Explore a Career in Growth Management in Tech - Discussions with Aakash Gupta, Senior Growth Manager @ThredUp
Aakash Gupta, Senior Growth Manager at San Francisco based startup ThredUp, describes the role of a Growth Manager in Tech startups in detail.
In this episode, we touch upon:
1. What is the meaning of Growth Management
2. The kind of problems someone in Growth works on
3. Examples of projects someone in Growth would undertake
4. The kind of people who would love working in Growth
5. Interesting and challenging aspects of the role
6. Recruiting for a role in Growth in tech startups
Here are our notes from the discussion with Aakash
Why don’t tell us a little bit about your journey so far?
Sure. I think probably the way I would describe myself is someone who always had really out-sized dreams that weren’t quite achievable. When I was little, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut and a basketball player and a hockey player at the same time. When I moved to college, I thought I could learn Economics but I can continue being a good coder myself, and teach myself Photoshop and design. And I can work in multiple different fields. So, I was always a little bit unsure to commit to something. So, after coming to college I did manage to get into consulting and really enjoyed projects that were in growth and growth strategy the most. So, it became pretty apparent to me that when I was coding in high school and entering coding competitions that it wasn’t just a hobby but a lifelong passion. So, I wanted to get into tech and worked with my brother in rap to beats which is really a passion project. And then I came to thredup. After talking to people in the Bay area, it became apparent that I wanted to work in this fun, fast-paced environment.
When you were in consulting, you say you liked growth strategy projects the most. What is it exactly that made you want to switch?
Probably the combination of things. First, being my first job out of college what do I want to work on, do I want to work on a wider variety of things, or just want to dive in. And do I want to work on developing the strategy or do I want to work on executing. So, with consulting it really helped me to pinpoint and for me, after working in a cost-reduction projects I was getting closer to that trigger point. Finally, industry which is the tech industry that it has its own unique set of challenges that it is solving, I kind of narrowed my focus down and used consulting’s broad experience to say okay, this is actually what I wanted to do.
And then when you decided to switch, did you know at that time that you wanted to go into startups or did you start out with a more broad lens and then decided that startups was what you wanted to do?
I think I applied to big and small tech companies. And, as I spoke with more people and finalized my decision it became clear that I wanted to come to the startup side.
And why was that?
For me the type of impact that you can make at a young age, the type of roles and questions and problems that you can solve, the type of quality of people that you can work with, even if you join an amazing technology company 2 years out of college is pretty hard to position yourself such that you can really effectuate large scale business change.
Can you briefly describe what ThredUp does?
Thredup is a managed marketplace for used clothing for women and kids. So, let’s say you like most Americans males buy about 14 items of clothes a year and females buy around 34 items of clothing. If you narrow it down to females aged 20–50, it comes up to over 40 items of clothing a year. Your closet is filled up. You ordered a free bag from us. You fill it up with your gently used clothes, send it back to us. The shipping is free. We process the clothes, we list the clothes. We pay you upfront or if it’s over a certain price, we sign it so we pay you when we sell it. But, for part we pay upfront and then we sell the clothes. And the clothes are basically new. We call it like new because most times when people open the product, they really can’t tell the difference. When I first joined thredup, I learned a bunch of work that I never knew, like pulling the little items that show up when you wear the item of clothing. So, the clothes have been extremely high quality. We market them and most of the people who buy from us have never used before. So, we market them against new clothing and we market them as a way to clean out your closet. And that has kind of really taken off as people just keep coming back for more.
When you were looking for a job at a startup, were you always looking for growth or were you considering other options?
I was pretty broad with the consulting background and startup background, you can apply to a wide variety of roles. For me, I used the job search process to help me narrow down my focus. As you talk to people, what would expect out of a great performer in this role, what responsibilities of a person in this role, where do you see them grow into, it helps you lay out different tracks in a much clear way than just reading Quora and reading job listings. Actually, I’m happy that I was applying to Product, Analytics, Marketing and Growth roles.
And then you finally decided on growth. Why?
Primarily because it is cross functional and because you really get the opportunity to make an impact pretty quickly. Because in PM, I felt as though maybe I own specific portion of a specific part of the site or specific campaign, or Analytics I thought that I would be confined to doing analysis. Or in marketing I thought I would be confined to being creative in managing channels. I feel growth really allows you to move amongst those roles in a fluid way and where you see your team and you agree that there is a large area for you to make an impact because there is either a gap or there is a large opportunity.
What is the meaning of managing growth at a startup?
