Product & Growth: A Fundamental Belief System

It might sound controversial for some people, but I believe almost every product manager should also be a growth manager. That’s especially true for scale-ups trying to build defensibility or for startups focusing on getting traction (post P/M fit).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all product teams should be structured the same way, have a similar scope of work and goals. That’s not the point here.

First, let me define what I mean by having a “Product & Growth” mindset (from a blog I posted in 2018).

“What the most creative and innovative organisations are doing to better build, launch and manage products that get and keep more customers in increasing uncertainty is to create a problem-solving team behaviour.

It’s about sensing uncertainty and understanding which questions we need to answer before diving into building. Learnings are the foundation. The more you know about your users, product, and channels, the better you become at designing solutions that influence growth.

However, it isn’t enough to just learn. The purpose of a team is to have an impact on growth. Impact starts with identifying the biggest problem or area of opportunity by using quantitative and qualitative data.

Intuition also plays an important role when coming up with possible solutions or initiatives. Usually, the best insights come from the intersection of quantitative data, qualitative data, and intuition.”

Growth is a funny area in many organisations. Some exceptional organisations get it right, but in the majority of the cases what you find are product teams delivering features with no focus on impacting outcomes, strategy design practice siloed within the senior leadership, separated data, marketing and customer success teams doing their own stuff, and dependencies and friction everywhere.

It still surprises me the number of product teams which are not properly doing the basics of product & growth management (e.g. actionable metrics). It hurts to see so many low hanging fruit opportunities not being prioritised. There is too much focus on the “internal” stuff. Your customers and your competitors don’t care about how much shoutouts you receive in a sprint showcase.

It also surprises me the fact that many of these organisations are backed and advised by outstanding VCs who have the right product & growth mindset and know-how. Something is missing between the advisors and the product teams.

It’s all about the right mindset

That’s a challenging problem to isolate as there are so many variables involved — product operations, team structure, roles & responsibilities, incentives, etc. It’s true that teams fundamentally need the right setup to win and become more independent, but even more important is to have the right mindset.

I’m a firm believer that leadership sets the tone, and because Product Managers are bottom-up leaders, they play a critical role in building the right fundamental belief system. Sometimes it sucks not having the hierarchical power of a CEO to push forward, but influencing the right mindset can be even more impactful in the long term.

The first step of every change is awareness, and the main driver is ownership. If you don’t own it, nobody will. I’ve seen many PMs showing great care for Tech, UX Design, Agile Delivery, Experimentation, but haven’t seen the same level of interest with Growth Management.

I’d say that at least 80% of the product teams today lack a sense of purpose and meaning because they are missing a vital piece of the puzzle, and that’s Growth. I mean, I’m not even talking about building compounding systems. I’m talking about doing the basics — about laying the foundations.

As a Product Manager that hasn’t been exposed to Growth before it’s tough to acquire the know-how if this practice is not part of your current role. One of the fastest ways to learn this approach is to have a side project. Having an impact-driven mindset has a close relation to exercising ownership and having skin in the game.

My journey with Product & Growth Management

Impact and purpose have always been my thing, but I reckon that being a tech entrepreneur early in my career was fundamental for me to develop a sense of skin in the game deeply. Despite having been exposed to some of its foundations years before (when I worked with eCommerce platforms, for example), my direct relationship with product & growth started when I co-founded the product Meevsu in 2011.

Meevsu was a platform which helps any person to promote a live video debate and use the audience to decide who wins. Since the beginning, our product development approach centre on the concept of network effects. Our proof-of-concept phase includes not only the value proposition and business modelling validation but also growth model experimentation.

Despite having already achieved problem-solution fit, we have not considered the proof-of-concept phase concluded until we have the growth model validated as well. We were particularly interested in inherently building user virality into the product experience.

For example, we had run a series of experiments with different debates and cohorts until we got to a satisfactory replicable model: 2 users streaming a debate generated an audience of 500 watchers and triggered 100 votes (every user had to sign up to vote). Considering that an average of 15–30% of these voters came back to watch other sessions, we arrived at a model where every new debate organically generated 15–30 new active users.

Our primary constraint ended up being the supplier-generated content loop — just a small number of users who accepted a debate showed up to stream it later on (a “minimum scope user-generated content growth loop” problem).

At this point in my career, I haven’t had the notion of combining growth loops all together, but the mindset about building sustainable growth models was there.

From this experience, everything fundamentally changed in my approach, and I had the opportunity to improve and develop it into a more systematic one. I implemented it to different teams and product types — from subscription-based media platforms, marketplaces, fintech/payments, to online betting — and had the opportunity to evolve it by launching products from scratch and improving ones with millions of users.

My role models changed as well, and the only content that has hooked me since relates to building teams and methods that actionably impact product traction. For example, every time I see things in the Product Management community like “how to write specification” or “how to present roadmaps” basically kills me inside.

Change is coming, and it’s better to hurry up

I believe that a generational change at the senior leadership level is going to happen in the coming years as leaders with a product & growth mindset start to assume higher leadership positions and COVID-19 exacerbates the need for a more impact-driven approach.

For example, building systems of compounding growth make businesses more sustainable and is one of the key pillars for creating defensibility. That’s particularly important for scale-ups that are having to optimise their budgets during and after COVID-19. We are also seeing a boom of product people having side projects which helps to increase the exposure to the right fundamentals and know-how.

There is also a new trend on Product Ops going on, which is indirectly influencing the community.

“Product Operations enables outcome-oriented decision making at scale. This function surrounds the product and development teams with the support needed to make the best decisions and move forward.” — Melissa Perri.

“A PM’s job doesn’t end at launch, that’s for sure! … this is where the job really starts … It’s an essential role to help cross-functional product teams work effectively and efficiently.” — from the Product School blog.

In my next blog post, I am going to dive deeper into the concept of building systems of compounding growth, why it’s relevant and what to consider when going through the product management process.

Product Management | Scale-ups | Growth Systems