George Lee on Running Growth for a 500M+ User Social Network

Tyler Tate
4 min readNov 8, 2016


On Friday I attended the Weapons of Mass Distribution conference hosted by 500 Startups in San Francisco. Yesterday I posted my notes on James Currier’s talk about Unlocking the Secrets of Growth, and today I’m continuing the series.

George Lee, former head of growth at Instagram, opened with an anecdote of two business owners he talked to while conducting user research at Instagram. The owners operated a company called Heath Ceramics; it had been running for decades as a wholesale company that sold through resellers until Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic took over. Shortly thereafter, they realized there was a problem: they had no direct relationship with their customers. Their wholesale model had disintermediated them from their audience. So what did they do about it? They pushed pause on growth, and reset the company as a retailer.

Later, George came across a phrase that struck him: “growth is optional.” It led him to question, “wait, is growth really optional? As head of growth, it doesn’t feel optional!” He then came across the full quote from leadership guru John C. Maxwell:

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” — John C. Maxwell

In conjunction with that quote, which certainly range true for Heath Ceramics, George came across Maxwell’s three laws of growth which he used to frame the remainder of his talk: intentionality, awareness, consistency.

The Law of Intentionality

Growth doesn’t happen on its own.

You must be intentional about making it happen. Here’s a few ways to be intentional:

Don’t grow until you have product market fit or can scale

Trying to grow without product-market fit is like trying to pour water into a leaky bucket. Likewise, trying to grow before your product and team can scale is like filling a cup with a firehouse.

Have your head of growth report to the CEO

Facebook are frequently cited as being one of the first companies to do this, and it is certainly seen as having worked for them. Growth is of top-level importance.

Set a goal, but focus on your audience

Growth is about more than signing up new users. There are actually several groups of people which require your attention:

  • Never used your product. Does the onboarding flow work? What are the sticking points?
  • Are new to your product. Facebook is known to have had a success metric set at adding “7 friends in 10 days,” for instance. What is a similar metric for your company, and how can you help people get there?
  • Use your product… but not really (e.g. maybe once a month when you want them to use it every day). You need to figure out how to get these people fully re-engaged with your product.
  • Used your product… and stopped. This is the hardest group to get back. Naturally, try to prevent people from ever getting to this stage.

The Law of Awareness

You must know yourself before you can grow yourself.

George shared three points relating to awareness:

Have counter metrics

There may be different priorities within an organization — the growth team may be pushing hard on new signups, while the security team may be solely concerned in preventing spammers from signing up, for instance. Pair a metric with its counter metric to increase awareness.

Fix forward

Growth teams sometimes get nervous about changes to the product, but product improvements are a good thing. The team should embrace progress, even if it means a short-term dip in growth.

Be quantitative AND qualitative

Definitely measure, but also talk to people. George asked us several trivia questions — like “Which country has the lowest number of faces per photo?” (Japan) and “Why are there disproportionately more men than women on Instagram in the Middle East?” (Many women sign up as men for privacy reasons) — which would be hard if not impossible to answer without asking “why” and conducting qualitative research.

The Law of Consistency

Motivation gets you going, discipline keeps you growing.

The psychology of roadmap frequency

At Instagram, they adhere to an eight-week roadmap cycle. It starts with 2 weeks of figuring out what to do, and then 6 weeks to execute on that plan.

Roadmaps beget roadmaps

The roadmaps become a cyclical, iterative process, where the learnings from the previous sprint contribute to the planning of the next, and so on and so forth.

Keep calm and carry on

George described the emotional rollercoaster of when growth is going poorly, you fret about why it’s not working, but when it is going well, you’re still scratching your head trying to figure out why it is working! In any case, just keep calm and carry on.

Other talks from Weapons of Mass Distribution



Tyler Tate

Product @ Instacart • 2x Founder • Author