Today we’re excited to share our Datamonster Interview with Brian Balfour, CEO and Founder of Reforge and formerly VP Growth at HubSpot.
"Retention is king."
If you’re a product or growth person in any capacity, you’ve probably heard those words—and said them yourself—at one point.
Brian Balfour, author of this widely adopted mantra, is one of the true pioneers in the field of growth and a prolific writer (and speaker) on the topic of user retention; indeed, one of the main takeaways from all of his writings is that “retention was the king of growth strategy.”
Currently, Brian’s working on creating and disseminating even more invaluable material on the topic of growth. He has a 40-part series on his blog on how to build a growth machine in the works. And, with Andrew Chen, Head of Growth at Uber, he’ll be leading an eight-week growth series to “to help accelerate your career and/or company by developing a systematic approach to think, solve, and act on growth initiatives.”
The series is part of Reforge, Brian’s series of growth education programs for professionals. How did Brian become one of the most widely respected experts in the field of growth? As with most of today’s ‘growth hackers,’ the path was not a straightforward one.
Brian’s Journey to Growth
The ‘Somewhat Developer’
At University of Michigan, Brian triple-majored in sports management, economics, and statistics. He knew he wanted to start a company at some point, so he later taught himself how to code. For a couple of years, he worked as “somewhat of a developer.”
“I say ‘somewhat’ because I was a terrible developer,” Brian clarified. He added that, although there were some things he enjoyed about software development, there were a lot of things he didn’t enjoy. It never felt right to him.
So Brian moved into the product side of things, first at ZoomInfo, and then in 2008, at his first business, social gaming company Viximo.
Product and Customer Acquisition at Viximo
As co-founder of Viximo, Brian juggled both product and customer acquisition. Similar to his experience with software development, pure product management didn’t quite fit for Brian. “There were pieces of it that I don’t think really fit with my talents,” he explained. “I think there are much better pure product people out there than me.”
He eventually moved from the product side to customer acquisition—a field that was undergoing a few changes of its own at the time. “For anybody who was around for the social gaming phase on the Facebook platform, it was this game of super quantitative focus on customer acquisition,” said Brian. “We needed someone to do that in-house. Being the founder, I just sort of learned it myself.”
The Origins of Growth
Working at the the intersection of software development, product, and marketing (customer acquisition), Brian realized what he was doing was really growth. In the first part of Brian’s Growth Machine Series, he talks about the emergence and evolution of ‘growth’ as a discipline. Why is it a thing that businesses are paying attention to now more than ever? Why are we now hiring for positions specific to, well, ‘growing stuff,’ as Facebook’s Chamath Palihapitiya once put it? “Growth really has become a thing because of software companies,” says Brian.
“Pre-software companies, the way you would grow a business is that you would have all these different initiatives in silo. The marketing team would build awareness and drive people to stores to purchase physical items, then you would experience the product at home.” As Brian writes in his article ‘Why Growth?’, pre-software, “the marketing and product experiences were pretty separate.”
“In software, though, the lines between marketing and product blur, especially in the eye of the consumer,” Brian goes on to say. “With all of these platforms and user bases that you can tap into, a lot of things have changed. It takes a multidisciplinary approach to fully capitalize on the growth opportunities that exist in the world of software and data.”
It was in this new multidisciplinary field of growth that Brian really found his niche. He’s never looked back since.
"I finally found my home in the sense of the things that I got excited about and the way that my brain works. It’s much more from the scientist’s point of view, rather than an artist point of view."
Personal and Professional Growth
Brian Balfour also had a few words of advice for people looking to find their own career niche and their own path to personal growth.
“For a lot of people, it’s super intimidating to be asked, ‘Where do you want to be in 5 years?’ That time horizon is way too long, especially for our generation who are more mobile and fluid,” says Brian. “It’s more a question of what will you be most interested in, in the next year or two.
Let’s put you in front of those things and help you navigate your way to that.” One common thread connecting most of the product managers and growth experts that I’ve met is that their careers were most definitely not straightforward. Among millennials, this is no longer the exception; job hopping is the norm, with many even switching over to completely different industries. That was a sentiment that Brian really empathized with.
How to Prepare for a Career in Growth
Brian’s advice for those who want a solid professional career in growth was three-fold.
1. Seek out a great manager or team.
This is a given. In your early days, your interpersonal relationships with your manager and your teammates has a heavy impact on how much you learn and how much you accomplish. Find the type of team that lets you explore what you’re interested in and gain skills to advance to the next stage of your career.
"I think it’s just really hard to say, ‘I want to be this thing in 5 or 10 years’ and shoot for that thing. Collecting experiences while you’re in your 20s, really honing in on your craft and where you want to go for the rest of your career, I think is a pretty good plan.”
In some fortunate cases, a great manager can even turn out to be a great mentor. Brian mentions his first ever manager Russell Glass (currently Head of Products at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions), who hired Brian at ZoomInfo as one such individual. “Russell Glass has been my biggest mentor," said Brian. "Not necessarily from a growth perspective, but by being very unbiased [and by giving his honest opinion] in this technology space, which can be really, really noisy. He’s been a huge mentor from that perspective, from both a personal and professional path.”
