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Growth Interview Questions from Atlassian, SurveyMonkey, Gusto and Hubspot (Guest Post)

[Andrew: Excited about today’s guest post! I was recently interviewed by the folks at Reforge, a new company started by my friends Brian Balfour and Susan Su focused on advanced professional education. They asked a great question – how do you interview for growth folks? I gave some my 2 cents based on my experience helping startups and growth folks. They pulled together a great essay below!]

Growth Interview Questions

Guest Essay by Susan Su, Reforge

Together, Shawn Clowes (Atlassian), Elena Verna (SurveyMonkey), Nick Soman (Gusto), Andrew Chen and Brian Balfour (Reforge, previously at Hubspot) have interviewed or screened over 1,000 individual candidates for growth roles – both for their current and previous companies, plus startups where they’ve invested/advised.

Growth is an emerging field, and there’s hardly a playbook on how to ace your growth interview (whichever side of the table you’re on), and yet hiring and team could be the most important “growth hack” of all. I recently asked a handful of folks from the Reforge Collective about the questions they ask when interviewing candidates for competitive positions in growth.

Here are some of the questions we’ll cover:

1. The Golden Gate Bridge
2. Growth Hacking a City
3. Are you an early adopter?
4. Live brainstorm an experiment backlog
5. What Are Your Setbacks?
6. Look for opportunity, not just risk
7. But… why?
8. The Bullshit Test
9. The Trajectory of Growth
10. Probe on Metrics
11. And on Culture
12. 6-Month Roadmap
13. Growth Resources
14. Low Hanging Fruit

If you’re looking for your next job in growth, or you’re trying to fill one at your company, consider this a peek into how a few other growth marketing experts are structuring their growth interviews.

This 1 Weird Interview Question
Growth is as much about showing creative problem solving as much as quick metrics-based iteration. If a candidate is out there googling answers to “trick” interview questions, then they’re missing out on an opportunity to showcase their own unique way of combining creativity with numbers.

“Weird” interview questions let you out to roam beyond the constraints of the role in front of you. The best weird questions are designed to highlight original problem-solving, and if that doesn’t excite you, then a position in growth probably won’t be fun or fruitful.

1. The Golden Gate Bridge

Elena Verna SurveyMonkey growth interview

When she was still a candidate interviewing at SurveyMonkey, Elena Verna fielded an unusual interview question that she continues to use in her own growth interviews to this day:

Let’s say you were to come in tomorrow, and you got a new project to work on the Golden Gate Bridge and its toll collecting. But, you’re told that they’ve recently lost all of the tracking of both traffic flow and revenue collection, and your boss has just told you that you need to come up with a revenue estimate in the next 15 minutes. You don’t know anything about how much has been collected historically. All you have is a blueprint of the bridge.

How would you estimate how much revenue or the bridge generates on a weekly basis?

Elena explains that the question is meant to demonstrate your problem solving skills (not to get to the “right” answer necessarily).

For me it’s a sign that you’re willing to tackle an open-ended question in a creative way — without all of the data and answers. How am I going to approximate with only broad strokes of knowledge? What are the key variables (Bridge length? Car length? Car weight? Traffic volume?), and how far can I go in 15 minutes?

Elena insists there’s no right answer. Instead, it’s a window into your process of thinking with uncertain variables — and also how excited you get when you’re tasked with reasoning through an unsolved problem.

2. Growth Hacking a City

Nick Soman Gusto growth interview

Ultimately, hiring for your growth role is both high risk and high opportunity. The teams with the most at stake (and offering the best opportunities) will need to explore every last corner of a person’s thinking and style, and that sometimes means taking a lateral approach.

Nick Soman poses an unusual question designed to get at the way candidates think about growth beyond the templates and playbooks that circulate in the growth community:

How would you growth hack a city?

It’s not an immediately technical or product-based experience, and yet it’s an interesting question that might actually become more and more relevant. How would you attract residents to it? How would you attract the other people and elements that that ecosystem requires? What mechanisms would you employ to grow your city? It’s very revealing to see how people approach growth when they have no templates, when they start from zero.”

