Hiring your first Growth employee—Part 1: Picking the right time, growth archetypes and constructing an interview process
Lessons from hiring hundreds of growth practitioners at top companies
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This was supposed to be a single post but then two things happened—first, one of my kids broke a snow globe at bedtime which slowed down my editing and second, this post got really long. So now it’s in two parts.
This is part one of a two-part series on how to hire for Growth. Specifically, how to make your earliest hire.
Part 1: The right time, the right archetype, the right interview process ⬅️
Part 2: Interviewing, measuring success, avoiding mistakes, bonus resources
How should I approach hiring my first Growth team member?
This is a question I get asked all the time. It’s always some permutation of:
How do we find someone like you, but 10 years earlier in their career?
What are the skills I need to hire for?
I hired X person but they didn’t work out. What should I do differently?
My [board / VC / etc.] says I need a Head of Growth; how should I think about that?
The answer to this question is long and nuanced. In this series I’ll do my best to answer it and also direct you to some of the other great sources of information on hiring for this role.
This first post is organized into the following sections:
Identifying the right time for a Growth hire
Growth hire archetypes
Constructing an interview process
In the second post I cover:
An in-depth guide to interviewing: competencies, questions and formats
Measuring success for your Growth hire
Mistakes to avoid
Other resources on this topic
Let’s start at the beginning…
How I came into Growth (and Product)
This post is not all about me and at the same time I think that my journey is a helpful framing as you think about your first Growth hire.
I started my career as what I’d call a “quantitative marketer.” I had tried (and failed) to be an engineer in school (Go Blue). Engineering felt very isolating to me. I’m an extreme extrovert who is fascinated by how people think and act so I slowly gravitated towards business and consumer psychology.
I was in the right place at the right time and caught the earliest wave of Web Analytics 1.0 and Experimentation. This was pre-Google Analytics and back when Offermatica was the only testing tool out there. It was well before companies like Optimizely and Eppo existed.
I started getting really deep into Marketing channel and Conversion Optimization with my first “internet” role as an analyst with Hotwire. I basically lived in Excel (now I live in Google Sheets and Airtable) and started writing front-end code as a hobby.
My career followed a series of step-function changes in both responsibility and scope with a big jump when I moved to Zimride as their Head of Growth. We pivoted Zimride to Lyft a few months after I joined. Lyft was like getting a graduate degree in company building and scaling (I don’t have an official graduate degree so that’s why I say this). I learned a ton and worked on all facets of the product. It was a catalyst to my future career growth.
Now I’d consider myself a product-led Growth practitioner in both my professional career and my advisory practice. Hard not to be after all those years at Lyft, Patreon, Imperfect and other companies in between.
Identifying the right time for a Growth hire
One of the first things you can and should do is to define Growth at your organization. If you asked 10 people today to define Growth you’d probably get close to 10 different answers to this question. Unless of course those people were some of my immediate peers because we all colluded to answer this question the same way. Kidding.
I define “Growth” as the human(s) or function(s) that understand how a company grows, what levers they have to accelerate that speed and scale, and then create a measured, tactical approach to testing those levers to separate fact from fiction.
You’re not building new products most of the time you’re connecting more people to the value that you’ve already created.
The main elements you have at your disposal are acquisition (finding new customers), retention (activating and keeping those customers) and monetization (turning those customers into money).
There are statements that must be true for you to be ready for Growth:
You must have Product/Market Fit.
You must have data.
You must have a foundational understanding of how you grow (your Growth Model).
You Must Have Product/Market Fit
I learned this the hard way when I started advising companies in 2014. Before you have PMF you can’t be sure if your product isn’t growing because no one wants it OR because you’re not leveraging the right tactics, shipping failed experiments, or just plain wrong. Also, without PMF you likely don’t have a retentive product since retention is the primary indicator of product/market fit (not convinced, just run this search).
You can and should improve your retention over time (stay tuned for another post on that) but without a base of retained users you have nothing to build on and Growth will be a slog.
You also run the risk of bringing on a bunch of new users to your product who have a poor experience and tell everyone how bad it is. This is the opposite of what you want to happen.
Remember: the fastest way to kill a bad product is with a great Growth strategy.
You Must Have Data
If you don’t have an understanding (or at the very least instrumentation) of your acquisition, retention, and monetization then your Growth person or team is going to be pretty useless until you do.
Data is the lifeblood of a Growth practitioner. Imagine being a scientist trying to create a vaccine without data on its efficacy. Not a great scientist.
A lack of data means your Growth team will be rudderless—bumping around your product experience like a Roomba—never knowing what works or what doesn’t, never knowing where to focus. Never able to return to the damn base (ok, I took the Roomba analogy too far).
And data also informs the next truth, which is…
You Must Have An Understanding of How You Grow
Having this understanding is critical to the identification of who you hire. This is because you run the risk of hiring the wrong type of person whose background and skill set doesn’t match how you grow.