In terms of learning about people, management, and leadership Brian mentions his co-founder at Viximo, Sean Lindsay (currently CTO at Tapjoy). “When we started the company, I think I was 23,” Brian says.
“[Sean] was further along in his career and had managed teams. I never managed teams before. I knew nothing. I learned a ton from him about hiring and people.”
2.) Find an environment where you can have the most impact.
“Try to find a Series B-ish startup,” says Brian. By that point, a company has more or less figured out product-market fit, has some money in the bank, and has hired (or is hiring great managers)–people you’ll learn from. In this type of environment, compared to a 10,000 person company, you’ll have the ability to surround yourself with people you can learn from and grow in both a personal and professional capacity, instead of staying in a silo.
Also, says Brian, seek out the “super impactful” projects that people are avoiding–because they’re difficult or boring or for another reason. If you can make your mark on a project with impact, “not only will you learn more, you put yourself in a much more valuable position. You put yourself on a much more accelerated path,” says Brian.
3. Master the basics, plus go deep.
According to Brian, most people make two mistakes:
- They learn the basic, 101 stuff about a topic just once and think they have the basics covered.
- They dabble in a ton of different things and end up a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ so to speak.
“You want to constantly be mastering basics, and then you want to go deep on something,” says Brian. “The process of going really deep is valuable because it teaches you how to grind past the basics and learn the more advanced stuff. If you can do that with one thing, you’ll be able to do that with others.”
It’s taking the first step to go deep in one area that prepares you for going deep in other areas and really building expertise.
If you look at the people who are really, really good at their jobs, whether it’s growth or something else, what makes them really good is that they understand the nuances, the foundation, the basics, deeper than anybody else.
Returning to Growth
I asked Brian, just as I had asked Julie Zhou and Fareed Mosavat before him, if he could describe what his career at present is in one word. It’s not exactly one word, but I understood the poignancy: “I’m returning to what I know,” said Brian. With 1000+ employees, HubSpot was larger than any company Brian had ever worked at before. After a two year sabbatical, he’s now coming back to his early passions: starting companies and mentoring those in their early stages.
The other word (okay, okay, we’ll give him a few) he would use to describe his career was learning. “I still feel like I have 10x amount to learn about everything.”
Accessible Data for All
At Growth Clinic: Retain or Die, Brian spoke a lot about getting the whole company data-driven, to the point that anyone could get actionable insights from their data. That’s one of the main reasons Brian recommends Amplitude to the companies he advises.
“With Amplitude, there seems to be more of a focus on faster pace of innovation. It goes beyond gathering data and reporting on metrics, and makes it much easier to get useful, actionable insights within the data.”
Data projects fail for a few reasons, he went on to say. One, the data is difficult to gather and validate. Two, the data reported just isn’t accessible to the team—you have to go through a data analyst for it. Three, you have data but you just don’t know what to do with it.
It’s difficult to get valuable insights from it. Amplitude is one of the few tools that is laser-focused on solving the third pain point.
Deciding on Your North Star Metric
At HubSpot Sales, a marketing tool by HubSpot that integrated with your email, the team’s core metric was weekly active users. That metric reflected the product’s ideal frequency of use for user activity and encompassed the whole funnel–from acquisition to activation to retention to referral. It was also an indicator of revenue, which is why the team focused on it.
How do companies figure out their own core metric? The one metric that every team should rally around and work toward? From a high-level, Brian says there are two things companies should think about:
- Choose something that’s an indicator of your product’s value to the user. This means asking yourself questions that really dig into the core of user behavior: What is the problem I’m solving for my target user? How can I tell whether I am solving that problem? How often would they use my product? What actions would they take within it?
- Choose something that’s an indicator of your product’s value to the business. That is, how is the product you’re building making your business more profitable? This usually means revenue in the long run, but it can also mean active user counts. Brian gives the example of Facebook: for Facebook, more DAUs correlates to more ad revenue and thus directly measures the value of the business.
The important thing is to make sure to choose metrics that reflect both of the above. “If you pursue a metric that’s only an indicator of building value for the user but not for the business or vice versa, it’ll lead to a dead-end,” he cautions.
Approaching Growth with Thoughtfulness
As our interview came to an end, I asked one last question: If Brian could offer just one piece of advice to people looking to grow their business, what would he say? Though it was a tough question when I heard his answer, I found that it didn’t surprise me. The sentiment had been peppered throughout our conversation, and with my conversations with other growthmasters. “A lot of people approach growth with a shotgun approach,” said Brian.
People either don’t think about growth at all–they pour their efforts into building a good product but don’t put a strategy in place to acquire and retain users–or they think they’re going to test every single strategy under the sun until they find something that works. Given that, the number one piece of advice Brian Balfour could give to a young, growing business?
“You need to approach growth and distribution with as much thoughtfulness and systematic thinking as you would with things like product and business model.”
Indeed, that’s how Brian Balfour’s approached growth at every stage of his career.