About four years ago I began my foray into the world of “growth.” I had the privilege of starting and leading this function at Lyft, one of the fastest growing startups of all time, as their 20th employee. Since then I’ve advised and consulted with several startups on topics like growth and marketing, operations, culture and building early traction. After spending significant time looking at companies in the edTech, healthcare, and food spaces I recently joined a profitable-but-under-the-radar edTech company called WyzAnt as their VP of Growth. They’ve quietly built the largest marketplace for discovering and working with a tutor in the U.S. over the course of the last 10 years. Impressively, the company was bootstrapped for the first 8 years of its existence.
Our mission: to improve the education and confidence of millions of students around the globe.
Not bad, huh?
I chose WyzAnt because I wanted to work at a company that has the power to make the world a better place. Lyft was that company and WyzAnt is too. Many of WyzAnt’s core values also align nicely with my core values for any Growth team. My personal favorite: Always Be Learning.
I wanted to share my five tenets for creating a successful Growth team — what we implemented at Lyft and what we’ve quickly started implementing at WyzAnt.
#1: Be clear about your focus.
At WyzAnt our business has two distinct parts: the “performance engine” and the “innovation engine.” These two competing priorities are outlined very clearly in a book called The Other Side of Innovation. Swing too wildly towards innovation and your performance engine starts to suffer; focus too much on efficiency and core performance and you stop innovating. In order to organize the Growth team appropriately we are structured to tackle these two parts with dedicated teams.
Since we’re growing the team we’ve decided that until we make some key hires we have to be extremely rigorous about our focus and prioritization. This quarter my team is spending the majority of its time growing our performance engine — we have some existing channels that drive a significant amount of traffic, students and revenue to WyzAnt yet we haven’t paid close attention to them in awhile. This doesn’t mean that we have to be boring when we work on the performance engine. We look for opportunities to innovate and experiment within the performance engine; to improve upon what’s already working. We have many, many ideas for what we can work on (our Trello board’s icebox might make your head explode). By narrowing our focus we’re able to eliminate distraction and quickly align the team.
#2: Simplify your metrics
Part of driving clarity of focus comes from really simplifying our metrics. Our goal is to focus on the one key metric that drives our success. It’s tough, but not impossible to get to this. Much has been written about this topic: Facebook’s early Growth team was focused on getting someone to 10 friends in 7 days; Twitter’s was following a certain number of people on day 1; at one point Lyft’s was getting a passenger to take their first ride or getting a driver to their 30th ride. At WyzAnt one example of a simple metric we look at is the number of new students who contact a tutor. Increase the absolute number (or rate) of this metric and good things happen.
We use the Objective and Key Results (OKR) framework to drive our quarterly objective and the 1–2 metrics that we need to hit to achieve this objective. We can then apply this lens to all of our ideas and experimentation — if it doesn’t line up, we probably shouldn’t be working on it.
#3: Develop a plan and a cadence
Once we’ve clarified our focus (Objective) and identified the metrics (KRs) we develop a plan for how we’re going to get there. This plan spans a full quarter, but allows for flexibility based upon weekly learnings (remember my favorite core value). We take the quarterly OKR and break it down into monthly goals then break those down into weekly sprint cycles. Then we’re off to the races!
We generally have an in-week goal of shipping at least 3 new experiments at a minimum and we have a backlog of experiments that we develop and prioritize based on a simple weighting of effort vs. return. I find that teams are generally most excited about work when they get to spend more time doing it and less time talking about it. Therefore, our typical week looks like this:
Weekly team meeting to review prior week learnings and their influence on future experiments. Prioritize the experiments for the week from our backlog and agree on those with the team. We send a weekly update to show our performance vs. KRs and upcoming activities for the week.
Daily stand up to gauge progress, blockers, and make any necessary course correction. But mostly: EXECUTE.
Bring backlog up-to-date by writing/spec’ing any stories for the coming week(s). Update the company on what we shipped this past week.