3. Are you an early adopter?

Shaun Clowes Atlassian growth interview

Have you ever thought about your own relationship with Snapchat? Have you broken down your own psychology of engagement with Facebook? How about for lesser-known, non-consumer products that are in your life?

We are what we eat, and the products and apps we consume (and how we interact with them) can say a lot about who and how we are when it comes to creating and growing our own products and apps.

Shaun Clowes wants to know what you’re using at work:

If you just got a new computer at work, what apps would you immediately set up?

I’m looking for their take on a piece of software that they care about, something that gets them excited, and then how they explain it to me.

What are the most recent apps you been playing with on your phone?

That gives me insight into how in touch you are with the industry, how much you’re seeking out things that are different or somewhat common, and whether you’re an early adopter of things.

4. Live brainstorm an experiment backlog

It’s the default to come prepared to a growth interview. You’ve looked at their core growth loops, you’ve analyzed their funnels, and you have an (externally informed) idea of where the business is going. But what if you were put on the spot to dig even deeper into how the business can grow?

Nick Soman wants to see candidates live-brainstorm an experiment backlog:

How many ideas can you come up with in 3 minutes?  Maybe it’s a handful, let’s say 5. Then, I really want to push for a 6th or a 7th.

I want to see the candidate beyond their comfort zone and extend beyond their pre-planned ideas and analysis, especially in real-time. I resist the urge to ask follow-up questions — even when I’m really curious — because I want to see you go for breadth, and then I want you to be able to follow that up with an objective assessment of those ideas.

5. What Are Your Setbacks?

If none of your experiments are failures, then you’re probably not testing the right things. Running growth means swimming in setbacks — and it helps if you’ve had some life experience with that.

Andrew Chen says the level of your setbacks say more about you than their specific details:

One of the questions that I like a lot that doesn’t have to do with growth but tells you a lot about a person is to ask about someone’s biggest setback, either personally or professionally. You can get a sense of if that’s a real setback and how they reacted to it.

For example, someone who’s very junior is going to come up with a small setback. They’re going to say, ‘Oh well at work I did a project and it sucked.’ That’s very different than something like, ‘I was at a company and I convinced the board to do something and it was a long decision and the company failed. And everyone got fired.’ Or, ‘I moved from country A to country B, left my family and friends and started over again.’

Understanding setbacks helps you understand what a person’s priorities are, and how much resilience they have to bounce back.

What Most Growth Interviews Are Missing

6. Look for opportunity, not just risk

Elena Verna surveymonkey growth interview excellence question

A lot of people try to understand a candidate’s weaknesses, but Elena Verna wants to know your superpower. Early to mid-stage growth is as much about doubling down on unique advantages as it is about fixing leaks (ie, identifying and addressing weaknesses). Later, the truly stand-out orgs are the ones defined by their unfair advantages, particularly in growth and product.

Building a growth team is a microcosm of the trajectory you want to see that team take, according to Elena:

Very few growth managers will look at an opportunity in a person and say, “Ok, these are your strengths and I’m actually going to tailor a roll around you to make sure that I’m playing to your strengths.

It’s good to know what people aren’t good at — where they’ll be a liability. But I want to dig into to what they’re excellent at as well. That’s what you really need to focus on, and to make sure that that strength aligns with the position at hand or that it’s possible to mold the position around it.

Too often, we identify a problem or a hole in the business and start looking for the person that will fit it. The person you find could be effective very early on, but evaluating too tightly against specific role can be very short-sighted. Yes, they might be able to sort out that immediate issue for you but in the same stroke you may end up hiring the wrong person long term.

The real opportunity is finding the person who will be happy (and make your business happy) as the definition of growth itself expands, and the immediate problem becomes obsolete. Where do you want them to be in a year? Look for the opportunities, not just the “urgent” holes.”

7. But… why?

Most of us aren’t professional interviewers. We know our area, or we know growth marketing as a broader domain, and we stick to what we know. But, in building a growth team, you’re called to ask people about things that may not be your cup of tea.

