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8 Growth Secrets I Learned from Reading Every Interview with Alex Schultz, VP of Growth at Facebook

Emily Bauer, Propeller CRM

22 July 2019

This is a guest post written by Emily Bauer of Propeller CRM.

One of the world’s top experts on growth wants business owners to know that growth is optional.

And yes, that should scare you a little. Especially because its advice coming straight from Alex Schultz. 

As VP of Growth at Facebook, Schultz knows a thing or two about growing a company. He knows what needs to happen for a product to take off and take hold in the market. More specifically, he knows that sustainable growth doesn’t happen by luck or magic – it’s something you must choose to strategically pursue. 

But if growth is optional, how can you make it a guaranteed outcome for your business? What steps can you take to opt-in to success? 

To find the answers, I decided to study the advice of someone with plenty of real-world experience: Alex Schultz.

And in this article, I’ll share the biggest lessons and takeaways I learned from reading every interview with him. 

Ready? Here’s what I learned about growing a business from Alex Schultz. – a.k.a. how Facebook took over the world (and how your business can make an impact, too).

Retention is King

The core of Schultz’ advice is simple, but critical to remember at every step of your startup journey: “retention is the single most important thing for growth.”

If you have users trying your product or installing your app, but they don’t stick around or come back within a reasonable time frame, then there’s a mismatch between your product and your audience or the product isn’t ready to market.

Schultz emphasizes that retention is the result of “having a great idea and a great product to back up that idea, and great product-market fit.”

And in order to truly gauge whether a product has retention, you have to look at whether or not users who try the product continue to use it long-term. Schultz adds that you should normalize usage on a cohort basis to get an accurate picture of who is actually sticking around.

Product-Market Fit Before Growth

It’s one thing to say retention is the most important thing for startup growth, but it’s another to make it happen. The key to retention, according to Schultz? Product-market fit.

He says lack of product-market fit is the number one problem for struggling startups.

When you push out a product that your users don’t love or aren’t ready for, they won’t stick around long enough to experience its full potential. The secret is to build something that people want to use right now. You need to know the market well enough to offer the right product at the right time for the right customers.

Growth without product-market fit is not sustainable. Even if you spend a ton of time and money on marketing and gaining new customers, those users will either churn quickly or fail to convert at all.

So, in order to avoid crashing and burning, startups need to achieve product-market fit before focusing on growth. Only once you have true product-market fit and start to see retention should you switch gears to focus on growth.

A Growth Mindset Starts at the Top

As soon as you have proven retention, you can enter into a stage Schultz calls “operating for growth.” 

He explains that successful, sustainable growth requires buy-in from the whole team. Everyone from founders to developers to marketers to sales reps needs to take growth seriously and consider how their actions will contribute to the company’s potential to scale.

Schultz goes so far as to say, “Startups should not have growth teams. The whole company should be the growth team.”

In order to drive adoption of this mindset, leadership must champion growth and build it into the company culture that growth is everyone’s responsibility. 

Identify the Magic Moment

The “magic moment” is when a new user or customer realizes the value of your product, service, or business. It’s the moment when someone first gets what your product is all about. Experiencing the magic moment is a huge factor in driving retention because it gives users a reason to come back.

For Facebook, that moment is when a new user first sees a photo of their friends online. That’s why Facebook tries to get people to add at least 10 friends within 14 days of joining.

Once you know what the magic moment is for your customers, you should focus on getting new users to experience it as quickly as possible. If you’re able to guide people towards the moment that makes them feel connected to your product or platform, your retention (and potential for growth!) will skyrocket.

Stop Thinking About Yourself

You know your product better than anybody, so your perspective will always be different than that of your customers (even if they’re your peers). 

So, in order to maximize the number of users who experience the magic moment, you need to stop thinking about how you use the product. Furthermore, you need to stop thinking about your power users and the people who already love your product.

 Instead, you need to optimize your product for the marginal user.

As Schultz puts it: “Building an incredible product is definitely optimizing it for the people who use your product the most, but when it comes to driving growth, people who are already using your product are not the ones you have to worry about.”

The people you need to focus on are the less-engaged users who aren’t sticking around. The trick is to figure out what they’re missing from the user experience that prevents them from coming back and how can you increase the odds that they’ll experience the magic.

He uses notifications as an example of this:

“Every single company when they talk about notifications goes, ‘Oh, I’m getting too many notifications. I think that’s what we have to optimize for on notifications.’ Okay, are your power users leaving your site because they’re getting too many notifications? No. Then why would you optimize for that? They’re probably grown-ups and they can use filters.”

