Reading Josh Elman on Growth


With my 10-year background in User Experience Design and recent Product Lead roles, I’ve wanted to dig into numbers to help drive user engagement and retention. Hence my 3-month crash course in Growth at Tradecraft, with an eye towards growing (no pun intended) my product leading skill sets. In reading thought leaders in the Growth space, I’ve been benefiting from their pearls of wisdom and case studies of how they approached Growth in their work. As I digest their opinions and advice, I’ll share them in this space.

I’ll start with a Growth leader whose background has parallels to mine, Josh Elman. Josh studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford, with a focus in Human-Computer Interaction (the same as me). In addition, he hails from a Product background, similar to mine.

Photo credit: Stephen Brashear

A quick background: Josh is a partner at Greylock Ventures, prior to which he was a product lead for growth and relevance at Twitter, and helped Twitter grow its active user base by nearly 10x. Before Twitter, Josh worked on Growth at Facebook, Zazzle, and LinkedIn.

Josh’s writings and talks resonate with me, so I’ve digested and summarized them here:

Approach to Growth

Josh’s Growth process in a nutshell:

  • Define the problem and hold what you build against that
  • Incept the right understanding of your product
  • Teach people your product as they adopt it
  • Create real habits and understand how to keep them
  • Look for your aha moments, and then design around those

Opinion on “Growth Hacking”

Growth is not a hack. Growing the active usage of your product is about the deep sustainability of the product in the long haul, not about a spurt of growth in the short-term. Long-term user engagement and growth is not something you can “hack.” Instead, it requires discovering what drives your most engaged users to fall so in love with your product that they tell everyone about it. And then guiding your new users towards that by building features that help attract, engage, and retain users continually.

The actual number of users you have matters less than having a durable mechanism for getting more active users. The goal is to eventually create deep, long-lasting network effects.

5-step Process

So how do you “do” Growth? Josh details the 5-step process mentioned above:

Step 1. Define the Problem — What do people care about?

It’s important to iterate and hone in on the problem your product is solving for most users. Example: Twitter refined its problem definition for many years until it got to: “I want to find out what’s happening right now in my world.”

Step 2. Inception — How can we make them aware?

The message that you are spreading must be one that correctly conveys (aka, incepts) the problem your product is solving. Once you have the correct message, there are some strategies you can use to make users aware of your product:

  • Viral Invites. Don’t make the wrong message go viral. Example: At LinkedIn, an entire team worked on getting the message right by measuring the viral co-efficient of each invite flow. They eventually honed the message down to a sentiment of focusing on “people’s fear of missing out” by not being connected to the right network.
  • SEO Strategy. Optimize your landing page to convert inbound traffic from SEO into a steady stream of direct traffic over time. Example: Yelp. When users do a Google search for, say, Radius Cafe, their experience often is, “Hmm, I’ll Google search for Radius Cafe. Oh, I’ll click on this Yelp result. Wow, why didn’t I just come directly to Yelp in the first place? Next time, I’ll just go there directly coz its so much better!” Make sure that landing page is kick-ass.
  • PR Strategy. Repeated press, over and over, is good.

Step 3. Adoption — How can we get them using it?

When users sign up for your product, that’s when you have their greatest attention and openness to learning. Don’t just give them a feature tour of your product. Instead, this is your opportunity to convert them by giving them actions so they start using your product. Only after they’ve taken some actions in the product and been onboarded should you offer to “Find Your Friends!” This is because you want to first give them the opportunity to be convinced they actually want to invite friends.

Step 4. Habits — How can we keep them using it?

The first thing you need to know is if your users are visitors or regulars. If you don’t have regulars, you don’t have a business. The goal is to guide your users up the ladder of engagement, Curious → Casual → Core.

Step 5. Aha Moments — Let the data frame a conversation

To guide your users up the ladder of engagement, you need to understand their behaviors. To do that, you have to segment and measure your users so you can:

  • Determine who is “core”
  • Understand their activations
  • Figure out why
  • Track it daily

On Metrics

Photo credit: Josep Ma. Rosell

It’s important to measure your users every day, aka User Accounting. Keep your metrics simple. Some metrics you should look at daily:

  • New Users (who signed up yesterday)
  • Active Users (used the service in the last month)
  • Inactive Users (last used the service more than a month ago)
  • Resurrected Users (first use in over a month)

How do you determine what’s important to measure? That depends on the product.

Example: For LinkedIn, the size of the network matters, so the number of registered users on the product is important. On the other hand, for a shopping site, the number of users signed up matters less than the number of active users generating revenue and the number of purchases made.

It’s critical to define a metric that is uniquely tied to the business value of the company and indicates there is some growing adoption and usage of the product. Then you can really track your growth on a day-to-day, week-over-week, month-over-month basis. And from there, you can find actions that will predict the future, doing predictive analyses to tell you how likely it is that more people will convert to using your product on a frequent basis, how likely they are to stay on your product vs churn out, etc.

Example: In the latter half of 2009, over 75% of Twitter’s users weren’t coming back. What’s neat was Josh’s focus on examining the behaviors of those that were engaged with Twitter (rather than directly trying to understand the behaviors of those that weren’t). Why do the people who love Twitter get it? How can we get all the other people who aren’t getting it get there much faster?

To answer these questions, the team separated out the engaged users from those who dropped off. Then they studied: Of those people who get it, what’s different about them? They discovered patterns that indicated that if you follow at least 30 people, you’re likely to remain engaged. So they redesigned the product to help everyone get to this number faster.

Stay True to the User

Photo credit: Gov.uk

In addition to analyzing data, as a Product Manager, you must stay close to a deep understanding of the target user and how the product should deliver value and delight to the user. For social networks, the key is whether or not the new user behavior will stick. If the product succeeds at scale, you can monetize the key behaviors. So don’t worry about the monetization.

I leave you with a meta reminder of Josh’s Growth “Hacking” Process:

  • Define the problem and hold what you build against that
  • Incept the right understanding of your product
  • Teach people your product as they adopt it
  • Create real habits and understand how to keep them
  • Look for your aha moments, and then design around those