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To win post-pandemic, startups need remote-first growth teams

Growth leaders used to build key relationships across a company while working together in a real-life office. Those relationships could carry over through the pandemic, but let’s say you’re a new company and you’re remote-first.

How do you build this complex collaboration from scratch?

Growth marketer and investor Susan Su tells us that the solution is not just more software tools. In the interview below, she says that after the pandemic, startup founders will need to develop a mentality that places growth at the center of company strategy.

Consultants and agencies can be great additions to this effort, especially if they have previously solved the types of problems you face. (In fact, TechCrunch is asking founders who have worked with growth marketers to share a recommendation in this survey. We’ll use your answers to find more experts to interview.)

Su is currently the head of portfolio strategy for Sound Ventures, previously a growth leader at Stripe and the first hire at Reforge. She also shared a few thoughts on market opportunities after the pandemic in the full interview below. E-commerce is mainstream for good, she says, even as we all try to step away from screens more often. However, many social and mobile sectors are mature, and it’s going to be even harder for startups to compete as real-world activities absorb more time.

Don’t forget: Susan Su will also appear at our Early Stage virtual event on July 8 (and answer questions directly).

How are you seeing startups manage changes in user engagement as more people exit pandemic lockdowns and adjust their daily lives?

As we exit the pandemic, I expect that we'll see a natural and obvious spike in some consumer activity that will roll up to midsized businesses and enterprises. Just like with the onset of the pandemic, we'll see uneven results across sectors:

E-commerce boomed during the pandemic but was really an augmentation of an already-accelerating trend towards digital commerce and streamlined logistics. I don't think we backtrack from e-commerce because habit formation around online shopping has been building for years; we would be backtracking to an age long before 2020, and that's not going to happen.

New social-mobile experiences also boomed during the pandemic, but there's still a valid question around whether 15 months or so is enough time to become part of the ingrained infrastructure of daily life. We are living in an age of mature platforms, so every new service is stealing time away from an existing service. As with pre-pandemic growth, their success rests upon fast-accumulating network effects and great, sticky core product experience. Now that we have parks, friends and dinners out calling to us again, it's a real test of how compelling some of these new value propositions really are, and whether they can continue to demonstrate their relevance in a more hybridized online-offline world.

That said, the pandemic was an enormous constraint on human society and [the] economy, and these kinds of constraints often breed innovation that doesn't go away. We will evolve, but we can never go back. It sounds cheesy but it's true.

Some aspects of the pandemic, like remote work, appear to have radically changed certain industries. How will these societal changes impact how the typical startup thinks about growth?

Growth will always be growth — that is, a process of iterative experimentation to identify and solve customer problems, and then scale those solutions in order to reach and convert bigger and bigger audiences. Platform changes like iOS 14 or Facebook's periodic algorithm adjustments will have a bigger impact in the near term on the technical functioning of growth, and these aren't specifically pandemic-related.

One area to watch is how growth teams are built and operated. Growth is a horizontal function that touches many different parts of the org, including product, engineering, marketing, comms and design. Many startup teams have already been working with collaboration tools even while they sat in the same office, but growth is about more than just using tools. The most effective growth leaders succeed by building relationships across the organization; it's like the fable of Stone Soup — you're creating this meal that will feed everyone, but you also need each person to bring a pinch of salt, or a dash of pepper, or one carrot, and that requires socialization and relationship-building. I'll be very interested to see how new growth leaders onboard remote-only teams and what approaches they take to this “networking” need within the function.

From the days of growth hacking on social platforms, growth marketing is now an established part of the world. But it’s not necessarily the main expertise of a startup founder, even if it needs to be. So, how should they think about addressing growth marketing in 2021? What are the essentials they should do in their roles?

Every founder needs to have a growth mentality. They don't need to memorize all the right buttons to push in an ads dashboard, but they need to be familiar and comfortable with the core work of gap-finding. That said, founders are by definition entrepreneurial — their company exists because they saw an opportunity that no one else did, and this is the fundamental work of growth as well.

Founders will fail if they adopt a mentality that someone else can or should do it for them. The founder's job is to supply ambition and opinions, and then magnetize high-quality talent to come and pull the levers and bring their creative vision to life. There are many people who can do growth marketing — that is, they know how the platforms work, they understand the rules and the playbooks. But there are very few who can come up with truly visionary strategies that change the game altogether — those people become founders, and those companies become household names. So for a founder, I'd say the most important growth work is to continue to know your market and customer better than anyone else in the whole world, have an opinion about what's missing, and work to bring the best talent to come in alongside you and be a thought partner, not just a button pusher.

With limited resources, how should early-stage companies think about what to focus on?

This is going to depend on the goals of your company. Are you planning to raise money and need to demonstrate certain KPIs? Are you bootstrapping and need to keep the lights on? Resources should always be allocated to the most strategic purposes, with the longest-term view you can afford. For some companies, this could mean forgoing revenue to focus on viral or word-of-mouth-driven user acquisition to demonstrate to future investors that there's something special here. For other companies, perhaps in lower volume categories like enterprise, it's about bringing a few strategic logos into the family as a signal to later customers and other stakeholders, including future employees and investors.

One thing that early-stage companies should always be focused on is building a top-shelf employer brand. You will only ever be as good as the talent you attract to your company, and interestingly growth can actually play a role in this. The best designers, engineers and product people are often flowing towards the companies that have the best growth. In that way, it's a highly strategic role and function.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

You can't truly outsource growth or any other core function; you can't tack on customer acquisition after product development. At the end of the day, if you really think about it, all a company is, is a customer-acquisition engine. This needs to be core; wake up every day and think about growth, not just to hit revenue or user KPIs, but to build the company that the best people are clamoring to work at. It's not about finding someone sufficient to solve your near-term problems; it's about framing problems in a way that's so compelling to the most creative, hardest working people so that they can't get it out of their heads. Go for talent moonshots, and figure out how to close them. The rest will fall in line from there.

When should a founder feel comfortable getting help from an outside expert or agency?

Anytime. Agencies are great. They are an extension of your talent, and the best agencies aren't selling you — they have to be sold on your problem because they have their pick of companies just like yours. That's the agency or outside expert you want to work with, because they'll have a priceless perspective from the other best-in-class founders and teams they've worked with that they can bring to your challenge. Any agency can run Facebook ads (it's not rocket science), but you want to find the team that's solved the gnarliest problems for your hero companies. Then you'll get not just an ads manager, but a teacher.

 

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