As a result, many of us don’t dig into the details of a candidate’s experience, which is a bad idea for both the hiring organization and the candidate — the former misses out on opportunity and risk assessment (is this person a good fit?), and the latter may not get to tell their punchline.

Shaun Clowes asks a deeper layer of question where most interviews have called it a day.

Most interviewers will ask you a question about how in the past have you done X thing. You give them a surface-level answer like ‘We did Y and then achieved Z.’

A few ways to drill in more deeply would be to follow up with questions like:

  • When you say “we,” how much was you and how much was everybody else?
  • Were you really pivotally involved in this or was this really something that you just got carried along with?

Sometimes it feels like the answer has been rehearsed. It’s the correct answer, but when you drill into it, it’s clear that either the initiative isn’t all they said it was or it wasn’t as deep as they said it was or their involvement wasn’t as deep as they said it was. The best way to get through this is with a one-word question: ‘Why?’ ‘Why did you do that?’

You actually can reply with “Why did you do that?” to every subsequent answer, and it’s almost endlessly educational. This addresses the need for depth that growth roles need, but that many interviews often lack.”

8. The Bullshit Test

How do you know someone really knows growth and doesn’t just have a great handle on acronyms?

Growth is a critical role but not one that hiring teams can succinctly test for. That is, you can’t check out someone’s GitHub for growth or decouple what public evidence you find of their work from other situational factors, like a great team, a solid company, or a unique ecosystem opportunity whose bandwagon they jumped onto.

Andrew Chen runs a “bullshit test” to make sure that candidates aren’t merely fluent in blog posts and jargon.

I ask people to get on the whiteboard and draw out the whole thing. For example, I may ask someone “How does YouTube grow?

There, I want to watch you draw out the entire flow for how a user comes into YouTube and how you think it might all work — just from what you’ve observed on the outside. Then I’ll ask you where you might make improvements. I want you to do all of this in real-time with me in the room.

This exercise shows a level of detail and thinking that indicates that you’ve mastered what you’re doing, versus that you’ve read all the blogs. I want to get the sense that your capacity goes beyond knowing the concepts, and that you have a depth of process understanding that you can bring to anything you do next.”

What You Should Ask Your Interviewer (but Probably Aren’t)

“Do you have any questions for me?” is a common wrap-up to an interview session. It’s also its own covert test of your listening skills and the depth of your analytical abilities.

But aside from generalities about company culture, project overviews, and basic metrics, the top candidates for growth roles get under the surface of their opportunity with specific questions for their interviewers.

9. The Trajectory of Growth  

The definition of growth or growth team can differ significantly from one business to another. Some growth teams are focused only on driving acquisition into the business while others are making fundamental calls on product strategy and development.

Elena wants to see candidates who are taking a long, non-static view of growth.

Ask, ‘What does growth mean for this company, and what will it mean?’ You need to know whether they are responsible for driving metrics across the rest of the funnel or not, and how they may or may not evolve with the rest of the business.

Ask, ‘How does the growth team actually catch up with the structure of the business as it evolves?’ Many applicants simply want to understand where they’re going to be in a couple of months. This is very short-sighted. It’s not just about growth today, in this place and time; it’s about trajectory.”

10. Probe on Metrics

Brian Balfour growth interview

For growth roles you want to know are you coming in to fix the broken system, or are you coming in to make a good system great?

Understanding the answer to that fundamental question comes down to understanding both the metrics of the business and the culture of the team.

When it comes to metrics, most people simply don’t go far enough into the specifics. Brian Balfour says that’s where great growth candidates stand out.

What does retention look like? What does LTV look like? What are the biggest dropoffs?

If a growth candidate doesn’t ask me those basic question in an interview, I’m shocked.

But then you need to keep going. Keep asking questions about the metrics until your interviewer stops you and says, “It’s too detailed and we can’t give that out in an interview”.

