Growth insights from Ivan Kirigin: How it’s different at companies like Facebook and Dropbox versus YC startups

This is part two of a two-part series (part one here) with Ivan Kirigin, Founder at YesGraph. We chatted with Ivan to learn about the topics that he knows best — all things growth. You can listen to the entire conversation on the What I Know Best podcast. Be sure to subscribe to learn from other experts across the Quibb network in coming weeks.

What’s it like…

… running growth at a large consumer tech company like Dropbox?

… growing the customer base of a 5-person startup working on a machine intelligence platform?

There are definitely more differences between the two than similarities. Unfortunately many of the ideas and advice on how to do growth right aren’t tailored directly to the stages of a company. There are some clear differences that Ivan Kirigin has noticed across his career — from founding 2 Y Combinator startups, to working on growth at both Dropbox and Facebook.

Growth at large companies

Early in his career, Ivan had the opportunity to work at Facebook building products. Recognized for their strengths on all things growth, Ivan realized very quickly that the success of Facebook’s growth was the result of a defined process. A tested method for growth had been developed and was deployed across various Facebook teams that he interacted with during his time there:

“I went to go work at Facebook, and I learned how they did things. I saw for example, how they ran growth for their ads team versus the user growth team, and the interesting thing was the same methodology.”

Having such a system in place is helpful, as at that point in a company’s life you’re working more to iteratively improve upon a product that’s working. You’ve already found Product Market Fit, and are perhaps trying to expand into new markets, or make the product even better for users.

“It’s not so much trying to figure out what to build to make people happy. It’s about trying to make everything run more smoothly. You are really trying to just iteratively improve upon things.”

Maintaining this perspective on how to run growth doesn’t represent the full picture however, and Ivan stresses that growth at Facebook or Dropbox scale starts to look a bit different. Once your product has become established, and your users expect a certain level of polish, it’s difficult to build a lot of experiments that you can run and learn from quickly. Especially when your product is Dropbox, known for being one of the best designed consumer products.

Ivan commented on a recent blog post that described how the illustrations for Dropbox’s new product Carousel had been created, “They had this visual design theme … the DropBox signature, hand drawn pictures but the story that was told in these pictures unfolding was actually a lot like the product.“ It led to an amazing onboarding experience, one that was clearly on-brand for a company like Dropbox.

However, the company seemed unable to separate out its existing, proven, and Product Market Fit products from those that were new and untested — like Carousel. The illustrator spent 6 months on the designs for Carousel, an amount of time that would be unheard of if Carousel had been a standalone company, a new product not sheltered by Dropbox.

“…If they had been working on that for the core like DropBox for Business, or DropBox for consumer products like that would be expected of them to do that especially at something like DropBox where design is so heavily weighted by the company. In a new product, it’s maybe not the best use of time.”

Being able to step back and identify what resources to spend where, while also being aware of the quality requirements that you want to uphold to your users is a tough balance. In order to grow, these large tech companies struggle with important trade offs around how to move forward everyday.

“Honestly, DropBox is pretty lucky for building a product out of the gate that is so high quality… There’s often just a lot of things that get in the way from actually learning. This is a tricky balance between product quality and vast iteration.”

Biggest challenge for small companies — product market fit

Even as one of Silicon Valley’s top experts on growth, Ivan believes that small startups — companies that may not even have a well defined product — have very different, but very real problems when it comes to scaling their user base compared to larger tech companies. The biggest challenge isn’t about choosing the right channel, designing viral features, or getting great PR coverage — it all comes back to the fact that it’s insanely difficult to build a great product, one that has product market fit.

“Building a new product that people want is still really, really hard.”

From his previous startup and his time at tech giants Facebook and Dropbox, Ivan is one at the best at growth in Silicon Valley. However, newly back in the role of startup founder has been an eye opening experience as it relates to growth. The number of unknowns that he encounters everyday is mind boggling.

“Frankly, we don’t know what we are doing. There’s all these experiments … There’s product experiments like onboarding — and then with the actual product in the way it works, then there’s the sales process experimentation. We don’t know if it’s going to work. We don’t really know what would be the best approach.”

Even with his stellar experience growing Dropbox to 12x in 24mo — it’s oftentimes very difficult if not impossible to adapt those processes that work at big companies to small ones. The difficulties he sees are common across his peers, other people who have had success working on growing a large, established product, but seem to have no real advantage when they work on something in a much earlier stage.

“What they learned does not help them so much, and I think I have my head on straight when it comes on how we run experiments, and how we do metrics, and how we talk to customers and things like but it’s just really, really hard to build something that is meaning and impactful.”

The other problem that affects small startups? The ever constant pressure from dwindling resources. It can be challenging prioritizing key inputs that are required for growth, while delaying other important parts of the business.

“We should probably do things differently, and so, there’s some things that are even blind spots to me. For example, I know a lot about growth but I don’t know nearly as much about running a sales process. That’s probably not good enough at YesGraph. We probably could be doing more but we don’t have the resources internally for it. I think we’ll just have to dig into it, and earn that next level.”

Common growth themes of big and small companies

Regardless of company size — whether it’s a small mobile startup releasing its first app in the App Store, or a new feature from Google — there are some commonalities as it relates to growth that Ivan believes are important to remember. The first is the idea that there is no silver bullet. This has become fairly standard advice across the startup world with respect to growth, but it’s still something that Ivan sees far too often. A lack of focus on understanding your customer is one of the key gaps that Ivan believes is impacting the ability for companies to grow.

“It’s where you learn more and more over time, and make it better as a result. But I do think a lot of companies have a magical thinking that we don’t have. They think that there’s just some tech launch, and it’ll work, or they just need to be buy some ads and everything will be fine. They don’t focus nearly enough on their data, or talking to their customers, and looking at deep engagement, looking for that ‘aha’ moment, or how they run experiments, work on how they allocate resources internal to the company. They just do it wrong, and I don’t think we are doing it wrong in a lot of ways but it’s still really hard.”

Another commonality between large and small tech companies is the actual structure of how the business operates, and how it brings in more customers. In looking at other, similar, successful products, you begin to understand what your own strategy might be — while cutting down on the resources you’ll need to experiment on what works best to grow your company. This is an idea that Ivan applies now to YesGraph.

“You could argue that we are a developer-facing company. There’s also an argument to say that we are an enterprise company, and we should focus things differently. If you look at say, Flurry, a mobile SDK that wants to get a large number of installs — there’s a certain way they run their product in order to get it’s bottom up growth. Or if you have a self-serve SaaS that might be a different model — or if you have an enterprise it’s also entirely different model for how you acquire customers. Frankly, the kind of onboarding we are trying to try is to make it as easy and self-serve as possible like a bottom-up approach.”

He does add a cautionary note to this approach however. Some of the models and concepts work differently when you’re a large company versus a small one. Beyond the ideas of economies of scale, marketplace liquidity, and other business-level understandings of how a company might scale, there are oftentimes some nuanced product-level ideas that don’t translate well from big to small companies (or vice versa). Ivan gave an example of a consumer, network-based product, where there are many other variables at play that an early stage team may not recognize, for example “… Where the user experience might depend on the density of usage. You might think about top level acquisition as an engagement driver. There’s a more refined view of this to but the number one mistake I see is people not appreciating that first product, genesis as being really, really hard rather than just something to flip a switch and it works.”

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