The startup will have less process, less infrastructure, and a different way of accomplishing things than the executive is used to. Executives that are poor fits for startup will try to copy and paste the approach from their (usually much bigger) former company without adapting it to stage, talent, or business model. It’s easy for founders to be fooled by this early on because they think “this is why I hired this person – to bring in best practices”. That is wrong. Great startup executives spend all their time starting out learning about how an organization works so they can create new processes and ways of accomplishing things that will enhance what the startup is already doing. When we brought on a VP of Marketing at GrubHub, she spent all her time soaking up what was going on and not making any personnel changes. It turns out she didn’t need to make many to be successful. We were growing faster, had a new brand and better coverage of our marketing initiatives by adding only two people and one consultant in the first year.

Why is pragmatism important? As many startups forgot over the last couple of years, startups are on a timer. The timer is the amount of runway you have, and what the startups needs to do is find a sustainable model before that timer gets to zero. Poor startup executives have their way of doing things, and that is usually correlated with needing to create a very big team. They will want to do this as soon as possible, with accelerates burn, shortening the runway before doing anything that will speed up the ability to find a sustainable model. I remember meeting with a new startup exec, and had her run me through her plan for building a team. She was in maybe her second week, and at the end of our conversation I counted at least 15 hires she needed to make. I thought, “this isn’t going work.” She lasted about six months. A good startup executive learns before hiring, and tries things before committing to them fully. Once they know something works, they try to build scale and infrastructure around it. A good startup executive thinks in terms of costs: opportunity costs, capital costs, and payroll. Good executives will trade on opportunity costs and capital costs before payroll because salaries are generally the most expensive and the hardest to change without serious morale implications (layoffs, salary reductions, et al.).

Startup founders shouldn’t feel like batting .500 is good in executive hiring. Let’s all strive to improve that average by searching for the right people from the start by testing for adaptability and pragmatism. You’ll hire a better team, cause less churn on your team, and be more productive.