It really varies from startup to startup. I think two ways to think about it — one is what growth at other startups is; how I have seen it at other companies and there is a second theoretical answer as it will help answer a lot of questions. So, how has it grown? I think growth became famous with Facebook. So, Facebook had people like Chamath Palihapitiya who really evangelized growth as a function, function that sat as equal partners to functions like engineering. So, it didn’t sit under product, marketing. And that team at Facebook was really cross functional. It included product people, marketing people, engineers and data scientists. At a startup, it is really illustrative to look up who you look up through. If you look at that and what KPIs they own and what KPIs you may grow to own, it helps. In thredups case, growth reports to marketing. So, it is more of a marketing focused role. But, how we engineered the growth team is to make it very fluid so that it could work across functions.
It would be helpful if you could describe or give examples of the sort of goals that someone in growth might have.
Typical way a startup might be organized is for people to own KPIs. So, within a particular growth function, you keep on owning KPIs around certain campaigns, programs, channels or features. So, the KPI that I own is the cost per acquisition V/s the lifetime value of the referral program. So that is the payback period of the referrals program. So, we have a paid referral program. If you refer me to thredup, I will try to make a purchase, you get $20 and I get $20 off my first purchase. So, that’s a $40 expenditure. That would be considered the cost of acquire the customer. Then you need to think about the benefit you get.
How much of a better customer does the new customer become because she has a friend on the platform for me? And what is the lifetime value of the customer?
So, it helps us realize when do we recover those $40? If we can do that in 5–6 months, that’s an awesome channel. Let’s optimize and push volumes.
Are you trying to maximize that value in the shortest period of time then?
I think different companies have different goals. At ThredUp, it is probably payback period or ROI.
So, it is the amount of return that you might get over the cost that you incurred over the lifetime of a customer?
That would be for new customer acquisition. But, growth could be retention focused. It could be product feature focused. It could be pricing focused. So, as an example of retention focused, it could be focused on understanding how we can increase the repeat rate of our existing customers through paid acquisition channels. How do we get people who came through a display advertisement buy more per month? How do you increase the conversion rate from the sign up to the first purchase. As an example of pricing or business related, If we establish a free shipping threshold of $70, how would it impact out contribution margin and our EBITDA?
How would you go about doing it? Do you work with engineering, sales folks to figure out the best strategy?
So, I think nothing in a rapidly growing startup happens alone. The way a growth person really succeeds is by being able to wedge themselves into places in a company where they can get things done. If it’s around repeat rate, how do you influence the email program to go in that direction — how do you work with those product managers and those engineers. Conversion has a lot to do with size feed. You might audit yourself of size feed because product managers may just not have the time and those are the types of areas where you can find a gap and team with the people and help understand what unlocks their support. For product managers, it is always around the business case. For engineers, it is always around the product manager buy-in and prioritization. For marketers, it’s always around the fact that is this case a creative way to fit around the brand? You really need to insert yourself and you’ll typically be owning something. What you own something is up to you. A lot of growth managers work with influencers — it is up to them which influencers they work with and how they work with those influencers.
How do you decide which questions to work on?
It is a combination of prioritization by the person. So, growth teams will hire very specific types of people who they trust can prioritize themselves. There’s also teaming and working within your team and especially your reporting structure — if you are on the marketing team and you want to effect the referrals program, you should try to get ownership of that program and then you will be accountable for its performance and will make they those decisions cascade through product, engineer etc.
It sounds like a fairly analytical role — more analytical than creative.
I think the best growth managers are left brained in the sense that finding a new way to work with influencers. One of the companies that pioneered working with unpaid bloggers is Casper. They sent millions of emails on the web to find all these new bloggers and send them content that they can write blog post about. And they may not have gotten too many impressions from the blog post but they had a vision around SEO and that vision had to be creative.
That’s an interesting point. Can you give examples of any crazy growth campaigns that you have seen?
Two of my favorite examples: First, Facebook. How would I grow Facebook. One way is to launch it to a new country. And how do you do that? Get it in their language. This was a huge growth step for Facebook. Focusing on translating their product to new languages has helped them taking their product to hundreds of countries. Second, Hubspot. It is a marketing analytics company really focused on internet businesses. So, they help marketing teams do analytics. So, Hubspot wanted to grow. But, they were an enterprise company. So, what they did was they hacked together a free analysis tool. So, you type in your URL and it would give you all these awesome recommendations on ways you can improve. And they generated Millions of leads.
Is growth hacking same as growth management?
I think growth hacking and growth management is totally different. Growth hacking in the context of a big company is almost always referring to the engineers of the team. They are the people building out the website for Hubspot — analyzing the scrappers, building UX. Another type of growth hacker that is a little more common at startups is I can do anything and everything — programming, finance, excel etc. Those people are basically mini-CEOs and they can fill in wherever the business needs — be it the data infrastructure or actually coding in 301 redirects.
