Growth

Aug 23

What does your first Growth Hire do?

Trevor Sookraj

If you do a LinkedIn search for titles containing “Growth,” you’d be surprised at the results. Within startups, the title spans marketing (Head of Growth), sales (Growth Lead), and even technical teams (Product Growth, Growth Engineer). In most cases, it refers to someone who directly drives revenue for the company, i.e. sales/marketing.

If you’re a founder, and are currently leading sales/marketing for your startup, there will come a time when you need to invest in an external growth hire. In this article, we’ll get into what to expect from your first growth hire, and what tradeoffs you might need to make in a potential hire.

Growth Marketing or Sales?

Founders often ask themselves what parts of a founder-led growth strategy do they want to hand over to an external hire—sales or marketing? The answer can actually be simplified if you use two titles: Demand Generation Manager and Account Executive.

What does a Demand Generation Manager do?

Marketers who specialize in demand generation can help a startup run experiments on different channels (i.e. paid media, email, etc.) to drive leads for the company. They thrive when given a clear audience and messaging framework, including an Ideal Customer Profile.

This is most effective when a startup has achieved Product-Market Fit (PMF), meaning that the startup has a repeatable way to sell to their target market and use a consistent narrative, i.e. messaging based on their pain point, to talk to their audience.

Founders that hire a Demand Generation Manager before PMF are setting themselves up for failure. This is because other areas that lead to determining PMF are tightly coupled with product marketing (messaging, personas, etc.) and product management (onboarding, feature roadmap, etc.). A Demand Generation Manager cannot be successful in their role without clarity on PMF.

Here are some outcomes that might happen if you hire a Demand Generation Manager too early:

  • You see good metrics on campaigns (i.e. click-through rate, email open rate) but don’t generate any leads for the business.
  • You spend lots of money testing channels but don’t have any learnings from the tests.

Takeaway: You shouldn’t try to generate demand at scale if there isn’t a repeatable sale for your product using a combination of pain point-based messaging.

What does an Account Executive do?

Salespeople who drive prospects through the pipeline from prospect to customer are defined as Account Executives. Typically, they excel in talking to qualified prospects, helping the prospect understand how the product can help them, and handling the negotiation process that converts prospects to new customers.

Hiring an Account Executive before PMF would also be a mistake. This is because there is no clearly-defined sales process—who to sell to, why they should care about the product, and what pushes them to buy—given the low volume of customers. A lack of clear sales process would mean the Account Executive doesn’t have what they need in order to successfully convince prospects to make the purchase.

Here are some outcomes that might happen if you hire an Account Executive too early:

  • You get frustrated that qualified companies are not converting into customers after conversations with the Account Executive.
  • Deals take a long time to close or don’t materialize from early conversations

Takeaway: You shouldn’t try to offload sales to an external hire if it’s not abundantly clear how you sell your product, who you sell to, and why they should buy (backed by data).

You’ll notice that there is an overlap between the problems that arise in both scenarios when growth folks are hired before the start-up develops a strong understanding of product marketing and positioning. This is a good segue into the first responsibility of your growth hire.

1) Early growth hires define product marketing

As a founder, you have the strongest understanding of your product, customers, and vision for growth. The time you spent on user research and building your MVP—before having any customers—gave you insight into how your target market thinks about the problem you are solving, and how your product can help them.

The problem is that this is all in your head. Most founders don’t invest heavily in documentation or knowledge transfer when building the product since it isn’t necessary for growth. However, your first growth hire will need this information to determine how you should scale your startup.

The main responsibility of your first growth hire is to get inside the heads of the founders, distill (and challenge) what they think about their prospects, how this relates to the product roadmap, and use all that information to create the initial experiments.

A prime example can be found in Shopify Plus, the Enterprise offering of Shopify. During its inception in 2015-2016, the software was touted as a must-have for growing brands. As an all-in-one solution, Shopify needed to provide ancillary benefits like inventory management and Point of Sale (POS). The POS solution was quite weak when they started, and was a losing point against competitors. 

Their Head of Growth would have been responsible for making this observation, communicating it to the sales team, and ensuring that all marketing activities avoided talking about POS and instead focused on the other benefits (reliable infrastructure, Merchant Success Manager, etc.) that would convert customers. 

