Can I be ruthlessly honest for a moment? "Growth" is one of the most confusing professions I have ever participated in. Is it marketing? Is it product? Is it engineering? Is it sales?
Nobody knows man. But it’s provocative. It gets the people going.
My bank doesn’t have it listed as an acceptable category of professions, and I have a really hard time explaining it at parties, but running Growth at startups is probably the most fun and rewarding experience I’ve had in my career.
Here’s my first principles approach to Growth-As-A-Profession that has literally nothing to do with the OG Facebook growth team.
Growth Before PMF
While I was going through Y Combinator, they asked at one point “who here is a software engineer”, and almost 90% of the room put their hand up. They optimize for smart people who can build things, which honestly is a great philosophy. You need to be able to build products, to create product market fit.
But still, even at one of the most successful incubators in the world, almost half of the people in that room never even hit ramen profitability.
So why is it that some people seem to be able to launch startup after startup after startup, and even if they don’t become wildly successful, they’re able to at least create successful businesses?
Personally, I believe there’s a key role that Growth people play in creating Product Market Fit, and that role is understanding the market.
Have you ever read The Mom Test? If you haven’t you really should. It teaches you that your users will lie to you, because they love you, just like your mom.
But here’s the thing. Nobody lies to a Facebook ad. I’ve never sent out a cold email and been hit with a reply “bro your dumb-as-shit™ product looks so cool here’s some money”.
Having a slide on your pitch deck for investors about your 100M person market size opportunity is really cool and everything, but what exactly is your search volume for this problem you are trying to solve? What’s the audience on your Facebook ads?
Your market doesn’t exist, if you can’t reach them.
One of the most common mistakes startup founders have when searching for PMF, is not understanding the market, not understanding what the market wants, and this is where Growth comes in.
Growth is a cross functional profession that combines marketing, product, sales, and engineering.
It acts as a beacon for product market fit. Talking to your users is critical, but if you want a REALLY strong signal about what to build? Look at your Facebook ads, Google ads, and cold email campaigns.
If your Facebook ads have a 24% CTR & people are knocking down your door after a few spammy cold emails, build whatever it is you just told them about.
The role of Growth before PMF is to listen to the market, to understand what it wants, and to help direct product & eng efforts towards creating something that is going to thrive within a large channel of growth.
Growth After PMF
So you found some basic PMF after spending a significant amount of time pivoting and wandering in the dark. Now all that we have to do is turn on some Facebook ads and we get to be a unicorn right?
Honestly, sometimes the answer is literally yes.
But 9 times out of 10, there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done in order to grow and scale the company. Once you have basic PMF the role of Growth is to start removing bottlenecks that prevent your company from scaling, and to start creating experiments that iterate through different of channels of growth.
This is truly the most confusing time to explain “what does growth do”. Let me give some examples.
Your technical founder/co-founder built the product and you have a clear product roadmap in front of you. But now your technical founder is starting to play the role of “leader” as the company expands or maybe they are off raising capital.
Who is building the product?
Your bottleneck of growth isn’t running more Facebook ads. It’s hiring more software engineers.
But you’re a no-name startup with a half thought out mission & no recruiting department.
At this stage Growth is doing whatever it takes to remove bottlenecks and scale the company. Helping to hire engineers, hire recruiters, building out sales teams, filling in all of the gaps & sandboxing different departments that don’t yet have a home.
And at the exact same time, Growth is laying the foundation for the core of the function - scaling channels of growth.
What makes it even more fun, is Growth doesn’t know what your channels of growth are even going to be yet! Viral product growth? Facebook ads? Google ads? Organic search? Email marketing? Direct sales?
When you first hit basic PMF, the goal is to experiment with a lot of different channels to discover what truly works best for your product.
Growth At Scale
There comes a day, and it happens very slowly, when your company begins to mature. Processes to bring on engineers & product managers are in place. Funds are in the bank. You are having consistent weekly stand ups and the gears are churning.
Product people are making product decisions, operations is making operations decisions, the CEO is leading the company forwards.
There are people in place that are “doing everything that needs to be done” in order to grow the company - that Growth used to play a large role in at earlier stages.
The role of Growth here and what the Growth organization looks like, will vary drastically company to company and usually depends on what the channels of growth look like.
The channels of growth are what drive your company forwards, and it’s the core responsibility of the Growth org to maximize them.
If your product is driven by referrals and virality effects, you might have a more product focused Growth team. If it’s driven by Facebook & Google ads, you might have a more marketing heavy team focused on media purchasing and developing strong creative.
Almost all companies at scale have a very clearly defined loop that drives users and revenue, and as a company becomes larger, the Growth team becomes more and more focused on this loop, and less focused on everything else that used to be a bottleneck.
Put $1 in, get $5 out, optimize every identifiable lever, build out IC’s or teams around each lever, and drive the company forwards as quickly as possible to dominate the market before anyone can take away the magic you managed to grab.
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I'm still not going to be able to explain my role at parties but good read
This is probably the best definition of what a Head of Growth does I've ever read. It just blew my mind. I used to call myself the janitor because I cleaned up the shit no one else cared about (you called it removing bottlenecks) and used to question myself while doing it. Feeling much better about it now!