Growth Principle One: Be The Best At Getting Better

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This is the first post in a series detailing the principles that guide high performance growth teams.   Subscribe here to get the rest of the series.  

If there could only be one principle among our growth team, I think it would be this:

Be The Best At Getting Better

That one principle runs through everything that we do as a growth team day in and day out.  

The Long Run
So much emphasis these days is placed on “The One Hack That Grew My Startup %5,243”   Those headlines cause a very short term mentality pursuing silver bullets.  But growth is about the long run.  Startups are about the long run.  

For our growth team, it isn’t about a single experiment a single tactic.  Our focus is that every individual thing we do, is a step forward to getting better at executing as a team and learning about our customer, channels, and product. Learning is a competitive advantage in growth.  If you learn and apply those learnings faster than your competitors, you will grow faster over a given period of time.  If we do that better than anyone else, we will win in the long run. 

What You Can Control
One of my favorite books has to be The Score Takes Care Of Itself from famed San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh.  The season before Bill Walsh took the 49ers coaching gig their record was dismal 2 - 14.  The team was embarrassingly bad.  In the following ten years Walsh ended up leading the 49ers to win 6 division titles, 3 NFC championships, and 3 Super Bowls.  Not bad. 

Did Bill Walsh set division titles, championships and Super Bowls as goals for the team?  Kind of the opposite…

"The first thing I did was approached building the 49er organization with an agenda that didn't include a timetable for a championship or a winning season.  Instead, I arrived with an urgent timetable for installing an agenda of specific behavioral norms - actions and attitudes - that applied to every single person on our payroll."

With any company or product you can set all sorts of goals and dreams.  But at the end of the day there are thousands of variables that you can’t control.  Specifically in growth: 

1.  Customer acquisition channels are always changing.  

2.  Competitors are always are always entering the market.  

3.  The needs and desires of your target audience are always evolving.   

What you can control is yourself and your team.  You control how effective your team is, how well you know your channels and customer, and the rate at which you are improving.  Focus on what you can control, being the best at getting better.  

Dealing With Failure
You tend to have more failures than successes working on growth.  It’s a natural result of a highly experimental process.  This can wear and tear mentally and emotionally on the team.   After all, who wants to spend more time failing than succeeding?  

One important way to deal with this is to not think about it as constant failure and instead take the mindset of of constant improvement.  If an experiment doesn’t improve our numbers it isn't considered a failure for our team.  True failure is if we don’t learn anything that helps us get better.  

How We Implement

There are three primary areas where we implement this principle.  

The Process
Our daily and weekly process as a growth team is very important.  The process guides how we come up with new growth ideas, how we prioritize those ideas, how we design efficient and quality experiments, how we analyze those experiments and how we apply learnings to this never ending cycle.  This process is specifically designed to make sure that we are constantly getting better in a few ways:

1.  Experiment Analysis
Probably the most important piece of the process is how we handle experiments.  Every time a growth team member runs an experiment they are required to write up an analysis of two things. 

a.  What Happened
This typically comes down to the numbers.  Did the experiment improve or decrease the numbers?  By how much?  What was the difference between the result and our prediction?  What type of longer term effect does this have on our growth? Etc, Etc.

b.  Why Did It Happen
I can’t harp on this enough.  You must ask the question, why?  Why did the experiment succeed or fail?  Why did it massively out perform (or under perform) expectations?  If you don’t ask this question, then you are just mindlessly roaming through experiments.  

2.  Sharing The Learnings
Every experiment doc containing results and analysis is fully public to the entire team (not just the growth team).  If someone wants to know what and why something happened it is a couple clicks away.  This also helps make sure that new team members have instant access to a trove of historical learnings. 

3.  Applying The Learnings
With every experiment the owner has to talk about how the learnings can be applied moving forward.  There are typically two ways to do this:

a.  Adding any new experiment ideas based off the learnings to the backlog
b.  Adjusting our priorities for experiments in the backlog based off the learnings 

If we do these two things, over time we should hypothetically be focusing on better and better experiments as we build on a bigger more accurate base of learnings.  

4.  Focus Of Meetings
We have one meeting as a growth team every week.  The focus of those meetings is not what happened in the prior week and what we are focusing on this week.  The focus is about the prior week’s learnings, and why we are focusing on the planned items for the upcoming week.  To emphasize this each meeting starts with each team member going through what they learned the prior week about our customer, marketing channels, or product.  

