In 2021, $329.5 billion was invested in startups across all stages, per Crunchbase.
Where was a significant majority of that funding spent? Growth.
In my career, I have been employed in a wide spectrum of growth roles that range from Series A (in a home on University Ave in Palo Alto) to the 30,000-employee Uber. I’ve witnessed every growth role imaginable, as well as their daily functions, expertise areas, and scope. These experiences have provided me with a solid understanding for how and when startups should begin hiring in their early days.
Let’s start with the foundation by outlining the growth role verticals that are most common today.
Nearly every startup will eventually need helping hands with each of the growth verticals above.
Paid acquisition employees are responsible for managing and optimizing paid social channels (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) and search channels (Google, ASA). Lifecycle requires the conversion of recipients of email, push, and text communications into users. Organic refers to the overall management of non-paid mediums, such as social media and SEO. Affiliate marketers form incentive-driven relationships with entities that have large or niche audiences. OOH covers offline media activities, such as direct mail and billboard advertisements. Finally, influencer marketers are specialists in forming relationships and leveraging creators to scale a business.
Those six are the most common growth roles, but there are other growth specialties in existence, including for products, operations, streaming TV, and podcasts.
In the early days of a startup, when one is hiring a “Head of Growth”, the two most important traits they must demonstrate are that they are a generalist and already possess experience in the same or similar vertical.
To explain what a growth generalist is, I must first define that which they are not. They are not an employee on the growth team of Airbnb managing Google Search in EMEA markets (Europe-Middle East-Africa). That is far too specific a role requiring knowledge that won’t be valuable for an early-stage startup that is only looking to grow to their first 100,000 users. When I have been asked what the primary difference was between my experiences at series A companies versus at Uber, my answer always is: “Scaling to that first 95% versus efficiently squeezing that last 5%.”
Finding growth generalists can be challenging, but the rewards are well worth the search. These are people who have a specialty in a common growth vertical, such as paid acquisition, and also possess knowledge and experience in an additional one or two verticals. By hiring someone with a specialty, the recruit can hit the ground running on execution for that goal while still possessing the knowledge to hire or outsource the rest of the common verticals.
Your first growth hire doesn’t need to specialize in every function of growth or have vertical knowledge at a very granular level.
Which vertical is most important? This depends on the startup goals and it’s most typical to hire a paid acquisition specialist as the first hire. These growth folks will have an understanding on how to find PMF, run exhaustive copy and messaging tests and find your first set of users.
Hiring a growth generalist in the same vertical will expedite and increase the chances of success. They will come in with an understanding of the space, competition, and regulations that need to be followed. While it’s not necessary, having someone that comes from the same or even similar vertical will be a nice bonus.
After nailing down the type of growth hire the startup is to make, ensuring that their resume doesn’t do all the talking is also important. A few key principles that any growth specialist should know and be asked during an interview are:
When interviewing your first growth hire, it’ll be wise to ask them questions outside of their specialty to understand how they think about growth. Do they have a broad understanding of growth marketing and how to scale a startup? Making sure they possess an acute knowledge of some of the topics, such as incrementality and how testing will impact the allocation of efforts is supremely important. The list above isn’t exhaustive by any means, but merely one to draw inspiration from.
I left one key topic out of the initial list that is arguably the most important one nowadays: privacy. With iOS14, CCPA, Google’s upcoming deprecation of cookies and more coming down the line, making sure that your growth hire understands the implications and potential solutions is paramount.
I am an avid believer in founders achieving their first 100–1,000 users on their own, by any means necessary. Even if by brute force style and posting on your social media accounts to get friends and family to try the MVP creation. Perhaps, it’s reaching out to old colleagues to ask them to provide feedback over some lunch. This will expedite learnings and iteration more than having someone take the wheel on growth right away. It’s sacrificing early scale for future scale. I believe the right time to hire is once this point has been reached which I call “The Missing Scale.”
The Missing Scale is that point in time when a target audience and product market fit has been found. It’s a signal that by hiring a growth marketer, efforts can be scaled much faster than without one.
If the right growth hire isn’t anywhere to be found during the search, there are interim solutions to consider. The most common one would be to hire a consultant or agency that can help set the foundation while finding the perfect fit.
Just like any hire, an experienced growth marketer should have a clear 30–60–90-day plan when joining. This also makes for a great interview question on where they see the highest priorities to hit the ground running.
The highest priority tasks should consist of setting up a growth tech stack, creating a testing roadmap to find the most efficient growth levers and robust creative and copy testing in the first 90 days. A growth tech stack with proper measurement tooling is imperative so that everything can be measured, which will allow everything else to fall into place after. The testing roadmap should include a priority list of growth mediums, channels, and specific test hypotheses for each. In the testing roadmap, prioritization towards creative and copy is crucial to improving conversion rates on every lever.
Silver bullets do not exist in growth marketing hiring but understanding timing and applying rigor during the hiring process will increase the chances for success. When thinking about which growth hire to bring on, ask yourself who you have the most confidence in to propel the company forward.
How your startup should consider building a growth marketing team - from pillars to an example gold-standard structure.