Building a World Class Growth Team.

An interview with Matt Bivons, VP of Growth at GreenSky and Nick Soman, former Growth Lead at Gusto.

Building a Growth team has become one of the new obsessions for almost every startup founder out there. More traditional industries are also paying increased attention to this type of team structure.

Today, more than 2,130 companies — based on data taken from AngelList before publishing this — are looking to hire someone related to a Growth role and the terms “Growth Hacking” and “Growth Marketing” have been trending in Google for the past 5 years.

And this could be for a very good reason, as Paul Graham stated back in 2012 in his article “Startup = Growth”: “The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”

But today Growth in the tech-startup environment is less related to a specific role or a set of tactics and more about the foundational work around building a growth process and a data-driven culture around your organization.

As Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown wrote in their book Hacking Growth:

“By breaking down the traditional business silos and assembling cross-functional, collaborative teams that bring together staff with expertise in analytics, engineering, product management, and marketing, growth hacking allows companies to efficiently marry powerful data analysis and technical know-how with marketing savvy, to quickly devise more promising ways to fuel growth”

Companies like Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, even here at Earnest, have realized that the only way to achieve this is by stepping away from the traditional functional organizational design and to build a cross-functional growth team that supports a rapid-growth environment.

With this in mind, some of the key questions you need to answer as you consider Growth might include:

1. When is the right time to start thinking about growth?

2. What is the right structure for a Growth team?

3. Who are the key players to have in your Growth team?

To answer this, I interviewed Nick Soman, former Growth Lead at Gusto and Matt Bivons, my ex-manager at Earnest, now VP of Growth at Greensky, to get a better sense of what are the best practices and thoughts around how to set up a world-class Growth team.

Thinking About Growth on Day One

Not all companies are born with the same potential for growth.

For some companies, growth is a byproduct of the product itself. Companies like Slack, Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb growth have been able to scale exponentially in an organic way due to network effect that’s inherently part of these products.

But the reality, for most companies, is that growth is a much slower and more difficult process, even though they have amazing products and customers that love them.

Nick Soman at Gusto said that a company’s’ competitive edge is no longer just in the products themselves, but also the strategic process of growing. The competitive advantage of a company now is shared between two factors:

  1. Building a product that people love
  2. Knowing how to grow this product efficiently

“Today is much easier to build a great product than a decade ago, and more companies are building more and more products on a daily basis,” Soman said. “If your technology is not getting extremely better everyday or your product is not creating networks effects, you need to rely on your growth process as a differentiation factor”

Please give Nick a clap!

Soman said he believes companies need to be thinking about growth a as sustainable competitive advantage from Day One.

A clear example around this would be how important it has become for companies to have a well defined SEO strategy that can help them leverage organic acquisition channels and reduce their cost of acquisition in the long run.

Companies like Moz, Buffer, Hubspot and Airbnb are famous cases of study on how thinking about growth, not only from a general perspective but also from an acquisition efficiency, have helped them to grow their business.

If you are wondering where to start with your SEO strategy, here are some important points to take in consideration.

Understanding the Stage of Your Company

While it’s important to be thinking about we described before on day one, Matt Bivons added that understanding what stage you’re in as a company or startup is crucial to understanding what growth levers to pull and when. “Growth = Speed and speed is a competitive advantage in today’s markets,” Bivons said.

There is a great analogy to understand this, which is comparing growth with gold mining.

Prospector Phase — Pre-series A / Pre-PMF

You are doing a lot of scrappy things and testing hypothesis to see if you can find gold.

Miner Phase — Post-serie A / Post-PMF

You find gold, now you start putting in place the processes and the people necessary to start mining this gold.

Both mindsets — Prospector and Miner — are different in terms of the tactics and strategies you need to use to achieve your goals, and also the resources and people you need for your growth team.

In understanding which stage your company is, and how growth can become a competitive advantage in the long run, are the first steps toward creating a growth culture set for success.

Structuring your Growth Team

For Matt there are two foundational components of a Growth team that exist no matter the type of company, stage or business model.

“A Growth team’s core thesis is to 1) reduce friction and 2) accelerate the value perceived by your customers,” he said. “These two components rely 100% in your product. That’s why you need to structure your growth team around product-focused people.”

Please give Matt a clap!

This is incredibly important as you need a team structure that can support and grow under a culture that is asking the right questions and testing every hypothesis. These are some of the questions that a growth team needs to be constantly looking to answer:

  • How do your customers interact with your product?
  • What is what truly important to your customers?
  • How can your product deliver/solve that experience/pain as soon as possible?

Equally important, Nick added, is that the founders need to be onboard with this otherwise it would be incredibly difficult for a growth team to be successful.

