How to build a high impact growth team - Structure and Hiring

About the author

Jeff Chang is a growth technical leader at Pinterest and also a growth advisor for various high growth startups. If you would like to chat with me about growth, feel free me to email me at jeff@growthengblog.com.

Introduction

Every company has a different optimal growth strategy. So, every company needs a different kind of growth team to find and execute on that strategy. In this post, I’ll talk about general concepts to consider when building a growth team, a base for you to iterate on to create the right kind of growth team for your company.

Team structure and roles

In some team setups, the PM works with other leads determine the strategy and projects and hands it off to the engineers and designers to execute. I would recommend against this because it is hard for one PM to come up with enough quality ideas for all the engineers so you’ll end up with people waiting for projects. The most effective way I’ve seen growth teams operate is that engineers and designers together are the individual building pairs that own the experiment process end to end including ideation, and PM brings together multiple pairs to form one coherent strategy. Bottoms up instead of top down. A PM with a few engineer-designer building pairs makes up an atomic growth team, and bigger growth teams usually comprise of multiple atomic growth teams.

 In the beginning, you’ll probably start with one atomic growth team. As your team grows, you will naturally split into multiple atomic growth teams owning different areas. As you can see, there is no perfect PM : Engineer : Design ratio, and the correct number of each to hire depends on team needs.

In the beginning, you’ll probably start with one atomic growth team. As your team grows, you will naturally split into multiple atomic growth teams owning different areas. As you can see, there is no perfect PM : Engineer : Design ratio, and the correct number of each to hire depends on team needs.

There are some growth team needs that have ambiguous owners, for example, ideation. In my opinion, it’s good to have everyone responsible for coming up with ideas for a few reasons:

  1. If only a few people are coming up with ideas, it does not scale as the team grows.

  2. It makes everyone on the team feel like an owner and responsible for the team goal, and not just a service.

  3. Different people have diverse views and having only a few people coming up with ideas may bias towards certain opportunities and miss others.

Another growth team need with flexible owners is experiment data analysis, and I’ve seen this need filled by different roles outside of analysts such as PM or engineers.

As you can see, growth team members usually have multiple roles. Here, I will list the common roles for each team member, but keep in mind the needs of each growth team is different so these lists aren’t exhaustive, nor is each role required. Modify the roles to fit your team needs.

PM

  • With other team leads, lead the process to develop overall team strategy
  • Come up with and prioritize experiment ideas
  • Help remove blockers
  • Lead cross-team projects
  • Experiment result analysis

Engineer

  • Determine technical strategy of the product
  • Come up with experiment ideas
  • Execute on experiment ideas
  • Experiment result analysis
  • Monitor for and resolve to metrics incidents

Designer

  • Work with a PM to develop overall team strategy
  • Determine product design principles
  • Come up with experiment ideas
  • Execute on experiment ideas

Every single role is important and I’ve seen varying skill levels of each role dramatically affect the output of the team.

Hiring: Initiative and Flexibility

In early-stage growth teams, it’s important to find early members that are flexible. For example, PMs or engineers can handle basic analytics. The reason this is important is that not being blocked is key to optimizing growth team velocity. For example, if the team temporarily lacks a designer, the turnaround for an experiment design might be slow. Great growth engineers may take initiative to come up with a mockup that they can build and test, instead of waiting a long time for a polished design. That’s why for your early growth hires, regardless of role, initiative and flexibility are two important attributes.

How should I hire growth engineers?

This is one of the most common questions I get about starting a growth team. The short answer is: It’s very hard, you will probably have to train them from scratch. Growth engineering is a relatively new space and there are relatively few companies with growth engineering teams. Most of these teams are new and small, so the talent pool for good growth engineers is small. The talent pool is so small that even top growth teams end up mostly hiring people with no growth experience, but this is fine with effective training.

What do you look for when hiring growth engineers? One topic is seniority. Because most new growth team members have no prior growth experience, the impact difference between senior and junior engineers is not as high as you may expect. There are often a lot of great growth opportunities that are not technically challenging to build, so even newer software engineers can build them. I’ve observed that there seems to be very little correlation between the seniority of a new growth hire and their overall impact, so don’t be afraid to hire junior engineers if they seem to have other growth traits such as initiative and flexibility. The bottom line is what really matters is their ability to chase impact by having a high execution speed and pursuing the right opportunities. Hire the engineer that will likely result in the most impact, not just the one with the most technical experience.

The two most important qualities to look for when hiring new growth engineers are 1. the technical ability to execute experiments quickly and 2. being able to learn from data. You want engineers that can 1. launch multiple experiments a week without much technical guidance and 2. do basic data analysis to find opportunities, understand users, and correctly analyze experiment results. Of course, these skills can be trained, but for your first growth hires you probably want engineers who can already do this. The third important skill, being able to source and evaluate great growth ideas usually doesn’t come with new hires but is something that has to be trained and learned over time. I developed a kind of training where new growth members consistently practice using the HIPE framework I explained in the previous blog post to develop this skill. The results were actually great, ideas went from “low chance of success” to “decent opportunity” after only a month or two, from team members with no prior growth experience. I’ll probably write more about this later on as I get more data on how it goes. This is why investing in growth education is just as important as hiring talented people.

How should I hire growth PMs?

This is probably the easiest of the three roles to hire for because a lot of PMs have experience with product strategy and helping make teams effective. The main trait I've noticed that makes growth PMs stand out is metrics expertise. Metrics are a big decider to strategy, so it makes sense that a strategic leader needs to be a metrics expert. Prioritization also tends to fall under the PM's responsibility, so you want a PM who can use data to pick the highest leveraged opportunities to pursue and avoid traps such as experiments that take a month to test but don’t result in a win. Good growth PMs are great at reducing scope. Startup founders are generally good for filling this role because they’ve built something and understand the struggles with getting users and the importance of growth.

How should I hire growth designers?

A great growth designer is probably one of the hardest roles to hire for because there are so few growth designers on the market. Also, the kind of designer that you want for growth is very specific - you want a designer who can execute quickly and enjoys working on many smaller design projects instead of fewer large ones, given this is the project length distribution of most growth teams. In addition, a good growth designer balances both user experiences and metrics wins in order to deliver the best product.

Conclusion

There is no perfect growth team composition and different companies need different kinds of teams to operate their unique strategies. So, it’s good to hire multi-talented people with initiative and flexibility. Traditional ways to evaluate engineers, designers, or PMs do not really apply to growth that well. For example, it’s important to remember that you are not trying to hire the engineer with the best technical ability, but you are trying to hire the engineer that can deliver the most impact. Once you have your key hires, it’s time to start running experiments and iterating on your team structure and processes!

Want some advice on building a high impact growth team? Email me at jeff@growthengblog.com