You should get as much information as you possibly can. Not only will you know what type of situation you’re walking into, you’ll also show that you know how to think about growth for that company.”

11. And on Culture

The velocity of growth is determined by one part strategy, one part implementation. Great strategy and promising metrics can still be blocked by cultural issues within the organization; successful growth is technical, but it’s also fundamentally human.

Brian wants to see candidates who seek to understand the relationship between the growth team and other teams: core product, marketing, sales, executive.

Ask, ‘If I wanted to make X type of change in this part of the product, what would the process look like to make that happen?

Follow it with, ‘Would I or my team have our own resources and autonomy to be able to make that change?’

Changes can require negotiation, politics and navigating a number of other ‘people’ steps. You need to pose that same type of situational question to your interviewer that they’re probably asking you: ‘If I wanted to do this we thought if it was a good idea to do this, how would we get this done?’

That gives you a much better idea of how the team works, rather than simply asking them, ‘What’s the process around here?’

You’ll start to realize when they are describing how to get something done that there are certain points where they’ll show discomfort. Those are the areas where there’s friction within the company.

No company is perfect. But, it’s much better to know what the flaws are going into it, rather than being surprised after the fact. That way you can be better prepared and more effective from day one.”

12. 6-Month Roadmap

Being effective in flux starts with having a sense of what’s expected of you in the first six months in a new role. When you’re running weekly experiments or solving previously untackled problems, Andrew Chen says you should ask:

If I were to join, what would I be tasked with achieving in the first 6 months?’ You have to have a good sense for the 6 month roadmap — what you would actually do in terms of experiments and goals — so that you can come in with that from day 1.

13. Growth Resources

There are many different flavors of growth, and resourcing the growth function is a key variable from team to team. Growth has been interesting because there are different flavors of it.

Andrew wants to see candidates ask:

Are there are going to be dedicated engineers? Are there going to be dedicated designers? Or is this a situation where we need someone to kind of think about growth but they’re not part of the product?

14. Low Hanging Fruit, aka How Many Times Has the Homepage Been Optimized?

Andrew Chen uber growth interview

The best candidates want to understand the potential reaches of their own impact. How wide and deep are the outcomes that are under your purview? Andrew wants to know how much low-hanging fruit already been picked.

Have people been working on growth or really smart people thinking about it?

As a candidate, I would want to ask how many times has the homepage been optimized in the last 6 months, same with landing pages, same with everything. That gives you a sense of the kind of impact that you’ll be able to create.”

Susan Su leads marketing at Reforge providing training and connections for growth professionals, and is a venture partner at 500 Startups.  Special thanks to the Reforge Collective members who contributed to this post: Elena Verna, Nick Soman, Andrew Chen, Shaun Clowes, and Brian Balfour.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

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What 671 million push notifications say about how people spend their day

Push notifications are a cornerstone of every mobile app’s engagement and retention strategy, yet we know so little about them. Previously I’ve written about why 60% of users opt-out of push notifications and why some pushes are getting 40% CTRs.

Today, we’ll look at some push notification data from Leanplum, a mobile marketing automation tool, which breaks down 671 million pushes to uncover some interesting trends, particularly on time of day targeting for push notifications.

Average weekday push notification activity in North America
Let’s first look at when marketers are sending push notifications, by hour, and how users are interacting with these pushes. The graph below shows the metrics for push notification sends and opens for the average weekday in North America, on a sample of millions of notifications. The data is normalized by local hour, and represents the raw sends and opens for that given hour. The blue line shows the raw number of sends and uses the left axis. The red line shows the raw number of opens and uses the right axis.

Leanplum Chart for Andrew

You can see an interesting trend here- you can see pushes sent and opened trending upward throughout the day, with a small peak around noon, a slightly larger one around 3pm, and the largest in the evening. The post-evening trend is interesting – after 6pm, on a relative basis, Pushes Opened starts to trend higher, relative to previous hours, and Pushes Sent is lower. This indicates that while mobile apps are delivering a ton of pushes leading up to evening, it might be more effective to time them post-evening, when engagement seems high.