Instead, you should optimize for the marginal user – someone who isn’t getting notifications often, if at all. Ignoring the marginal users results in greater customer churn, which hurts both growth and retention.

But if you can get marginal users to experience the magic moment (i.e. by getting Facebook users to add 10 friends quickly so they see their friends online), then you can increase retention dramatically. Again, this works because the magic moment is what shows someone why they should keep coming back to your product to experience that value again.

  1. Define Your North Star Metric

When you’re operating for growth, one of the biggest things you need to focus on is the north star metric. Your north star is that one key metric that you want everyone on your team to work towards improving.

For a social product like Facebook or Whatsapp, the north star needs to measure engagement (i.e. monthly actives or number of messages sent), because success depends entirely on people using the platform. 

On the other hand, companies that offer experiences might choose a north star metric based on how often their services are used (like how many nights are booked on Airbnb; how many movies are watched on Netflix; or how many rides are completed with Uber).

How do you know you’ve found your north star? 

As Schultz puts it, “If everyone in your company is thinking about it and driving their product towards that metric and their actions towards moving that metric up, you know in the long run your company will be successful.”

Choosing a single metric on which to base your entire product direction and growth strategy can seem pretty daunting – but it doesn’t have to be. Especially because there’s no single metric that needs to be your guiding star. 

Although you should put some thought into choosing a meaningful metric, there are a number of metrics that would work just as well. The key is to just pick one and rally your entire team around it. Your north star metric can (and probably should) change as your company grows and your goals evolve.

For Facebook, their north star metric is monthly active users. But Schultz admits that they could have just as easily used daily active or weekly active users and achieved similar results.

“They’re all probably all correlated,” he explains. “So, it’s probably fine to pick almost any metric, whichever one you feel the best about, that aligns with your mission and your values.”

Minimize Friction in the Conversion Process
In order to keep your sales pipeline flowing (and full of potential customers), you need to make it as easy to convert at every step of the process. You can reduce friction by requiring less effort of potential customers who want to take action – whether it’s to learn more, start a trial, sign up, or install your product.
To understand how viral your product is, you need to know three metrics related to virality:
Payload: That is, how many people you can reach on a given channel;
Frequency: How many times you can reach a potential customer; and
Conversion rate: How likely are people to take the next step towards becoming a lead, a customer, an engaged user, or an advocate.

You can also boost virality by incentivizing users to share and invite more people to join – and also making it extremely simple to do so at scale. For instance, a single click of the ‘Share’ button on an app should allow your users to send it to everyone in their contact list, if they so wish.

Use SEO to Help Customers Find You
Growth requires that users can find your product or service when they look for a solution like yours. It doesn’t matter how awesome your product is if no one knows it exists.

And where do modern consumers search for new products and services? Online – most likely by typing into Google or doing a voice search on their phone.

If you want to get discovered online, you need to optimize your website for search results. The SEO essentials that Schultz talks about are fairly standard: keywords and links. That said, many startups overlook the value of doing SEO properly.

Schultz breaks it down into simple steps and simple terms. He reminds startups to choose keywords strategically. That means doing research to find out what potential customers are searching for, the search volume of different terms, how relevant each term is to your company, and how much competition there is to rank for those keywords.

The other vital SEO factor Schultz highlights in his interviews is link building. In order to build authority for your website, you need to score links from other authoritative sites. This shows Google that your site can be trusted, provides valuable information to visitors and is worth displaying in search results for the key terms you’ve targeted.

Don’t Let Growth Be Optional for Your Startup

For businesses of all shapes and sizes, finding a route to sustainable growth is a prerequisite to success. So, even though growth is technically optional, you can tip the odds to make it a sure-thing by following Alex Schultz’ advice. 

Here’s a quick recap before you go:

  • Focus on product-market fit before “operating for growth.”
  • Growth should be a company-wide effort, especially for small businesses and startups.
  • Pinpoint the magic moment that hooks customers – and then steer them towards it.
  • Optimize experiences for the marginal user, not the power user (or yourself).
  • Make it as easy as possible for customers to convert at every step of the funnel.
  • Make it simple for people to discover, share, and invite others to use your product.

Hopefully, these tips will help you come up with new ways to increase retention, boost virality, and drive long-term growth. 

About the author:

Emily is a researcher and writer for Propeller CRMa simple Gmail CRM focused on building pipelines, closing sales, and scaling companies. She’s a running and travel enthusiast with a passion for all things written, powered by Earl Grey, yoga, and tofu.