For example, one pattern I’ve seen happen countless times is bringing a Marketing person into your Growth role when what you really need is a Product person. If you acquire, retain, and monetize primarily through the usage of your product (such as virality, team invites, or user-generated content) then a Marketing person won’t be able to move the levers required for each of those loops to improve. It could actually be detrimental to your burn and your runway to make this type of hire.
So understand how you grow–via marketing, product, sales or some combination of all three–before you build out your Growth function.
Once you’re confident in PMF, data and your Growth Model it’s time to identify the right Growth archetype.
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Growth Archetypes: the Painter, the Architect and the Surgeon
If you’ve done the above and have PMF, data and a Growth Model you’ll need to know what type of person you’re in the market to hire. Keep in mind that this could be an internal hire as well.
A note on internal hires for new Growth roles:
One of the cardinal mistakes leaders make in hiring for their first Growth role is they assume they need someone from outside the company who has done the work before. This is true if you’re hiring a specialist, but for your first hire you’re not. It can be better to open the role internally first because you’re more likely to see quicker wins (we all love those, right?) with an internal hire.
Why? Context. Your internal hire is going to have significantly more business context, better understanding of your business and customers than that shiny, new Growth PM from Facebook.
They’ll also have relationships and some existing credibility. Since starting a Growth team requires a lot of influence and communication a person who already has those relationships (i.e. internal hire) will have a leg up on any external hire you might make.
You also run the risk of an external hire who just pattern matches against their past experience. This can be very dangerous because your Growth Model is unique to your business, your customer base, your product and your monetization strategy.
Pattern matching seems like a path to quick wins but it rarely is. Trying what has worked before has a low likelihood of success in your next company.
Where do you look internally for this hire? Analyst roles, existing Product Managers and Customer Support are all good internal hires assuming they have some of the competencies necessary to succeed (more on that later; read this for a primer).
Your three primary archetypes for Growth are the Painter, the Architect and the Surgeon. Each brings a unique set of skills to the role and they’re all fantastic hires at different points in your company and growth trajectory.
As the name implies the painter starts with a blank canvas and fills it with pictures and color (otherwise known as growth loops). The Painter is a visionary. This isn’t basic paint-by-numbers stuff; it’s advanced. You can expect the Painter to be more experienced in their Growth career – they know how to build and evolve Growth models; understand the various methods necessary to accelerate, expand or add new loops; and they’re absolutely the wrong person to hire as your first Growth hire.
If you’ve got PMF, data and a Growth Model you certainly don’t need to evolve that Growth Model (yet). You need someone who can test model assumptions to get to the underlying truth of what drives your growth. If you bring in the Painter they’re going to want to hire, evolve the model, and talk about the future. This is necessary, but not yet. You don’t need the next Mona Lisa of Growth Models. What you need right now is someone to execute. You need the Architect.
The Architect designs buildings and supervises their construction. In Growth the Architect designs your process, your backlog, your experimentation documents, and even your earliest org structure. They design and build your experiments—sometimes by themselves or with some helpful tools; other times with your construction crew if it exists (engineers, designers, copywriters).
The Architect will tell you if the house (your Growth Model) is built correctly. They’ll understand the vision of the homeowner (CEO/founder) and help make it a reality – and if you’ve proposed an untenable house of cards they’ll tell you that too.
If you’re a product-led growth business then my favorite hire and role for this is the Growth Product Manager. I’ve hired several: Tal Raviv, Jenn Pugh, and Ben Lauzier to name a few.
“I remember feeling that I was basically doing quarter after quarter all the things that the company needed and needed fast. And I fucking loved it.
“I think the traits that helped me were ability to execute and also rallying other people inside the company to help because I didn’t have all the answers.”
If you’re a marketing-led growth business then my other favorite hire and role for this is the Growth Marketing Manager. A few people who fit this description when I first started working with them are Colin Frolich and Sean Baeyens . And yes folks, that is his real hair.
"As a founding growth-team member at an early stage company you really have to be a jack of all trades and willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Some of the tasks will feel incredibly unscalable at first, but if they prove to be fruitful you can make a case to productize and get on to your next experiments."
The Architect will help you understand if you need a Painter or a Surgeon next. If your house is untenable it’s time for a new Growth Model or some big adjustments and you’ll need the Painter to explore. If your house is built on a solid foundation then it’s time to bring in the Surgeon.
This is where the home-building metaphor dies a quick death. I could have said “electrician” or “plumber” here, but let’s go with Surgeon.
What is a Surgeon? They’re detail-oriented, they are experts and specialists in their craft and you’d trust them with a patient open on the operating table. This is what you need after you’ve validated some of your Growth Model assumptions – you need specialized experts.
Let me tell you about a time that I hired this role too early.
When I was building out Lyft’s original Growth team it was the beginning of the Facebook Mobile App Install ad product. Inventory was cheap since few had adopted it yet and it looked like mobile app installs via Facebook was going to be an important part of our Paid Growth Loop for passenger growth.