Either way, this curve is super interesting, and we should look at a typical day to understand the behavior patterns on how people spend their days.

Studies on the average day reinforce this trend
The American Time Use Survey visualization below shows why the aforementioned push notification graph makes sense. The video simulates the minute-by-minute average day of activities for 1,000 people, and what they do- some phone calls to sports to shopping to work.

View the visualization video here or click the image below:



In the morning hours from 7-9am, people are waking up and kicking off their morning rituals – eating, personal care, commuting to the office, and beginning to work. These consistent morning tasks that get you to the office and productive could justify why push engagement is low before 12pm. Around 3pm there is an interesting activity shift seen in the video that also correlates with a higher push send and open rate. This could be people taking a break to grab a coffee or get outside. Great time to take a look at your phone. By 6pm, most people have left work and transitioned to leisure activities.

It makes sense then why opens of push notifications are so high from 6-9pm. Work is done and people are likely to be on their phones, browsing apps and catching up on social media. The shift to leisure activities lasts for a few hours and by 10pm, most people have moved to personal care and sleep. The peak of push notification engagement follows a similar shape of post work leisure time.

Media consumption by medium
Ok, so we see that leisure activity correlates with higher opens of push notifications. What exactly are people doing during these leisure hours? The Flurry graph of daily media consumption by channel shows some interesting trends:


Couple obvious notes:

  • Internet usage has two main peaks: one at 8am and a larger one at 7pm.
  • iOS and Android app usage kicks up in the morning around 7am, gradually builds throughout the day before falling off its peak at 9pm.
  • TV is clearly an after work deal, with a huge peak between 7 and 11pm.

You can match this up to this similar chart analyzing media consumption in the UK, via Ofcom:


With both charts, you can see that, TV appears to be a significant portion of the leisure hours, especially after work. Voice communication tends to be constrained to the day, while online comms (SMS/email) happens throughout the day.

Push notification engagement versus media consumption
To tie this daily pattern to the Leanplum push notification engagement data, we can speculate why people are engaging with pushes in the evening. I bet we’re seeing the effect of mobile as the second screen, where people are engaging with push notifications while casually watching TV. They likely have their phones in their pocket or nearby, and can easily catch up on apps.

Thanks to David Grotting and Leanplum for their help on this essay.


PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

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The state of growth hacking (Guest post)

[Hi readers, I recently met some amazing folks at Mixpanel – Justin Megahan and Amelia Salyers – who interviewed me for their “Grow and Tell” series. This was originally published on the Mixpanel blog, and I’m excited to re-publish it here too. Thanks to Suhail, founder/ceo of Mixpanel, for helping set this up. Hope you enjoy the interview. -Andrew]

2016-03-16 00-58-47.416402-andrew-chen-on-the-state-of-growth-hacking-ctt

After navigating a few winding hallways at Uber HQ to find a tucked away conference room, I’m chatting with Andrew Chen about one of his favorite topics: growth hacking.

Across the table, he’s telling me about the importance the product plays in growth hacking, all as he taps away on his iPhone. On the other side of the glass is a growth team of engineers, data scientists, product managers, and who knows what else. They are, Andrew assures me, one of the best teams in the game.

He would know. When it comes to growth, there are few names that carry the weight of Andrew Chen. In a relatively new field, Andrew is an elder statesman. He’s been at this for a while. His early posts on growth hacking helped put the term on the Silicon Valley map. Thousands subscribe to his newsletter to get articles explaining the viral loop or the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.

And currently he’s explaining to me why my observation—that the popular growth hacking tactics seem to be less effective as they go mainstream—isn’t indicative of any slowing in growth hacking as a movement. All without looking up from his iPhone. What is he doing? Is he returning an urgent text or something?

“The folks that are doing growth very successfully start out with an amazing product, right?” he continues.

Andrew has a habit of ending his statements with “right?” and it makes it almost impossible to not come around to see from his perspective. Growth does need a great product. Right.

