Growth leaders used to build key relationships within a company while working together in a real office. These relationships could last during the pandemic, but let’s say you’re a new business and you’re remote first.
How do you build this complex collaboration from scratch?
Growth marketer and investor Susan Su tells us the solution isn’t just more software tools. In the interview below, she says that after the pandemic, startup founders will need to develop a mindset that puts growth at the center of company strategy.
Consultants and agencies can be great additions to this effort, especially if they have already addressed the types of issues you face. (In fact, TechCrunch asks founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your responses to find more experts to interview.)
Su is currently the Head of Portfolio Strategy for Sound Ventures, previously a Growth Leader at Stripe and first hire at Reforge. She also shared some thoughts on market opportunities after the pandemic in the full interview below. Ecommerce has definitely become mainstream, she says, even as we all try to move away from screens more often. However, many social and mobile industries are mature, and it will be even more difficult for startups to compete as real-world activities take up more time.
Remember: Susan Su will also appear at our Early Stage virtual event on July 8 (and answer questions directly).
How do you see startups dealing with changes in user engagement as more people break out of pandemic lockdowns and adjust their daily lives?
As we emerge from the pandemic, I expect that we will see a natural and obvious increase in some consumer activity that will spill over to mid-sized businesses and businesses. Just as with the start of the pandemic, we will see uneven results across sectors:
E-commerce exploded during the pandemic, but was truly an increase in an already accelerating trend towards digital commerce and streamlined logistics. I don’t think we’re backing down from e-commerce because the habit formation around online shopping has been developing for years; we would be reverting to an age well before 2020, and that is not going to happen.
New experiences of social mobility have also exploded during the pandemic, but it remains a valid question whether or not 15 months or so is enough to become part of the ingrained infrastructure of daily life. We live in an age of mature platforms, so every new service steals time from an existing service. As with pre-pandemic growth, their success relies on rapidly accumulating network effects and a strong, solid core product experience. Now that we have parks, friends and dinners calling us again, it’s a real test of how compelling some of these new value propositions really are, and whether they can continue to demonstrate their relevance in a more hybrid online and offline world.
That said, the pandemic has been a huge strain on human society and [the] economy, and these kinds of constraints often generate innovation that does not disappear. We will evolve, but we can never go back. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.
Some aspects of the pandemic, such as remote working, appear to have drastically changed some industries. How will these societal changes impact the way the typical startup views growth?
Growth will always be growth, that is, a process of iterative experimentation to identify and solve customer problems, and then evolve those solutions to reach and convert more and more audiences. Platform changes like iOS 14 or Facebook’s periodic algorithm tweaks will have a bigger short-term impact on how Growth works technically, and these aren’t specifically related to the pandemic.
One area to watch is how growth teams are formed and operated. Growth is a horizontal function that affects many different parts of the organization, including product, engineering, marketing, communications, and design. Many startup teams have already worked with collaboration tools even when sitting in the same office, but growth isn’t just about using tools. The most effective growth leaders succeed by building relationships across the organization; it’s like the fable of stone soup – you create this meal that will feed everyone, but you also need each person to bring a pinch of salt, or a pinch of pepper, or a carrot, and that requires a socialization and a relationship. I will be very interested to see how new growth leaders integrate remote-only teams and what approaches they take to this need for “networking” within the function.
Since the days of growth hacking on social platforms, growth marketing is now an established part of the world. But that’s not necessarily the main expertise of a startup founder, even if it has to. So how should they think about approaching growth marketing in 2021? What are the essential elements that they must do in their roles?
Every founder must have a growth mindset. They don’t need to memorize all the right buttons to insert an advertising dashboard, but they should be familiar with and comfortable with the basic work of finding gaps. That said, founders are entrepreneurs by definition – their business exists because they saw an opportunity that no one else saw, and that’s the foundational job of growing.
Founders will fail if they adopt a mindset that someone else can or should do it for them. The founder’s job is to give ambition and advice, then to magnetize quality talents to come and pull the levers and bring their creative vision to life. There are many people who can do growth marketing – meaning they know how platforms work, they understand the rules and playbooks. But there are very few who can come up with truly visionary, game-changing strategies – these people become founders and these companies become household names. So for a founder I would say the most important growth job is to continue to know your market and your customer better than anyone else in the world, have an opinion on what is missing, and work to bring in the best. talents to come alongside you and be a thinking partner, not just a button push.
With limited resources, how should start-ups think about what to focus on?
It will depend on the goals of your business. Are you planning to fundraise and do you need to demonstrate some KPIs? Getting started and need to keep the lights on? Resources should always be allocated to the most strategic goals, with the longer term vision than you can afford. For some companies, that might mean forgoing revenue to focus on viral or word-of-mouth user acquisition in order to demonstrate to future investors that there is something special here. For other businesses, perhaps in low volume categories like businesses, it’s about bringing some strategic logos into the family as a signal to subsequent customers and other stakeholders, including future employees and investors.
One thing that start-ups should always focus on is building a premium employer brand. You’ll never be as good as the talent you attract to your business, and it’s interesting that growth can actually play a part in that. The best designers, engineers and products often go to the companies with the best growth. In that sense, it is a highly strategic role and function.
What do startups keep going wrong?
You can’t really outsource growth or any other primary function; you can’t focus on acquiring customers after product development. At the end of the day, if you really think about it, a business is just a customer acquisition engine. It must be essential; wake up everyday and think about growth, not only to achieve user revenue or KPIs, but to build the business that the best people aspire to work in. It’s not about finding someone good enough to solve your short-term problems; it’s about phrasing problems in a way so convincing to the most creative and hard-working people that they can’t get them out of their heads. Go for talent moonshots and find out how to close them. The rest will line up from there.
When should a founder feel comfortable getting help from an expert or outside agency?
Whenever. The agencies are great. They are an extension of your talent, and the best agencies don’t sell you – they have to be sold on your problem because they have their choice of companies like yours. This is the agency or external expert that you want to work with, as they will have an invaluable perspective of the other founders and top teams that they have worked with and that they can bring to your challenge. Any agency can run Facebook ads (it’s not rocket science), but you want to find the team that solved the toughest issues for your flagship businesses. Then you won’t just have an ad manager, but a teacher.