AndyJohns1

In a recent AMA on GrowthHackers.com, former PM of Conversion Rate Optimization at Twitter, Quora, and Wealthfront and PM of Embeddable Widgets/Products at Facebook, Andy Johns highlighted a number of interesting learnings from his career so far.

Many seek to find the silver bullet for hypergrowth, but according to Johns, the job isn’t too different from the CMO role in the offline world. “Growth is really just the redefinition of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). Technology companies are fundamentally distinct from brick and mortar companies. Netflix was not like Blockbuster. The way in which Netflix grew was completely different from Blockbuster. Therefore, the teams and people you need with a company like Netflix are very different from the teams and people you need within a company like Blockbuster. That’s why Growth is a ‘thing’. A traditional CMO would not have helped Facebook reach the scale at which it now operates. But a traditional CMO may help traditional brick and mortar companies out quite a bit.”

Growth as the organized and disciplined approach to product iteration and marketing

Andy Johns is one of a few people who personifies this “thing”. Growth. The startup community treats them, the proven growth hackers, as demigods. “I don’t particularly like the term ‘growth hacker’ because it implies that an individual is responsible for growth of a company. That’s false,” Johns argued, “growth is an organized and a disciplined approach to iterative product development and iterative product marketing. Both areas are executed by a team including data folks, engineering, design, and internet marketing.”

“To be a good growth hacker, you have to be highly structured. You can’t approach growth as a scattershot effort.” Tweet this (you can edit first)

“To be a good growth hacker, you have to be highly structured. You can’t approach growth as a scattershot effort.” He gave an example of this structure from his own daily work, “my day focuses around checklists, so my day begins with structure,” he explained. “At all times I need to know what is the most important thing I could be doing right now, what do I need to do to execute on that and what does the deliverable look like? It’s not sexy by any means. But it gets the job done!”

Comparing a growth team to the finance team of an organization gave an insight into how Johns envisions the role of his team. “I think of it this way — a finance team pays attention to the flow of cash in and out of a business and understands the flow intimately. They then try to, intelligently, shape the flow of cash in and out. A growth team pays attention to the flow of users/customers in and out of a product. The growth team understands that better than anyone else understands it and drives the work that shapes the flow of users in and out of the product.”

A framework for growth

Despite numerous attempts to dig out a special trait or skillset that made Johns particularly good at his job, he stayed very humble around his own role. His advice was simple: pick one area of expertise – a channel or skill – and get exceptional at that. The comprehensive understanding of ‘growth’ comes over time by adding one new field of expertise at a time. Asked for his own secret, he claimed not to have a silver bullet. “I just keep working at it and keep my focus. If I had to say I have a strength or two, I would say I can describe complex things in simple ways.”

“Focus your efforts around defining the work that needs to be done. Most importantly, don’t try to do everything at once. Pick one or two things to focus on and do that exceptionally well.”

Strong focus is a recurring theme in how Johns works, “focus your efforts around defining the work that needs to be done. Most importantly, don’t try to do everything at once. Pick one or two things to focus on and do that exceptionally well.” Again, he emphasized the growth model as the foundation for testing new ideas, “firstly, build a simple growth model which measures and projects your growth. This can be as simple as an excel model to begin with where you identify the parameters for growth, e.g. traffic x signup rate x value per signup, etc. Then organize people and effort around that model. Which parameter will you focus on improving first? Secondly, build an experimentation program where you effectively test across your product, improving key metrics along the way. Thirdly, test and scale new customer acquisition channels”

If your company is moving fast with dynamic changes to product and competition, the framework for projecting growth has to be rather short-term though. Once beyond 6 months, the projection becomes ‘chaos theory’. “Maintaining an accurate growth model and prediction is largely iterative. We edit and update our prediction models frequently. Previously, I’ve updated growth models on a monthly basis as you receive new inputs.”

Johns went on to describe what he calls the “growth flywheel” – the engine of growth – and while it can’t predict growth, it gives a basic understanding of where the growth will come from. “For example, Quora grows by getting people to write content. For each piece of content written Quora gets more traffic. Some of that traffic converts into new signups. Some of those new signups eventually convert into becoming content writers, and the process continues. That’s what I mean by a growth engine. Understand what that is at first.”

“You don’t necessarily discover organic growth. But you do iterate your way towards building a product that people go crazy for. All great companies begin there.”

“You don’t necessarily discover organic growth. But you do iterate your way towards building a product that people go crazy for. All great companies begin there. Of course, you then work on developing multiple distribution channels to accelerate the organic growth. However, for us today at Wealthfront we see that whenever we built new products that fill a need for our clients, our growth accelerates. It’s happened over and over again.”

Sustainability of growth

According to John, Silicon Valley is obsessed with exponential growth. But growth for the sake of growth is not always desirable as it comes at a cost. “I always pick the company that can maintain a reasonable rate of growth over a very long time (e.g. 10 – 20 years) than the company with 2 years of killer growth followed by 2 years of exponential decay.” He highlighted Zynga as the horror story and LinkedIn as the case study. “It took LinkedIn 400 days to get a million registered users and nearly 4 years to get to 10 million. By today’s standards, most in the tech world would look at it and say “Eh, that’s pretty good. It’s not Snapchat though!” But look at their growth in recent years. They had about 90 million registered users at the time of their IPO. 18 – 24 months later I think they had 200 million, and still growing!”

The obsession with long-term growth doesn’t mean that there aren’t huge short-term gains. Andy Johns recalled a particular episode in the early days at Twitter.” it started with something simple. We looked at the signup form and attrition rates through signup. Turned out that username selection was a big hurdle. We tested some alternative UI’s and found a version that lifted signups by nearly 70,000 new signups a day. A DAY!!!! And all of those new signups were just as “valuable” or engaged as the signups before them. It was not an artificial lift.”

The incident at Twitter taught Johns two valuable lessons. “Firstly, start with the basics. John Wooden, legendary basketball coach at UCLA who won 10 national championships, started each season by teaching all of his new players how to put their socks on. The logic was that if you put your socks on incorrectly you get blisters. Players with blisters can’t practice. If you can’t practice, you can’t improve. If you don’t improve, you won’t win. Growth teams teach companies how to put their socks on.”

“Secondly, dig deeper. As we looked closer into the data, we realized that signup rates were more profoundly impacted per country. That’s because the signup forms poorly handled inline validation for non-Latin characters. We effectively borked signup for people in a handful of countries that no one had been thinking of. Overnight, our rate of growth increased by 2x – 3x in some countries. Amazing, right?!”

You can read the full AMA here. and tweet a link to this post here (you can edit the tweet).

Image credits: Open Network Lab

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