“Growth is a magnifying glass. If you have a tiny diamond and you put it under a magnifying glass, then you’ll make something big and great. But if it’s just kind of a tiny piece of shit, then it’s just going to be a big piece of shit, right?”

At its core, a growth hack is a way to get more people into your product by using your existing user base. It’s marketing by engineers. Or engineering by marketers. Growth hacks turn your user base into a channel to pull in more users, compounding your previous success.

After another minute of back and forth on the importance of a bullet-proof product, Andrew looks up from his phone with a wry smile.

“But you asked me if growth hacking was slowing down,” he says and hands over his phone, showing me what he’s been tapping away at.

“Does it look like it?”

On the screen is a Google Trends report for “growth hacking.” The graph is exactly what you want to see in growth, dramatically up and to the right.


Understandably, Andrew is a bit evangelical about growth hacking. He knows the value in it, the huge upside it can bring. But, more importantly, Andrew knows that growth hacking is not something you can learn by just reading a bunch of blog posts (like this one). To do it successfully, you have to understand why it works, when it does.

The way Andrew sees it, growth hacking is a philosophical approach to the problem. It’s about creating a growth system around your product, not just applying a universal set of tactics to it. If your product is any good, it’s unique. And if it’s unique, it deserves a novel set of growth solutions.

Where it came from

To understand how and why growth hacking came to be, you first have to go back to January 30th, 2000.

“During the dot-com boom, there was a bunch of traditional marketers who believed they could use normal consumer marketing techniques to grow websites,” Andrew remembers. “It didn’t take long for them to figure out that it doesn’t work.”

January 30th, 2000 was the day of Super Bowl XXXIV. Football fans will remember it for its dramatic finish, with the Titans’ Kevin Dyson falling a mere yard short of tying the Rams on the final play of the game. The tech world remembers it for an entirely different reason. 19 tech companies spent an average of $2.2 million each for Super Bowl advertising spots. Commercial breaks were full of names like Pets.com, Computer.com, and HotJobs.com.

It was the peak of dot coms going mainstream. Just 40 days later the NASDAQ hit an all-time high. And then it all came crumbling down. By the end of the year, more than a handful of the dot coms that had spent small fortunes to get their names in front of the 88.5 million Super Bowl viewers had gone bankrupt.

There were many contributing factors to the dot-com bubble and its burst. The failure of traditional, and expensive, marketing campaigns was only a piece of that puzzle. But in the aftermath, those ads and billboards were a mistake that few tech companies looked to repeat. Marketing became a dirty word. And that is what set the scene for the origin of the term “growth hacking.”

Andrew remembers hearing it for the first time sitting at brunch with Sean Ellis.

“Sean was already working with startups like DropBox and EventBrite. But whenever anyone tried to connect him with entrepreneurs, they didn’t know how to describe him. They’d say something like, ‘This is Sean, he’s kinda like a VP of marketing.’ And that wasn’t going over very well. The entrepreneurs thought he was going to buy them Super Bowl ads.”

Sean’s background was in direct response marketing. He wasn’t buying billboards; he was creating marketing campaigns to get people to take specific and measurable actions.

“So Sean says, ‘Let’s not call it marketing. That sounds horrible. Introduce me as a growth hacker.’”

And that’s how the term came to be. The term and the philosophy are a reaction to the failed practices of the dot com boom.

“The folks that pioneered growth hacking were those that kept building products after the dot com bubble crashed. The people that built companies like Paypal, Yelp, and YouTube.”

When times got tough, startups became lean. There wasn’t room on the balance sheet for an expensive marketing spend.

“What you’re left with is engineers who know how to build products. And when they look at the problem of getting customers, or users, or whatever you want to call it, they come at it from a product and engineering point of view. They looked at the problem through a quantitative lens, the way that an engineer would.”

That approach is the one Sean Ellis was taking on, and, as marketers do, he gave it a good name.

Start with the product

Alas, just adding the skill to your LinkedIn profile doesn’t make you a growth hacker. And just because you want to hit some number doesn’t mean that you can follow step-by-step instructions to easy growth success. It all starts with the product, and it’s not easy.