“Since Growth operates in a different way as other areas in most organizations, there are activities that are normal for a healthy growth team around building experiences to delight their user and also growing the product that founders need to be involved with,” he said, “at least in the understanding and prioritization of this activities, otherwise the growth team will be constantly pushed-back.”

With this in mind, next steps would be to start thinking about how your organization wants to structure this team and to whom this team should be reporting to. However, there’s not a simple answer to that.

There is a great article by Andrew McInnes “How Do You Choose the Best Growth Team Model?” that talks about the two most-used models by tech giants like Pinterest, Uber and Dropbox to structure a growth team:

  1. Independent Model — Uber, Facebook
Andrew McInnes

The Growth team works independently inside the organization, the team has the autonomy to prioritize their work and their own resources to achieve these goals.

  1. Functional Model — Pinterest, Dropbox, Twitter
Andrew McInnes

The Growth team reports directly to one functional head — Product, Marketing, Engineering, etc — which makes the growth goals, roadmaps and budgets to be aligned to a specific area of the company.

Both models have cons and pros, from a reporting, goals and budgeting perspective. There is not a right answer around which is the best to choose, but for Matt the most important thing you can do is align with bigger company goals.

As Matt Bivons stated, “You need to focus on the most important objectives within your company, and ensure you are measuring the most valuable metrics against them” he said. “Then ask what are the resources that you need to focus and execute and how can you organize your team to make it happen.”

Building this team won’t be something that will happen overnight. Start small, narrow your focus, and put in place the necessary process to set your team up for success.

Your A-Team Players

Both Matt and Nick emphasized how important it is that your growth team is built around product-focused people.

This What A-Team Looks Like!

To clarify, by product-focused people, they mean individual contributors that understand that growth is born from a deep understanding of how your customers use your product, how your funnel is built around your product, and where you can find product-channel fit.

As such, the key players of a growth team will depend on what stage of the company you’re in. Going back to our earlier analogy, are you are mining or prospecting? What are the goals and metrics for success and resources available to you to build this team?

For Matt, depending on the factors described above, an MVP growth team might just be a couple of product minded generalists at first who are trying to figure out what works. Scrappy individuals who can wear several hats. He said he believes it’s not useful to hire a specific role if you don’t understand yet what channels or verticals can bring meaningful value and growth to your company. “As your product matures and you know what works, you can focus your growth team around metrics or features. Growth is a combination of product, engineering and marketing talents.”

By generalist he means someone who is data-driven and analytical, who understands each step of the funnel, has experience running different acquisition channels, and has the basic technical knowledge to be able to implement and test things without being dependent on engineering resources.

On a personal note; If you are new to growth marketing and you want to understand a little more about what this role looks like, I would recommend you to read this article I wrote as a personal guideline—”A Roadmap to Succeed in your First Month as a Growth Marketing Hire”

In the other hand, Nick believes that there are three key roles to hire when thinking about putting in place you’re a growth team.

o Product Manager
o Product Designer
o Product Developer

Interestingly, Nick said that it’s is not necessary to start with one of each of those roles. Your company might decide to start with three internal engineers for example, where each one of them takes some responsibilities around one of each area, or a marketing person and a designer, etc.

A key point that Nick has in mind when hiring for these roles is: “Hire growth people that is hard to stay mad at”

If no one gets mad at your growth team, it means that they are not being aggressive enough or pushing the envelope, but if people at the company stay mad at them it will make their work extremely hard.

The point that both of them keep repeating is that whatever person you hire for a growth role, you need to be sure you are hiring someone with great communication skills, a data-driven mindset, product/user-focus, and must be curious enough to be able to question and test every assumption and hypothesis uncovered.

Moving forward

As I mentioned before there is not a right way to build a Growth team. Every company has different needs and challenges that need to be addressed that will make your Growth team unique.

However, there is one last very important thing (hat tip to Hacking Growth).

Growth can’t be a side project.

Growth is something that you can’t turn on and off as you will, growth must be part of the foundational work and culture inside your organization if you want to be successful and sustainable company

If you are a founder you need to be the first Growth person; if you are an employee you need to be an advocate of a Growth culture.

Start with the resources you have, take the time necessary to plan and structure how you want to approach this and plant the seeds necessaries as soon as possible so you can set your growth team for success.

A special thank you to the Matt and Nick for their time and such a good will to share all this amazing knowledge!

Please one final clap for them!

I would love to catch up with you and know about your experience! Feel free to reach me out at Matias Honorato.

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Any grammar, spelling or punctuation mistake, please let me know. So I can keep improving my english…Best!

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s leading publication for entrepreneurs and startups.

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