How to Hire Your First Growth Lead for an Early Stage Startup
What is Growth?
Let’s be honest: growth is a confusing concept. It can mean nothing and everything, all at once. Usually the growth team at a large company consists of a product manager and several developers trying to generate ways to increase user growth through different experiments. Maybe they’re trying to improve their referral funnel or increase the open rates of their email marketing. The goal is to find low-hanging fruit with the potential to spur additional growth.
Growth in startups — the topic of this piece — is the process of finding the right channels to move the needle for a specific product. For example, Monday.com’s growth focus at the start was on Facebook and YouTube; WalkMe grew using LinkedIn; Riseup has achieved meaningful growth by building a community. Growth channels will inherently look very different from company to company, with efforts varying across paid acquisition, SEO, community, influencers, offline media, events, affiliates and more, all depending on what the product is and what moves the needle for acquiring new customers.
To complicate matters, marketing channels are also constantly evolving. There are always new ways and methods to try to increase customer growth, making it progressively difficult to find the right growth model for any given company. Hiring the right growth lead, with one of the necessary skills being a comprehensive understanding of the full marketing scope, is essential to succeeding in this effort.
When should you hire your first growth lead?
The best time to hire your first growth lead is when your product is ready to meet users, not only when you’re actively pursuing growth. Just as it takes time to develop product-market fit, it takes time to develop growth-market fit: experimenting with and finding the right channels and messaging to attract users. Once your product has the core capabilities to deliver on your promise, you should start looking for users. The earlier you begin this activity, the earlier you will be able to gain a basic understanding of which channels work and develop the ability to scale them accordingly.
Who should you hire?
Many founders are looking for a superhero to solve all their marketing problems, someone who knows growth, brand, PR and can also film viral TikTok videos. It’s also common to want to hire someone from a big, well-known brand who seems to have seen it all and knows it all. In reality, however, often these executives aren’t builders and won’t have the capabilities necessary to build growth infrastructure from scratch. A large company typically has all its infrastructure in place already, and managing ongoing analytics, reporting and content creation is very different from building them yourself.
I’ll be honest — people who know how to build these channels from the ground up are very rare. If you do happen to find someone who fits this profile, it’s unlikely they will want to start over from scratch. Most growth experts tend to either move on to bigger positions after building their first growth team or go independent. They have already done their time.
So what options does that leave you with? Let’s take a look at two approaches to your first growth hire.
Approach 1: First hire, then develop strategy
Let’s be optimistic! Just because you’re less likely to find an interested candidate who has experience building a wide range of channels from scratch doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Take the first step and open a job description for a growth expert.
Since this person will be in charge of your company’s entire growth engine — a major responsibility — I recommend looking for the following characteristics:
- Someone who has experienced the first steps of startup growth, either working in-house or agency-side.
- Someone with real, hands-on experience doing the growth work themselves (and not just managing outsourced firms).
- Someone who has experience specifically with user acquisition, as they tend to have a broader perspective when it comes to growth.
- If you do hire a leader from a big company, check that their position was broad enough to include the building of channels or that they have previous experience in building channels themselves from another company.
Approach 2: First develop strategy, then hire
When there is no growth superstar to be found, you — the founder — may need to take matters into your own hands. In this situation, I recommend that you gain a basic understanding of an initial growth strategy before hiring someone more junior to execute on it.
If this sounds daunting, let me tell you the awful truth about growth: nobody has the right answer. The methodology of growth is to constantly test, learn and iterate, just like the lean startup model.
I like to call this methodology of growth the crossroad method. When you start on the path of growth, you don’t always have insight into what will work for your company. Should you start with paid ads? Podcast advertising? Start a community because it worked for one of your competitors? It’s tough to know where to begin. By creating hypotheses and testing them, you are forced to choose which direction to take, and this will eventually lead you towards finding growth-market fit.
Example hypotheses are: “Google search is more effective for lead generation than Facebook.” “Messaging A will drive better performance than Messaging B with our audience.” “Affiliate marketing is an effective channel for product sales.” Formulating the right hypothesis (if that sounds intimidating) is less important than just asking a question and testing it. If you are unsure which questions to ask, a growth consultant can guide you through the process. Once you have defined the questions you want to get answers to, you can then execute the test with a more junior hire. Remember: proper testing and accurately evaluating the results of the tests are the key elements here.
How should you interview growth leads?
When interviewing a growth professional, the first thing to remember is that marketers are usually great at… you guessed it: marketing! This is great for the position, but it makes it more challenging to assess each candidate effectively. For this reason, I strongly recommend utilizing a second opinion (e.g. a growth consultant, an experienced friend, founder or colleague) when hiring to provide external feedback. It can save you a lot of time and wasted resources by preventing hires that aren’t the right fit.
When meeting candidates, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Ask very specific questions. Do not just stick to general questions like: “Did you manage Facebook campaigns?” or “Do you know how to work on Google Data Studio?” Focus on specific questions that require the candidate to express themselves: “What’s your approach for testing messaging?” “Which metrics do you usually look at when viewing analytics?” or “What metrics do you look at when optimizing content for Google search?”
- Ask about previous involvement with creative teams. The growth lead is not a creative expert, but they should know how to manage work with creative teams, whether in-house or outsourced.
- Ask about analytics capabilities. Your first growth hire will be intimately involved in setting up your analytics structure. Have they taken part in analytics implementation? Have they built dashboards for tracking results?
- Get to the root of their hands-on experience — especially for candidates from large companies. Bear in mind: at bigger companies or agencies the infrastructure is already in place and not all growth positions are in touch with creative teams or have technical involvement. You may need to do a little digging to understand the candidate’s actual individual skills beyond their ability to manage teams. (Yes, I know I’ve already made this point several times. But I’ve seen this mistake so often that I feel it bears repeating.)
How should you test growth candidates?
Every growth candidate needs to have an assignment as part of the hiring process. This is a must; I cannot emphasize it enough. A task will shed light on capabilities which might get missed in the interview.
Here are some sample assignments to assess different skill sets:
- Creative: “Write a brief for a Facebook campaign. Mention 3 USPs and give inspiration examples from other companies.” or “Write a brief for an influencer to create content to promote our product.”
- Data analysis: “Analyze the following campaign data set and provide insights for campaign optimization.”
- Way of thinking: Ask open questions, like “We are launching our new Giraffe AI generator. The budget is 500K. Prepare a three-month media plan.”
As mentioned regarding the interview process, it can be invaluable to have external input from a consultant, colleague or mentor when you are evaluating the assignment results.
Grow — steady and slow
A strong understanding of the product and audience can have a big impact on accurately identifying the right person to hire. Consequently, for a small early stage startup ideally the founder will be leading this engagement and will be involved in every aspect of the growth hiring process.
Despite your inherent desire to move fast and break things, don’t rush this process. Hiring the right growth position is essential to properly prepare your startup’s infrastructure to grow.