Growth Team Design: Who Is Leading Your Team?

Developing a growth team has become an obsession for a lot of startups. After all, growing revenue and profits is always a core problem. As Paul Graham (co-founder of Y Combinator) puts it: “Startup=Growth”. With this thinking, more and more attention is being paid to growth team structure, and I often get approached by startup founders about this topic. Should Growth be on Product or on Marketing? What roles should a growth team contain?

Assuming your startup is at a stage where you need to kickoff Growth (see Morgan Brown’s lifecycle if you’re not sure), and you don’t know how to go about it, there are lots of great articles that can help you. There’s How do you build the best growth team model and How to start a growth team. There’s also my personal favorite, The difference between Product, Marketing and Growth by Brian Balfour.

In the end though, your success, and how you should structure your team, will determined by one big thing that I think is neglected way too often: your leadership.

There has been a lot of definition of what Growth is, but I summarize it to be a mentality or attitude dedicated to growing revenue or users. It’s a full funnel data-driven picture of the company, a mix of engineering and marketing, of science and art. Given this set of principles, people tend to dive right in. They start hiring Growth engineers, marketers, and designers. But to drive real growth, one thing is needed above all else. Growth is about having somebody on the executive team accountable for Growth. And depending on who you make accountable, how you should set up your team changes.

As a startup, take a harder look at your executive team. Do you have an established leader for Product? Marketing? Both? What are these people’s background and training? Do you have somebody who would be strong at leading the things we mentioned above – multidisciplinary, full funnel iterative, data driven thinking? And most importantly, who is interested in doing this work? Who has the joy and passion for Growth?

It behooves you to put Growth with the leader most aligned with Growth thinking; it isn’t simply about putting Growth in Product or Marketing because somebody thinks it belongs there on some theoretical basis. Growth is by definition multi-disciplinary.

Personally I’ve found this to be the best way to figure out whether you should have an independent or functional growth team; if it doesn’t make sense for either of your existing Marketing or Product leaders to own Growth, then it’s time to consider having an independent team headed by a separate Growth leader. Somebody who isn’t just ready to do the job, but excited to do an excellent job.

So yes, look for somebody who knows customer and user acquisition, retention, activation, up sell, and virality. Look for somebody with a solid data understanding who can invest in the right data infrastructure in order to enable analysis of user behavior, scientific experiment and targeted promotion. Look for somebody who can combine data with a deep understanding of user needs, habits and perceptions to prioritize growth initiatives and product changes. Look for somebody who is fluent in statistical reasoning and in the full spectrum of acquisition channels including Owned media (which includes Email, Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter, Pinterest, Apps etc), Paid media (ads such as mobile, web, video, TV, Radio, SEM, Affiliate etc) and Earned media (SEO, PR, Word of Mouth).

But remember, those hard skills that I just listed above are only secondary. The most important thing is that you have somebody on the executive team accountable for Growth. And not just anyone, but someone who has the passion for it. Once you have this person on board, the rest of the details on org design will become more clear.

There is no silver bullet way of doing Growth, so instead of copying others, do what is most suitable for you. And remember that nothing is ever set in stone. Growth mentality and organizational setup should change as you learn. Also, note that internal setup and ops is just as important as market facing activities.

For more tips on team setup, check out Scaling Up. There’s a great description of matrix vs functional team setups, and pitfalls to avoid.

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