Morgan Brown is the VP of Growth at Shopify. He was previously Director of Product Management at Facebook and Chief Operating Officer of Inman News. In this Q&A, Morgan shares insights on hiring growth talent. This article is an abridged summary from his interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies.
When is the right time to hire your first VP of Growth?
Morgan: The general advice that you’ll hear is “before you have product-market fit, don't worry about growth. Just worry about finding product-market fit."
It's a reasonable heuristic to say that the company should be solely focused on product-market fit. If you're trying to drive growth too early, you're basically lighting money on fire. You can use this heuristic for certain business models, especially those that don't rely on network effects to be successful, like an e-commerce business or a SaaS business.
Where that advice really falls apart is with a network effect-based business where your product-market fit is really driven by your growth. For example, a social networking product, where the product is the software plus the network, not the software and then the network. And so, these two things have to go together. You really need to be thinking about growth from the outset.
You see with Web3 projects: they all start with the Discord server. They all start with the network first. They don't start with the product-market fit first and then try to build the network. So the more contextual answer is that it really depends on your business model.
Once you’ve determined the role of growth in your business, and are ready to make your first VP Growth hire, you’re looking for product leaders and executives who understand how your company needs to grow. They have a clear vision for how your growth loop should work. You can see yourself adding growth professionals to his or her team to accelerate this vision, or to run experiments and figure it out.
One final caution: a huge mistake founders make when they hire their VP Growth is to think: "Growth is not my problem as a leader. I'm going to hire someone and make it their problem. I will let it run over here on the side."
The work of your VP Growth has to connect deeply to your business model and drive the core dynamics of your business.
What makes an A+ VP of growth?
Morgan: An exceptional ability and desire to just seek the truth. To be the most objective and rigorous person in the org. To have the best view of reality; what's really working and what's not, and be crystal clear on that.
Someone that comes from a place of humble inquiry. Someone who can take a step back and take themselves out of the equation, so they can objectively say whether something's good or something's bad, or something's working or not working.
Chamath Palihapitiya, one of the original growth team members at Facebook, famously said that a growth team's job is to eliminate lore. I really like that idea. Part of the job as a VP Growth is to take the team from opinions and beliefs to objective truth.
The best people in growth have that mindset of seeking truth. This helps them deeply understand how the business actually grows, and informs the company’s mental model for growth.
An A+ VP of Growth knows the inputs into the growth flywheel, and which points on the flywheel can deliver the most leverage. Building a team that seeks to understand that system, so they can continually find opportunities to grow and add value.
What is the biggest challenge for a VP of growth to deal with?
Morgan: Keith Rabois has famously said that if you have a head of growth, it's just because you don't trust your head of product.
So I think the biggest challenge for the VP of Growth role is: where in the org do you sit, and what are you trying to solve for the org?
If you look at companies like Uber and Pinterest, they've gone back and forth between a lot of different configurations. First, growth is a standalone team. Then it becomes part of product. Then it becomes part of product and marketing. Then it goes back to being standalone. A VP of Growth has to help navigate these, as companies try to figure out how a growth function can fit best in their model.
The way we think about growth at Shopify is related to the idea of finite games and infinite games. Finite games are short-term games that you try to win. Infinite games are games you always hope to keep playing.
At Shopify, the product team and the growth teams are playing two different infinite games.
The infinite game for the growth team is to bring Shopify to the world, to make it easier for entrepreneurs to discover, try, and succeed with Shopify. The infinite game for the product team is to build the platform for commerce in the world. So, because they're playing different infinite games, it makes sense to have them in separate organizations.
This is our setup, and not necessarily applicable to all businesses. You have to ask, "hey, why do I need a head of growth? Is it because the games are very different for the different organizations? Is it because we don't think we have this capability in our core product team today? Is it because we think our marketing needs to be more performance-driven?"
Different businesses will yield different answers, which is why I think growth shows up in different places, and you’ll have to be aware of this as a growth leader. For some, growth ends up in the revenue org. For others, it's embedded in the product team. And in some places, it's standalone, like it is at Shopify.
How do you evaluate growth talent?
Morgan: There’s a few things you want to test for: great structured thinking, technical capability, the willingness to come at something and explore something from all angles and really be hypothesis-led, the ability to be creative and problem solve and solve really hard problems.
To evaluate structured thinking, my team asks people to demonstrate reasoning about different problem spaces. We ask about the hardest problems they've solved in their career, and we’re probing for answers that show how they’ve reasoned and structured approaches to resolve the Gordian knots that they've come across in their career.
Technical capability is more straightforward. Can they pass a SQL exercise? Can they write an SQL loop? We don't do this for every role, but we do that for many roles.
For creativity in problem solving, we’ll ask something like "how would you scale this from X to Y?" and see how the person thinks through the system. Can they identify the leverage points and where the opportunities are?
I’m not immediately interested in hiring "the world's best copywriter" or "the world's best Google Ads expert." This is important for some roles, but when it comes to growth as a function, the best talent is exceptional at skills that then can be applied to a large amount of problem spaces.
How do you think about hiring growth generalists versus specialists?
Morgan: This goes back to company stage. Early on, when there could be many things that are true about how the company grows, it’s helpful to have generalists who can deploy experiments across a wide range of surface areas and solve for many things at once.
They’ll bring that structured thinking and analytical rigor to a diverse set of problems. That’s why a T-shaped marketer or someone with range is really valuable in places of ambiguity. They will help you figure out what matters.
When you have nebulous questions like, "what digital channel should we be using?" or, "what's the right content marketing format?" or "what's the right acquisition funnel?” is the situation where growth generalists will have impact.
It’s when you get into well-defined problem spaces that you want those world-class specialists. If you need to spend billions of dollars in television advertising, you want someone who's done that before. You don't want a generalist trying to figure that out at that scale.
What’s your framework for promoting internally versus hiring externally?
Morgan: One of the interesting things about the Facebook growth team is they don't hire leaders from outside of the org. You can't go onto the Facebook growth team as a director leading a huge team from outside of the team. You have to come in, start at the very bottom of the team. Leadership comes from the people that have worked their way up.
This guarantees that all of their leaders know the culture, what success looks like, how the team works. They've been trained in how Facebook does things. This de-risks leadership hiring because everyone's on the same page and has been through the same training.
Obviously, not everyone has this luxury. This is the ideal state where you can groom people from the beginning and have them contribute to the org as they transition into leadership. So you always want to get here, but sometimes the business just doesn't have time to wait for it.
When you do bring in outside talent, it should be because it’s going to save you a lot of time. That means bringing in people who have gone to where you want to go, and can bring in a tested mental model of what that journey looks like. They can articulate the missing pieces that need to be learned, and know what needs to be true in order for you to be successful. This is so you can spend less time fumbling around in the dark and needing to rely on a structured learning process in order to understand the journey on your own.
That’s how I distinguish when I want to bring in someone very senior to help us go to that next horizon, versus taking a bet and nurturing people. We do both right now, but ultimately we’re driving to a place where the majority of the leadership is from within the team.
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