Is this role found in most companies?
It is all kinds of tech companies. It is a cliché in Silicon Valley but if you spend some time in the valley, you will realize that everyone in the valley is working around growth. So, it makes sense that you hire people who work 24X7 and construct growth. You might also have it all larger companies like Growth Product Marketing managers at YouTube or it might be Manager of growth customer acquisition at Google Fiber.
Is there a different between a growth role and a marketing role?
I think there probably is. Pure marketing managers typically handle a specific channel. There might be 6 people handling traditional Facebook advertising and they might all have growth in their title. There are many people working in the same title but they might own different functions. So, at thredup there are both marketing and growth functions. And I report within the marketing function. Typically, in an e- commerce company, a growth role will often be a little more than just marketing. It is sometimes industry specific.
Could you give an example of a project that you worked on at thredup and walk us through the process?
Sure. One of my favorite has been around vlogger. Attribution is a really interesting concept in the world of advertising. Attribution is how you track the effect of paid advertisement as it relates to bringing in traffic to your website and there is a model of click through attribution where you can measure it and how it tracks your website and then there is view attribution where you see something. So, most of the money in advertisement is in media like TV or YouTube Ads or YouTube videos. So, it’s a really difficult medium to accurately measure. As a result, a lot of companies will shy away from it if they are click- driven historically. At thredup, we are on the click attribution side of things. But, we knew we wanted to diversify, we also wanted to reach people who had ad-blockers, in an organic way. We did things like TV ads and YouTube videos but I’m myself am a fan of YouTube bloggers. One of my favorites is Superwoman. So, we reached out to these influencers and gave them free clothes and ask for feedback. So, with that we really started to get the traction. Influencers are organically endorsing your product on their channel. That is much more authentic than any other advertisement. Should we work with small or medium or big sized influencers? Should we work on media? You can work with a lot of small components.
Were you the one reaching out to all these channels?
The way it works at thredup is that I will typically manage the initial relationship started and then will give it to brand marketers. They work with the influencers to come up with a really awesome story. I might initiate the budgeting and signing the contract. But, a marketing person working daily hand-to- hand with the influencer.
On a typical day, what are the kind of activities that you are doing?
My favorite thing about the job is that you get to do different things on a seasonal, weekly, daily basis. The main activities are around Analytics, optimizing existing channels, meetings around creative problems, driving optimized channels I own or working with the influencers to track the story and then managing the story downwards and upwards. It is 40% analytics and 20% in the other things. For analytics, we usually use a variety use a variety of tools like SQL, Strata, Tableau, R, Looker (for exploration of data).
What does optimization of channel mean?
In the example I gave, if you own the budget of the vlogger and want to optimize it, you may want to think about it in terms of the next $1 million I spend on vloggers, a third of it I want to spend on small, and a third on medium influencers. I want to understand which vlogger is driving the best return so that next month I might want to focus on that category. Build a hypotheses and then test around it. Another example is something like optimizing an advertising channel like Facebook. E-commerce is enabled through two waves — Google (SEM/Adwords) and Facebook (targeted display ads). So, Facebook advertisement might deal with creating a separate set of ads for different target audience which is followed by a different set of landing pages. So, you can optimize any of these. Most people in growth would be optimizing some sort of channel — Facebook advertising, Vloggers channel or paid channel.
How do you stay up-to-date about these new channels?
Part of it is not working so much. You need to go out and experience life and talk to your customers. In the hindsight, a lot of it may look trivial. But, it is you experiencing the product, experiencing other people’s product and then deciding what to do.
What are your working hours like?
At thredup, we have this philosophy that you really don’t have to be at work all the time. We have meetings between 9 and 6 so pretty much the entire office is there available. You can find them. But, aside from that, it is all up to you. You have owned something at thredup so as long as you are doing that, no one questions what you are doing. So, overall the hours are great. So, a lot of the time it is the thinking time during the showers when you really get that deep insight. That our philosophy.
Do most growth roles follow the same timings?
Sadly, no. Most of my friends have a different picture of work-life balance than I do. At thredup, we have work at home Wednesdays.
Is this more or less intense when compared to roles like product or engineering?
I think Product Managers are really stressed out. It is a hyped up job. So, they are evaluated as mini- CEOs of their product. So, I think that is a pretty intense job. Engineering is primarily against the work- time estimates that you provide. So, that can be moderate. With growth, you find your own KPIs, objectives, goals. So, it can be less intense. But you need to provide value to the company.
What are some of the key metrics that someone in growth would be evaluated on?
