Big business: You, too, can growth hack

Big businesses have a lot of potential to unlock and can be scrappy to great effect if they push traditional approaches aside. The key is to always keep rethinking and continue reinventing.

Silicon Valley worships the growth-hacking mindset, yet large companies typically stop growing when they’ve hit an inflection point, and these drop offs are inevitable. Growth hacking helps with igniting that growth, rethinking situations, approaching problems with creativity, and liberating companies of stale ideas and methods.

But because change is expensive and risky, growth hacking is a rare occurrence at bigger companies. To them, change is difficult; they are naturally risk-averse, and therefore have a lot of processes in place. They want to see growth but are too uncertain of the consequences to modifying those processes.

Established businesses can, however, adopt a growth-hacking mentality; their system designs are not permanently inflexible.

The solution is to always question and focus on the outcome. If the outcomes are no longer being met, the conventional processes are slowing you down. The best question to ask yourself is, “Why are we doing things the way we’ve been doing them for years?”

If you create a culture where methods are being questioned while simultaneously giving people the autonomy to change things, you can control risk while evolving and operating with principles of hacking — creativity, agility, and exceptional thinking.

Smaller teams mean mighty products

A larger company doesn’t have to mean larger internal teams. If you can build small startups, like pods, within companies, and set them up to focus on their own initiatives and KPIs, you can operate with nimbleness and startup execution speeds.

Build teams that own specific KPIs and outcomes, and let that team own solving their strategy for execution. Members can bring their own unique point of view to the project and better help settle complex problems.

This cognitive diversity creates a growth-hacking culture, as everyone is aligned over something specific. It’s the leadership’s job to assign the right KPI, but teams will do the rest if you give them self-government. This also helps with maximizing mentorship and cross-pollination of skills across product development teams while everyone works toward a collaborative solution.

When I was working at Shutterstock, the growth of the core e-commerce business had slowed down after we had spent about a year rebuilding our technology from the ground up. To get back to growth, we decided to split up the team into three different pods, one focusing on customer acquisition, the other on customer activation and the last one on customer retention. Organizing the pods across different parts of the funnel and letting them drive the ideation unlocked a lot of growth for the company. 

Outcome versus output

At small startups, the execs are often working alongside employees. In such a world, the same people that are defining the outcomes are also figuring out the outputs that get to those desired outcomes. When the desired outcomes change, they also change their output accordingly.

When businesses grow and many more layers of management separate the leadership from the teams doing the work, there can be a disconnect between outcome and output.

As desired outcomes for the business change based on strategy or the competitive landscape, leadership at larger companies often dictates the output to the teams rather than communicating the outcomes. This causes teams to feel a lack of ownership over their work. They’re still building but doing it by following existing processes rather than questioning the purpose. The work they’re doing might not actually be driving the desired outcomes.

This can handicap processes with inefficiencies and hurt business.

At larger companies, it’s important to always make sure that teams own outcomes rather than just focusing on output. If your strategy is to launch a new feature that is supposed to differentiate you from competitors, ensure your teams are clear on the goals, and even better, invested and motivated to achieve that outcome, rather than just providing the output.

Giving teams freedom to determine what features to build will not just ensure everyone is achieving the desired outcomes, you are also able to take advantage of their collective creativity in coming up with the feature.

Change top-down behavior to foster creativity

When you’re at a smaller company you have founders working closely with teams in a very involved environment. As a company grows and adds more layers of management, the top-down approach remains, but the connection between those setting strategy and those executing gets lost.

The best way to empower growth hacking — whether at a public or private company, and regardless of the size — is instead of strategy and details being driven top-down, have teams own their own strategy and let information and knowledge be shared freely.

Recently at Care/Of, our engineering team has doubled from 5 to 10 in less than six months. Existing mediums of communication were no longer scaling, and our focus was also being split between our existing business and new products in the pipeline. As a result, ownership was beginning to get diluted. We decided to split into two different pods, one focusing on our core vitamin and supplements business while the other focused on adoption of our new protein powders. Each pod has 3-4 engineers, designers and a product manager, and they own driving key growth for their respective KPIs.

Here, the executive team and upper level management can still give guidance to the direction but achieving those outcomes doesn’t need to be prescriptive from the top-down. A top-down approach is an expired method, and I’ve noticed talented individuals lose their creativity because they feel like they don’t have a voice.

Big businesses have a lot of potential to unlock and can be scrappy to great effect if they push traditional approaches aside. The key is to always keep rethinking and continue reinventing.

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