So not only does your first growth hire need to know about positioning, they also need to have a good understanding of your product’s weaknesses and what language to stay away from in your messaging and marketing. 

2) Growth skills are dependent on your business

Is growth equivalent to demand generation? Yes, if you have a solid product and no users. Many founders looking to hand over the responsibility of sales/marketing to external hires have already built a decent following, but they have trouble in other areas, namely:

  • Converting new users into paying users 
  • Closing prospects who show interest
  • Expanding low value accounts into high value accounts

Developer Tooling is a great example, where many products have a solid user base but have trouble monetizing their offerings. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as the pricing scheme, the product experience (post signup), etc. 

Webapp is a Toronto-based Dev Tooling startup, and a Divisional client, that handles end-to-end testing. With a solid user base, the main growth activity they undertook with a growth hire was thinking through personas, pricing tiers that made the most sense, and how to roll this out across product onboarding. None of these activities involved testing channels, but they were imperative to company growth. 

All this to say, there’s no one correct answer to what skills are a must-have for your first growth hire. It depends on what you need from them, what their core responsibilities would be, and what part of your growth plan you see them contributing to. One thing that you need to look for in all growth hires though, irrespective of their role, is the ability to do extensive buyer and market research.

What can’t growth hires do?

A common trope on LinkedIn is that growth marketers can’t do everything, as many job descriptions include every imaginable channel (SEO, paid media, email, etc.). 

Every growth hire is looking for a different challenge. Some growth hires prefer to join an organization that has already achieved Product Market Fit and marketing infrastructure, so that they can focus on testing with confidence. For them, the role is more centered around digesting data, optimizing channels, and figuring out the next big swings for the company. 

In contrast, some growth hires are eager to get their hands dirty and be treated like a founder. They thrive in ambiguity, and enjoy figuring out the target market, pain points, and messaging together with the founders. These growth hires acknowledge that there is a high variability of success to early experiments, but can make bets with imperfect information. 

At a glance, it may seem that the ‘hands dirty’ growth hires are better, but it is purely dependent on your organization. Founders who have built companies before, come from marketing backgrounds, or already have a strong grasp on their Go-To-Market (GTM) motion will work better with a growth hire who can own KPIs instead of building the foundation. 

Who is the best long-term growth hire? 

Most founders want to hire for growth—someone who will grow with the organization, tackle new challenges and improve their skill set along the way. Some might point to Shopify, Zapier, or other thriving tech companies where the core leadership team has remained relatively the same, even through massive growth. 

If you are looking to make a long-term hire, don’t prioritize the ability to execute over the value of experience. The best growth hire to be a Chief Revenue Officer, or build out your marketing and sales organization, is someone who has done it before. Management is often termed as the one skill that employees can’t learn, except through experience. Remember that your first growth hire will be key in recruiting your next 10 hires, and making the wrong decision can be very costly. 

A growth hire who knows how to recruit and manage is also crucial when they inevitably will have to delegate the execution of campaigns. From working with 50+ startups, we at Divisional have seen that the #1 reason behind failing growth teams is miscommunication. If your growth hire puts their faith in the wrong resources to execute, they will quickly get overwhelmed and make bad decisions for the organization. 

Conclusion

It isn’t easy for a founder to transition away from leading sales and marketing. Founders who do it too early feel they might lose the learnings and insights that will drive their company to PMF. Founders who do it too late feel they are being inefficient and trying to manage a part of the organization that doesn’t match their skill sets. 

If you’re making your first growth hire, remember that it is NOT a transactional hire, and therefore profiles like Demand Generation Manager or Account Executive may be the wrong choice. Focus on hires who deeply understand product marketing and have skills that match the phase that your business is in. Remember to look at their goals and personality, to make sure that the challenge they will be tackling is something they’re actually interested in. Finally, prioritize hires who have managed people and ‘done it before’ so they avoid making rookie mistakes and can build out a team as you scale.

Unsure who to hire for your first growth role? Divisional can help. We have vetted Heads of Growth and Growth Marketing Managers for a variety of business models and founder profiles. Get in touch below and we’ll see if we can help! 

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