Product Growth

with Gustaf Alströmer

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Growth experts have diverse backgrounds yet specific attributes

Gustaf Alströmer

Growth & Product Expert, Airbnb, Community

Lessons Learned

Think in terms of compounding growth.

Have clear growth goals and build efforts around these goals.

Of all the good ideas, how do you prioritize & do the right thing first?

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Lesson: Product Growth with Gustaf Alströmer

Step #6 Traits: Growth experts have diverse backgrounds yet specific attributes

When I graduated, I didn’t even know I was going to work in products. It took me a couple years of trying to figure out that I wanted to work on product, build consumer products.

I think people that are highly analytical, they will not settle for, “Oh, I built this thing. We put this live. Now I just build the next thing.” You have to actually see, “Okay, what happened with this thing? What are the optimization improvements?” I’m not an engineer but this is generally an engineering mindset is like, “Okay, let’s optimize things to make everything that we can find a little bit better.

Growth is very similar. If you know why things are happening, you know the cause and effect of different things, you can make them better, like why people are signing up to become hosts, then maybe you can make some of those steps better. I think that’s just being highly analytical, curious about why things are happening, curious about data, I think that makes a good foundation for someone who works with growth.

I think someone who’s pretty pragmatic around, let’s say, design or somebody who doesn’t feel a strong ownership over a certain type of creative work, where the tools you’re using to accomplish this goal does not mean the most perfect code or the most perfect design is to accomplish something else. Those are good things.

In terms of who I would look for, I look for people that, I think a good sign is people who are highly analytical, people who have been in situations where they’ve had to spend time thinking about growth. Say, if you average starting from zero on anything, unless you’re really well-funded and things, anyway, you probably had to think about, “How do I go from here?” Yeah, if you haven’t put yourself in that situation, starting something from zero, I think that’s also a good sign. If you made it, like you actually did succeed and that was through a number of iterations, that’s a really good sign on both the analytical side and you’ve actually shown that you can execute based on that hypothesis.

You can find analytical people everywhere. I think, when I look at people applying for growth jobs, they have all kinds of backgrounds — engineering, finance backgrounds. You’d be surprised on how many different fields people can come from.

Again, going back to the app store being featured example, it's really exciting to be featured. It's really exciting to see that growth for that time, but it doesn't really matter long term. What matters is to understand what are the things that I'm building that will actually compound over a long time?

In some way it's true for platforms as well. Some platforms have peaks and they go down. The Facebook platform has had a couple of really good years a few years ago, but it's not something people really spend too much time optimizing for anymore in terms of getting new growth. Even when you do compounding growth thinking, you take risks on platforms. Right now it might be Twitter, or Pinterest, or whatever. It could be all kinds of platforms. But it's important that you think in terms of compounding growth.

I really like that there is a community around growth right now. People that are fresh out of school get interested in growth right away. That probably wasn't the case five or 10 years ago, because there weren’t almost anybody that working on that or there was a name for it. I think the people that are learning growth right now are probably going to be way better than we are in say five years from now.

I think it will become really important. I think the best people on growth are people that are very flexible and not tied to a single platform or a single channel, because channels and platforms change over time. I think you want to be really pragmatic and flexible on a platform. Once you have been successful at one place you want to be able to adapt that thinking to something new because the rules are different on each platform. Paid or unpaid, or organic, or what it might be. Let's say right now people are only trying to learn mobile growth. That's a complete and different set of rules than on a Facebook platform, so you have to adapt to them and adapt your thinking.

I think the question around how and when you structure your growth team depends on the stage of the product. If you are still in your customer development phase, and your early phase is trying to figure out if what I built is that something people want, it's probably too early. It can be very confusing to start working on growth things because it might not be a representative user base of the things you are trying to prove.