“I get emails saying, ‘Hey I’m building this start-up and my investors tell me I really need to be at x million users to get the next round of funding. How do I do that?’,” Andrew tells me.

“But they’re conflating traction and growth with just getting a number because that’s what they’re supposed to do. Growth is an after-effect of strong product market fit and great distribution.”

You can’t just growth hack a mediocre product to success. It’s not something you tack on when you’re looking to “go viral.”

“My usual response is, ‘Well, is your product working? How many people are coming back? Are you getting a lot of word of mouth?’ First and foremost, you need to dig into what’s actually going on with the product and how people are using it.”

You can’t skip the product and go right to distribution.

2016-03-16 01-30-30.035939-growth-is-after-effect-ctt

“It’s challenging because if your product isn’t quite working, but you have to hit these really aggressive targets, you end up forcing it,” Andrew says.

“Even if you hit the numbers, they won’t be real. You spent a lot of money to get there. And what is the point in acquiring all those users, if they leave once they see the product?”

It all starts with the product. All of the best growth hacks, from Facebook to Dropbox and Airbnb, have roots in the actual product. And while you can learn from those successes, too many would-be growth hackers look to them as recipes for their own product. Just google “growth hacking”, and you’ll find page after page of tips and tricks. That’s how these things get packaged by people like me. It makes them easy to read and even easier to share.

“People love factoids. They’re fun. You feel just a bit smarter after you’ve read them. And it doesn’t seem that hard. You just have to do ‘this one thing.’”

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, reading about it is the easy part. And anyone can say they’re going to eat better and exercise more, but actually making it work for you and putting in the time and effort to execute on your weight loss plan is hard and takes commitment. Don’t let any blog post tell you differently.

“When I talk to companies I never offer tips and tricks. By themselves, they’re irrelevant. You have to look at the company, understand their context and what customers are trying to do to understand what the right channels are.”

Tactics decay

Andrew recalls the story from My Life in Advertising by a man named Claude C. Hopkins, the man who invented the marketing tactic called “the coupon.”

“It’s crazy to think about, but there was a point where coupons were an innovation. After Hopkins created the coupon he had this ridiculous competitive advantage for years.”

It was an incredibly novel concept. Since consumers were going to buy milk anyways, all they had to do was bring this piece of paper to the store and they would save money buying that brand of milk. And from the shop’s perspective, their shoppers were coming in and asking for a specific brand of milk, which would lead to more shops stocking your milk.

In its time, it was ingenious. Of course, today, the coupon is old hat. It ran its course. That’s what happens to individual tactics.

“Email marketing used to be amazing. Banners used to be amazing. Now they’re almost irrelevant. That’s natural decay. You can’t focus on the tactics, because eventually they become useless. To really reap the benefits, you have to be on the bleeding edge and do the things that no one else is doing,” Andrew says.

“What’s problematic about the tactics is that as more people adopt the same tactic, they tend to not work as much because they become fatigued.”

Make no mistake, by the time someone is sharing a successful growth hack in their company blog, the specific technique has already been milked for all it’s worth.

“It’s not that I’m against tactics,” Andrew explains. “If you want to be a great chef, you need to know all the recipes, to have the ingredients, to have the knife skills and all that other stuff.”

I haven’t any idea what the other stuff is, I’m not great in the kitchen. But so far this is making sense.

“But you can’t become an amazing chef just by reading recipes or watching cooking shows. To make your own amazing dish, you need to bring it all together, and to make educated attempts at trying different and new things.”

The value is in knowing why all these other recipes work and then applying those learnings to your own situation.

Andrew recalled sitting down with David Sacks to talk about how he learned from the growth tactics of Facebook and applied it to Yammer.

Now that all your aunts and uncles are on Facebook, it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t completely ubiquitous. But Facebook found early traction on university campuses by requiring a college email address to create an account. For most products, limiting your potential audience would be a hinderance. For Facebook, which thrived in high-trust networks, it allowed them to divide and conquer. They created a groundswell and rode it through one university and then on to the next.