Growth has two components: how you deliver against what you own and how you find other ways to make impact. Most of the growth people will make impact on the things outside of what they own. But, they need to deliver on the things you own. On the responsibility side, the most common metric is CPA: Cost per acquisition Vs LTC: Lifetime Value.
In your opinion, what are the most interesting aspects of working in growth?
I think by far the most interesting is you really get a chance to make an impact. I think the opportunity to potentially change the growth trajectory for the business you are working for is really fun.
Are there any aspects that you find challenging?
Yes, how you claim responsibility and tie back your impact is a huge thing. It can be challenging if you have to use analytics to prove your hypotheses without owning a design or engineering team. So, it forces you to be vigorous in any of your recommendations.
Is there anything you do not like about this job?
I like everything. It is perfectly suited for me. I like to work on different things.
In your opinion, what kind of person would enjoy himself/ herself in this job? I think it is really appealing to people who want to make an impact. If you are an impact-driven person, irrespective of your background can make for a fantastic growth manager.
Is there a typical background for someone in this role?
I think probably 60% of them would come from marketing, and about 20% would be product/user experience, and the rest engineers. A wide variety of background actually, like product management.
If someone has no exposure to the tech industry but wants to know if this profession is right for them, how would you help them access their skills?
They should think about the areas they want to be working on a day-to-day basis. Are you stimulated about what drives consumer behavior? Do you prefer to really begin a more defined set of scope and objectives. This role is more up to you to define. So, if you are more on the open ended side and are analytical and want to make impact, it’s great.
Is there a typical career path in this role?
I have seen three paths: going up through the marketing organization — growth manager, director of acquisition or retention, director of both acquisition and retention, Senior VP of marketing, CMO Other path can be someone going up the product management of an organization. The third is within the growth function — they might grow upwards in growth — manager growth, senior manager growth, VP growth, SVP growth etc.
What do you see the best growth managers do differently?
I see a clear differentiator between people who are made for this job and people landed at this job. Their thinking, their action and their role. In terms of thinking, the best growth managers are not bothered about the bullet points of the job posting when they are hired. The best growth managers are taking actions in a wide variety of areas — they are optimizing channels, building one or two channels, learning programming by the side. The best growth managers define roles in a way that they own more and more and transition in any of the three paths I mentioned.
How do you check for these qualities in an interview?
I think anyone who is interested in growth is looking for someone who is entrepreneurial. Everyone we have hired has had a side project. One of the guys we hired had his own amazon stores for 10 years. That’s one key thing. The second thing is really around attitude: we don’t like people who are negative, are shy to speak up. The final thing is that analytical nature, we want someone who can analyze and push our thinking in a data-driven way.
What does the interview look like?
We’ll ask questions such as why do you want to work in growth, what relevant experiences do you have and what you want to do? We want to someone who can see consumer behavior trends. How do people who buy your products behave? Then, people who exhibit A+ player mentality through their resume or otherwise. They test that in ways that might be case based or experience based. In case based, how would you go about evaluating our vlogger program? To me, that’s a great question! That helps me think about how they would think about the program that affects us.
How can a candidate stand out?
It is really tough to stand out in Silicon Valley. When we posted our first growth manager position, we
got 100 applicants in 2 days. So, the volume of a VC backed startup is truly immense. So, you have a lot of candidates to choose from. There are a couple of hacks from the candidate point of view that help. First is networking. Linkedin people at the company before applying. You will 2x your chances of getting the job. The other hack is really around a set of experiences that are extremely compelling. What stories would my stories tell? You choose the experiences in your Cover letter and resumes.
What value does a Cover letter add? What are you looking to see in a resume?
For most people, resume is the almost the same. It is hard to tell apart someone from Harvard+Samsung from Princeton+Google. The Cover letter is your opportunity to say that I have done about your company and the role. I go a step further and build a model in the cover letter to show that I have done the most homework. Typically, apply to one company a day.
What would you include in the Linkedin message that you send to people?
Really depends on how you are connected to the folks. Hopefully, you have a mutual friend and you can say “hey, you are friends with Vish. Vish and I were friends when we worked at Microsoft and I loved working with Vish. He was great at product management and I see that you are doing product management at google. I am extremely interested in google and this role. If you have time, and no problem if you don’t, I was just wondering If I could stop by for 15 minutes for coffee.” It doesn’t hurt to try. I think of people who are actually reading the messages, the response rate was high. Almost every company I tried to talk to one person first.
Any parting advice?
Love tech if you want to get into tech. Read techcrunch, hacker news, quora. Talk to people in tech. Go out and buy a programming book and learn how tech works. Learn the stack and a lot of this will come to you naturally.
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