The Team
Getting better working together as a team is the second area we apply this principle.  Here are some of the tactical things we do to reinforce this:

Stepping Back
It is easy to get in the rhythm of being heads down and never look up.  To avoid this, approximately every 4 months the growth team takes a day to step back and discuss how we can become more effective.  We explore questions like:  

-  How can we make the process more effective or efficient?  
-  How can we get better at communicating learnings to each other?   
-  Are there skill sets on the team that we are missing that would help us be more effective?
-  What are the highest ROI things we have done?  How can we do more of them?
-  What are the lowest ROI things we have done?  Why did we do them?  How do we avoid doing more of them?

Team Composition
One obvious place to improve the effectiveness of the team is hiring.  I am constantly thinking about what type of people we can add (or in unfortunate circumstances, remove) to the team to improve our overall effectiveness.  

Hiring for growth can be difficult.  There aren’t a ton of people out there who have significant experience working on growth.   Instead, we have a raw set of attributes we look for in every person (something I will talk more about in later posts) that make someone specifically good to work on growth.  Getting better at picking those attributes and vetting for them in the hiring process is never ending.  

The Individual
If I had the luxury of spending my time on only one thing as a manager it would be helping all the individuals on my team learn and progress their skills.  We apply the principle of being the best at getting better for each individual.  This comes from two directions.  One, individuals taking the initiative to continually improving themselves.  Two, me helping each individual get better.     

1.  Personal OKRs
We set team goals using OKR's (Objectives and Key Results).  Something new we are trying is also setting personal OKR's every quarter.  Each team member chooses an area they want to get better at.  I help them devise quantitative goals to measure progress, come up with a roadmap to achieve them, connect with people and resources to achieve the goals, and more.  The goals are also shared among the team so we can help each other.  

2.  HubSpot’s $5K
As part of the broader HubSpot culture, every employee gets $5K/year to spend on courses and materials related to personal improvement and professional development.   It helps remove a barrier and we encourage people to spend it.  It is probably the best benefit at HubSpot IMO and was in place before I started working there. 

3.  Self-Learners
One of the traits we look for in growth team members are natural self learners.  People who are hungry to learn more and have a history of taking action on it.  I’ve found it is hard for me to have a substantial impact on helping people improve if they don’t have the motivation to do at least some of it themselves.

4.  Growth Team Classes
Another new thing we are implementing is running lunch classes for the team.  These topics range from specific growth skills to leadership skills.  Any team member can lead a class.  We'll also be getting external people to come in and speak about a topic as well.  

5.  Weekly 1 on 1’s
I hold weekly 1 on 1’s with each growth team member to discuss the most important thing that is on their mind.  A lot of things are discussed in these meetings, but one of the most common is what each team member is interested in learning and the best way we can execute on that.  

6.  Weekly Readings
It is important for team members to learn from others besides myself.  But at the same time there is a lot of crappy writing out there on growth.  Every week I send out 2 - 3 blog posts or resources on a variety of growth related topics as a way to introduce everyone to other quality resources about growth.  

7.  Skills Roadmaps  
An additional tool I use are skills roadmaps.  A skill roadmap lays out topic tracks (Leadership, Data Analysis, Marketing Channels, etc).  Within each topic track are individual skills.  With each individual skill I give the team member a rating of where I think they are at.  I don’t use this tool with every team member.  For some people it provides a level of detail that can be uncomfortable and overwhelming and it ends up being a distraction rather than a constructive conversation.  But when it is a right fit it can help accomplish a few things:

a.  Most people have an idea of where they want to go, but don’t know how to get there.  The Skills Roadmap provides a clear path of the skills they need to obtain to get where they want to go.  The roadmap isn’t perfect.  I don’t know what is perfect for everyone.  But having some type of path to iterate off of is better than having nothing. 
b.  It helps make a person’s progress (or lack of progress) more concrete.  
c.  It highlights the biggest area of improvements.   

8.  Other Ideas
We have come up with a bunch of other ideas on how to keep implementing this principle.  Other ideas include doing Pair Experiments (similar concept to pair programming), a team book club, and company swaps (swap growth teams with another company for a day).  As we grow as a team we will continue to test and implement these ideas.  

This is the first post in a series about the principles that guide high performance growth teams.  Subscribe to my blog if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on future posts.   

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If there could only be one principle among our growth team, it would be this one.  This one principle runs through everything that we do day in and day out.  It guides our day, our ideas, our strategy, our hiring, our team.