Other parts of the week
Part of our ongoing learning is to regularly review our progress as a team. Are we operating at the highest possible level? Are we working on the right projects? Can we move faster, prioritize better, and have more fun as a team? We check in on this briefly every week and spend more time on it every 6–8 weeks. It’s a critical part of the chemistry and performance of our team.
Of course we ship throughout the week as soon as an experiment is completed and we take full advantage of the cold-brew coffee tap and plentiful supply of free beer available to us at our office to celebrate our successes.
#4: Hire appropriately
In my first month I haven’t hired many new people yet (let me know if you’re interested). This is because my philosophy on hiring is to do it in a very deliberate and meaningful way. That means that as we unlock new areas of opportunity from within the existing team those areas become a new part of the performance engine and we staff them appropriately. In this way I grew my team at Lyft from 1 person (me) to 20 across the entire spectrum of Growth (acquisition, activation, retention, referral, revenue) in about 2 years. At WyzAnt we’ll follow much the same path. We know that we’re hiring someone to lead SEO, it’s an important part of our performance engine. We’re also opening more capacity within the innovation engine by building out our Growth Engineering team, our design and front-end team, picking a new technology stack, etc. We’re laying the foundation to drive really meaningful growth at a company that is already healthy and growing.
Which brings me to my final tenet…
Successful Growth teams always have a bias towards action. They do this because they know that success is compounding and delaying a new experiment can be incredibly costly. Aside from the business aspects it can also slow down team learning and momentum. And with growth momentum is everything. We’ve taken some steps to insure that we can execute at a rapid pace and maximize the team’s throughput.
- Adhering to Tenet #3. By having a well-articulated plan and a cadence to our activities it guards against ambiguity which can slow us down. Everyone knows what we’re driving towards and what they need to be doing every day.
- Minimizing meetings. We’re a distributed team with some members in San Francisco and some in Chicago so we do quick stand-ups every day and then take to Slack to asynchronously address questions as a group.
- Implement Trello. By maintaining a disciplined Trello board (which also pipes activity into our Slack channel) there is never a need to ask “what should I work on next?” It’s already sitting there in story form waiting on our Trello board.
- Vertical integration and full-stack employees. There are several different operating models for a Growth team. Ours puts all resources and skills necessary to execute a project together on the same team. In addition, every member of the team has a multi-faceted (or full-stack) skill set. For example, one of our PMs was a developer in a former life and our other has deep marketing experience, our designer can also build his prototypes on the front-end, and the majority of the team knows SQL.
- New tech stack. I’m not an engineer (I just play one on TV) but I knew when I joined that continuing to build exclusively in .NET was not a recipe for success for speed, recruitment, and continued learning. With a service-oriented architecture (and ideally moving towards micro services) we can build in whatever language makes the most sense for us and gets the job done best. We’re mostly moving in the direction of python and django, but also working on some projects in node.js at the moment. The team is learning and having a good time with it.
#6: Have fun
What “Top 5” list would be complete without a bonus item. Our team is incredibly disciplined and action-oriented, but we also make sure to enjoy ourselves a little bit every day. Our Slack channel is filled with personalized emojis (every team member has one), animated gifs, and witty banter about the Apple watch. When the whole team was in town a few weeks ago we ran a hack day and built a tool for creating customer emails from our predefined template library. We haven’t named it yet, but we’re taking submissions (Email-o-tron?). It was a fun project and is now saving multiple people in the company tons of time every week.
So there you have it. Five (er… 6) tenets of a high-performing Growth team. Of course, none of these work with a crappy product. As they say in advertising, nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. It’s true of a good Growth team as well. Thankfully at WyzAnt we’ve got a product, a culture, and a team that works. Every day we help parents and students find the best private tutor for their needs and deliver real improvement in student outcomes. It’s really exciting to see all the great feedback we get from our community of students and tutors. Building and leading a Growth team is fun, but doing it for a product that has the power to improve confidence and education opportunities for millions of kids and adults is even better.
If you’d like to join us, drop me a line at afishman [at] wyzant.com or apply here.