Yammer was also trying to make ground in a completely different type of high-trust network the workplace. And, it just so happened, people here also had their own email addresses. By adapting and applying the approach to their product, Yammer allowed you to join with your work email and automatically be in a closed-off network with your co-workers.

“Facebook had proven it could gain traction for their product, but no one had applied it to the corporate world, yet. It was a mix-and-match of innovation.”

Growth isn’t about 2x. It’s 10x or 100x

“Growth accelerates what’s already working. It requires a lot of buzz, and getting word of mouth. That’s why a lot of this stuff ends up being pretty magical.”

The way that Andrew sees it, there’s an art in the science to of growth. And it’s the product, user experience, the market, luck & timing, and a bunch of other variables all wrapped up together. And when it all works, it’s like magic, and products explode onto the scene.

“What the folks who are really great at growth do is package up this thing that is already is going well, and they magnify it. They blow it up. Really running up the score and achieving the highest possible upside.”

That’s a level of growth that isn’t reached just by moving the needle on the conversion rate of your signup flow. You have to take big swings.

“You can’t get there purely by optimization. You may even need to reinvent pieces of the product in order to accommodate a new growth strategy,” Andrew says.

“I’ll talk with people about their road maps and I’ll ask them, ‘You have this great thing that’s working, but how do you 10x it?’ Maybe they’ll have some ideas, but then I’ll say, ‘Okay, now what would you do to 100X it?’ It gets to a point where you need to take really big swings to make that happen.”

2016-03-16 01-44-46.062211-10x-ctt

When a product is approaching that level of growth, it’s not from one particular tactic. It can’t just be great SEO or a clever push notification campaign. Growth on that scale is a result of a system of growth built in and around the product.

“You can’t look at things and say, ‘Well, we’re doing a ton of SEO already, let’s just do more.’ It would take another level to be like, ‘Great that’s one channel. Let’s build the next three channels, and this is what you’d have to do and this is what the product would have to be.’”

And that’s not a philosophy limited to acquisition. Startups are starting from zero, so they are obviously acquisition-focused. For teams at more mature products, who are building that growth system, it goes far beyond acquisition and activation.

“For growth teams that are later in their cycle and are operating with millions of MAUs, there are more saturation effects. After you’ve built those acquisition channels, reducing churn become the main focus around growing your user base.”

Many of these growth teams end up managing acquisition, activation, engagement, and retention, and then all the product features and analytics that support those, like onboarding, funnels, and notifications.

“It’s really more about a growth team than it is about an individual. These things are a collaboration between product managers, engineers, designers, and data scientists. You have all these people working together.”

Growth at Uber

That’s the type of team Andrew came to at Uber when he joined last fall.

“Uber has built the best growth team in the industry, period,” he asserts. “Growth is not an afterthought, it is one of the most important focuses of the company.”

He can’t really say much about Uber, he told me over email. And then once again in person, when I, of course, still ask him about Uber. The fact that, after a handful of years bouncing around investing, consulting, and speaking, Uber was able to lure him into the office says all that needs to be said about the opportunity Andrew sees there.

“What can I say about Uber?” he asks aloud and pauses.

“Uber has the potential to be the biggest company ever. Uber has the potential to be the biggest company ever. It has that potential.”

How close Uber can come to hitting that ceiling will depend on how well they execute on their ambitious growth strategy.

In Uber, it’s clear that Andrew sees the potential to take all his growth experience and see what it can do at what is already one of the biggest tech companies in the world. It’s also clear that he genuinely believes in the product.

After going down a tangent and talking a bit about the “Uber of Xs” startups that are borrowing the tech giant’s delivery model, Andrew stops in his tracks. “Except we’re going to be Uber for everything,” he jokes.

“I mean, theoretically that sounds like a fun pitch, right?”

Spoken like a true growth hacker.

[Again, thanks to Justin Megahan and Amelia Salyers for writing up this great interview. -Andrew]

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