I hired someone who was an expert in this area. And they were brilliant at this work – one of the best in the industry. The problem was we were wrong about this channel assumption. Due to a flood of new entrants into the ad market for app install ads this quickly became a less viable option for us.
We’d hired a Surgeon who was an expert in this area, but we still needed to prove out our model assumptions. He was able to pivot to work on other parts of the Growth model so it worked out, but for many it won’t.
Once you’ve figured out the right archetype for your first hire—likely the Architect— it’s time to construct a robust interview process.
A note on Junior vs. Senior people for your first hire:
A lot of founders and leaders make the mistake of hiring a very, very senior person for their first Growth hire. Or they start by looking for a “Head of Growth” without any other team members in place. This can be tempting because common hiring wisdom is to hire the leader and then let them assemble their team. Don’t do this for your first Growth hire.
My recommendation is to hire someone a notch below the Director-level or “Head of” level. Someone who wants to be a player/coach and who can build our your processes as outlined above. The Architect will be at that level; the Painter will be too senior.
There’s a sweet spot here – too junior and you just have a bunch of order takers who can’t prioritize their way out of a wet paper bag or they’ve only seen it done one way and don’t know how to operate from first principles or follow your Growth model.
Too senior and you don’t have a “doer” – their first action will be to try to hire people to do the work ahead of making tangible progress.
Constructing an Interview Process
Your first order of business should be to open up a new tab and read this article I wrote on the Growth Competency Model. I’ll wait. In it I cover the competencies (skills) that you want to have in a well-rounded Growth team.
From the post:
“The Growth Competency Model provides a framework that can be used by Growth Leaders to identify and close gaps in their team, as well as to provide direct feedback and career development advice to their team members.”
The Growth Competency Model has wide-reaching implications beyond interviewing and hiring. It’s also a performance management tool, a generalized team assessment, and a guideline on how to provide exponential feedback (vs. linear).
One area I don’t cover in that post is how to build an interview process to evaluate these competencies.
Structuring your Process
I’m a big believer in on-the-job interviewing. Having gone through an executive interview process probably 10+ times at this point in my career I think most of the traditional interview process is broken. The best way to learn about someone’s skills and abilities is working side-by-side with them.
However, this isn’t how most companies or employees operate. Rather than try to convince you fundamentally re-architect your entire company interview process for all roles I’m going to instead show you how to create the necessary structure within your existing process so achieve a similar outcome: a fantastic Growth hire.
Step 1: Pre-work
Much of this step has been covered above – by this point you’ve done your job and have alignment at the executive level on how you grow (your Growth Model) and what levers you have at your disposal to test these assumptions.
You’ve identified whether you need a marketer or a product person and you’re focusing on the Architect archetype. If you haven’t, go back and re-read the beginning of this post and then meet me here again.
In addition to the competencies linked above there are a few additional traits you want to test for in this process: prioritization ability, growth mindset and immunity to failure.
Write down all of the core competencies you want to test for throughout the interview process and identify the interviewers who are best suited to test for those. You should also map out how you want to test for each of the competencies—a quantitative exercise? A prioritization session? Behavioral and situational interviewing? A take home case with presentation?
I recommend all of the above. You really want to try to simulate the job as much as possible during the interview process so you’ve got to test for both hard and soft skills.
In the next post in this series I’ll add a downloadable pre-work template; don’t miss out!
Your next step is job description and sourcing candidates – and again I recommend looking internally first to hire someone with the benefit of context. I won’t provide a guide to sourcing here but I will say that there is a particular professional profile that I like for early Growth hires: the failed entrepreneur.
Why? It’s likely that they’ve built a great product but had trouble getting customers. This means they have a newfound appreciation for how important it is to acquire and retain customers and don’t assume that people will beat a path to their door just because they’ve built something. They also have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
Step 2: Your job description
This is less specific to hiring for your Growth role and more broadly applicable to writing job descriptions.
There are some non-negotiable elements for every job post:
Title - the name of the role (Growth PM, Growth Marketing Manager, etc.)
Mission - an inspiring statement about why you exist and what the world will look like like if you’re successful. (Example: “At Patreon our mission is to provide creators with the ability to get paid for the value they give to their fans. We aim to fund the creative class.”
What you’ll do on the job - for Growth, don’t assume people know this. Be specific. An example might be: You will be building and executing the process to systematically and quantitatively test assumptions in our Growth Model.
Skills needed - Lean into the Growth Competencies here. If you value some skills above others, say so.
What success looks like - Too often I see this left out of job descriptions. Your future employees want to know how they’ll be measured and evaluated. They want to know that you have thought about this. Copying other job descriptions means you’ll probably leave this part out. Don’t. You know what an employee will do that makes you want to do cartwheels with excitement. Spell it out.
Values / Behaviors / Other Boilerplate - Good to give potential employees and idea of what you value as a company and how you operate. This should also be abundantly clear throughout the interview process (see Step 3).
Read Part 2 where I cover:
An in-depth guide to interviewing: competencies, questions and formats
Measuring success for your Growth hire
Mistakes to avoid
Other resources on this topic
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