Ask Women in Product: What does Growth mean for PMs and how do you go about building a team as a Growth PM?

Sara Nofeliyan and Merci Victoria Grace share insights and lessons learned from their experiences as growth product managers.

Photo by TatianaMara via Twenty20

This week’s question: Tech startups and leading companies are achieving breakthrough results by viewing product development and marketing as integrated functions, not silos. The vital Growth Product Manager role encapsulates this approach. What are the keys to success as a Growth PM? How do I build successful Growth Teams?

Answer from Sara Nofeliyan

Sara Nofeliyan is Lead Product Manager — Growth at Varo and former Product Manager at Acorns. You’ll find her on Twitter at @nofeliyan.

If you belong to an organization that has no blueprint or precedent for growth teams, it can be exciting (and occasionally daunting) to be responsible for creating one.

Below, I describe the key characteristics of growth teams and outline practical steps to take when you’ve been tasked to form and lead such a team. I won’t focus much on defining growth or product management since I provide links to some of the great material that has already been published on these topics at the end of this piece.

Key Characteristics of Growth Teams

Regardless of the specific product and market, growth teams have these same characteristics:

For any company to scale, it needs to identify what fuels its product’s growth. Once you identify the discrete user actions and cycles of acquisition, activation, and retention that grow your product, these actions can be connected to form growth loops. These loops are designed to accelerate the distribution or broaden the impact of your product’s value. It follows then that a growth team will focus on creating sustainable and adaptable growth loops.

To identify and understand the drivers of growth and the loops that support it, a team needs to create and follow proven processes for product development and experimentation. The processes themselves will be tools that support your team’s ability to introduce layers of growth to your platform in a repeatable way. For example, you may set up a process for doing customer research that details the steps to (1) segment customers by behavior, (2) create effective survey questions, and (3) collect feedback in a structured format. Or you may set up a template for framing experiment hypotheses and sharing results to ensure quality and consistency. By making your team’s processes consistent, you will increase the speed at which the team iterates from idea to execution to learning.

As a growth-minded PM, your product intuition combined with your efficiency in sharing the outcomes of product releases and experiments will be what drive your success. You’ll need to regularly consider growth metrics alongside their counter-metrics to ensure that you still have a solid grasp on the picture. A common example: if you’re driving incredible new user growth, make sure that your counter-metric for quality of user experience (perhaps through retention rates or Net Promoter Score) is not affected adversely. Having a systematic method of analyzing the results of product changes and experiments will help you get buy-in when you identify opportunities or deficiencies in product/market fit.

Practical Steps for Forming a Growth Team

You can increase your chances of success by following these practical steps.

Your goal in kicking off this effort may be to drive a particular key performance indicator (KPI) — be it revenue, activations, or support efficiency — or it could be something else altogether. Make sure there’s a shared and documented understanding of the growth team’s objectives and measures of success. Don’t be discouraged if it takes more time and effort than you originally thought it would to get buy-in from all the right stakeholders. Getting this step right, just as the team is being formed, will save you a lot of headaches later.

To form a new team, you’ll need to understand the different groups (and their goals!) that already exist within your organization. As a growth PM, you’ll be the bridge between traditionally siloed activities such as Marketing, Operations, and Engineering. Assemble people who are curious, who have a growth mindset, and who share a common desire to understand what drives your product’s growth. Depending on the size and stage of your team, you will likely need to advocate or negotiate for people who have the cross-functional skillset you need to execute.

Odds are that a lot of the functions of the growth team are already being performed in different pockets of your organization. The bulk of your work as you set up the team, therefore, is to bring those functions together under one banner and to lead that team to deliver a specific set of outcomes. Doing so allows you to reap the exponential benefits of a tight feedback loop and free-flowing communication on the growth tactics that your team is already executing on, such as analysis of user behavior, scientific experimentation, and targeted promotions. Don’t be surprised if you need to practice some “shuttle diplomacy” before you get all of the right people in the same room.

Create a plan that’s explicit about the team objectives and whether they are short or long term. As a leader, be prepared to outline accountability for those objectives. Be explicit about the purpose of any cross-functional meetings. Lastly, live by your metrics, but choose the right ones!

You’ll want to survey your team from time to time to ensure that they have the resources they need to succeed, whether it be better tools or systems or instrumentation, or access to decision-makers, data, and customers. Your team will also need to continuously level up and evolve along with your product. Lead by example by staying curious and scaling the culture of experimentation and growth across your organization.

Answer from Merci Victoria Grace

Merci Victoria Grace is a Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners & former Head of Growth at Slack. You can find her on Twitter at @merci

What it means to be a Growth PM

As a subset of product management, a focus on growth is no less ambiguous than product management more generally. What it means to be a growth PM will vary substantially from company to company, and within the same company, it will vary with different levels of business and product traction.

Although specific differences exist, a Growth PM’s job description will generally entail these major tasks.

If you’ve been tasked to work on growth at an early-stage startup, the priority zero (P0) task is actually to determine if you even have product/market fit: growth teams cannot and do not create product/market fit. They accelerate existing product/market fit. Rahul Vohra, the founder/CEO of Superhuman, has a great post on the process they ran to find product/market fit.

At an early-stage company or at a company that does not yet have a focus on data-driven growth, being a Growth PM will often mean being the first PM to set up and own any kind of data analytics system. You’ll likely also define the early success metrics for growth and set up a system for experimenting quickly within the product.

These focus areas are user acquisition (often/hopefully paired with performance marketing), user activation, user retention, and user conversion to paid. While you’ll determine your priority focus area in collaboration with your CEO or VP, it’s a best practice to begin with user activation and/or retention rather than conversion. With software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, conversion to paid is a lagging indicator of activation.

How to build a Growth Team

Once you’ve determined that you have product/market fit, you can start building a team around the growth function.

As a PM working on Growth, you will play a similar role in a growth team as you would as a PM in a core product team: namely, being the team lead and coach. You will work with engineering and design to develop new products and initiatives. You should also apply the same level of quality and taste to growth products that you would for features you’re sure are going to be in the product forever.

Like any core product team, you’ll need to partner with design, engineering, and data science to be effective. The backbone of any great growth team is a strong and reliable data pipeline — otherwise, you’re shooting in the dark.

There are different ways to break up responsibilities between growth PMs, but the most frequent and obvious approach is to partition by stage of funnel or by customer.

  • If you’re building a marketplace, it’s likely that dividing responsibilities by customer will be most effective. You’ll want to work in concert with the other Growth PMs and be headed toward the same broad business goal, but you don’t want to different growth teams to be making changes to the same screens and flows without clear coordination.
  • For a SaaS or consumer business, dividing responsibilities by stage of funnel can be really effective. The customers will likely be very similar, but the tactics and areas of the product will vary. The failure state to watch for with this setup is if PMs are judged wholly by the performance of their part of the funnel and not by the broader business goals. A PM may do a great job of converting website visitors, but if they do so at the expense of customer/market fit and acquire mostly low-intent users, they’ll hurt both the broader business goals and the individual goals of the PMs further down the funnel.

When hiring, you should keep in mind the fact that growth PMs must have a growth mindset. It is imperative to fail in order to learn, and PMs that are not mentally ready to be wrong a lot will burn out quickly in a growth role.

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