Once you have something that you know people want, you have some metrics, and you have some other ways of figuring out what people want. This was the case of Voxer, where in the early days of Voxer, we had few thousand users. We had no idea how we found them but we had them. They were very, very active on Voxer. They were sending dozens of messages every day to each other. Now they found their friends and we didn't know either. By the time we knew that if people just had friends, we figured out the main correlation between activity for those users was those friends, so people to send messages to.

We figured the two things we should be doing now is getting more users on the platform and getting them more friends. Those are both clear growth goals. We had to build an effort around that. We spent the next year only trying to optimize those two things: more users and getting them more friends.

In the beginning, I would say it starts with really understanding what is the metric that you’re trying to drive. What is the goal? There are some metrics trying to drive that goal. Then you want to understand, "How can I impact that metric?" When you know that, you probably want to start having a hypothesis and proving some things.

In the very early days, I would say, someone on any kind of a team that is passionate about growth. Someone who cares about the numbers. Someone who can look at something and say, "I can move this number,” or “I can actually build something that lets us get more users." If they do that and you get more users, it's a great feedback loop.

In the early days, I would say, it doesn't really matter who this person is for your product. It could be an engineer or someone else; that person kicks off the effort. After that you need a team. You definitely need someone to run the numbers. On the data side, you need an engineer to build the things and often you need a designer to help design these flow situations. It can be almost as small as that. Some companies now like Facebook have hundreds of people working in growth.

For hiring for a growth team, my experience is that it's fairly ad hoc and random. It's not like there's a perfect, "Oh, if I know all these things, I’ll just get hired to a growth team." I think you have to just do some unnatural thing and try to get in touch with people that write some answers on Quora and just do something beyond the things that you know.

But in terms of the skill set, I think, you want to be analytical and you want to show that you're analytical by being able to mine your own data, being able to do some analysis yourself. You want to just be curious about the questions around why things are growing and be open minded about that. So if they ask a question like, "How did Twitter grow to become what it is today?" you want to be able to not just say, "Oh, it's because of this and this." You want to be able to break it down pretty accurately like, "this happened, and this and this happened."

You can either read yourself to that. If you sign up to Twitter, I might ask you to go through the Twitter sign-up flow today, or the Airbnb, or the Voxer one. And you probably want to have a good answer as to why those things exist in that sign-up flow because usually if you’re someone who works at Facebook, you spend years optimizing that flow and you know exactly why things are there. So if you're not interested in why things are there, if you're not curious about understanding why things are happening, you're probably not the right person for someone to work in growth.

I think you want to show some passion around products. You want to show that you really care about building things for others. And you want to show some ability to prioritize. In growth you want to prioritize based on what's going to grow. What's the biggest opportunity to build component growth right now? And if you work on products specifically, the biggest question you have is around prioritization. There are so many things you can do. It's not really about having good ideas. It's about of all the good ideas that exist, how do you prioritize and do the right thing first?

Data and data science can play the role of understanding why things are happening in a product. Why are we growing in this country, or on this platform? Or why is this use behavior growing right now?

Growth team plays with that data team to actually actively try to grow things. Let's say on Airbnb we are trying to get more people to become hosts. There are some things we can do to actively make that happen. In Airbnb’s case or in Voxer's case, the growth team sits in product.

The people involved in growth are the product manager and junior designers and data people who are basically all part of the product organization. I think that's where we probably should be sitting. Some companies have brand marketing or product marketing organizations as well. I think when you have that you probably get big.

I think, in general, the growth team should strive to educate the rest of the company that you can track most things. You can have an understanding of why things are happening. Not to prove a point, but to educate and help other parts of the company.

A great example of this was, I think, from Facebook where the growth team started working on getting more advertisers to add stuff to Facebook to actually act as a sales team for a while. It’s a great example of a growth team working vertically across organizations helping out wherever it’s needed at the time.

At Airbnb, growth teams spend time on growing our core markets, where we are going next, maybe getting more of our hosts using the mobile app, getting more of our users to invite new friends, or telling their friends about Airbnb. We can work vertically across many different goals.

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