Startup Life/Opinion/

5 tips for early-stage startup growth without hiring a growth team

How to grow a startup is a dilemma all early-stage founders face. But with a million other things to think about, it can be tempting to think hiring a growth team will “crack” it for you

Napala Pratini
Napala Pratini

By Napala Pratini

When we launched our business in 2019, growth lay solely at the founding team’s door and remained that way for the first couple of years. And despite now having a wonderful head of growth, the number one thing we’ve learned is that growth is always an everyone thing, not something that can be passed off to a single person or team.

User growth is one of the most important metrics early-stage investors look for and founders chase. But before you go straight to hiring a growth team, here are five tips for nailing early-stage startup growth as a founder or early employee:

1. Listen to your detractors

We did a great job of this on our digital product (we built our MVP alongside 30 beta users who we interacted with daily on WhatsApp, email and face-to-face for six months), but when it came to marketing we tended to lean towards intuition and what we had heard from the users who loved us. 

It was only when we started actively soliciting feedback from non-transactors that we started to understand where there was real opportunity for improvement. 

Whether you send out paid surveys or conduct in-depth interviews, make sure you speak to the people who are intrigued by what you do, but aren’t pulling out their bank cards (or are perhaps put off by your approach). And always pay them for their time — it’s much cheaper than an agency, and owning this research as a founder means that you truly internalize the outputs for implementation in not only growth, but also product and company strategy. 

2. Get yourself a good advisor

At the start we received loads of one-off advice… “try Mumsnet! Change your messaging to focus on fear! For your audience, you need to invest in offline!” All of this has a time and place — but ultimately meant that we were tugged in different directions based on the opinions of the various parties we had spoken with. We did a mini Mumsnet campaign, tried fear messaging, ran a print advertisement and much more as a tiny team… but didn’t really commit enough for any of those bets to pay off. But having a great marketing advisor has been transformational for our business, even without a growth team.

👉 Read: How and why to build an advisory board

Once we started working regularly with them, we were at least confident that we were spending our time and money on the right things. Pay your advisor(s) in equity and set the expectation for their involvement up front. In our case, we have a weekly one hour check-in at a minimum, but you can adjust that based on your business needs and how much equity you’re offering. It’s also important to be intentional about who you work with, and look for someone with parallel experience that can be applied to the challenges you’re facing in your business (ours, for example, previously worked for an addiction startup, so had tons of experience with DTC health, marketing to patients in a highly stigmatized space and high-value behaviour change programmes).

3. Pick your growth lane

When we first launched to the public, we simultaneously tested 10 different marketing channels. In the first year we also tried guerilla marketing, community building, SEO and content marketing… the list goes on. 

In an effort to “crack” growth we spread ourselves way too thin, meaning none of the channels were given a chance to work. When we started working with our advisor, she helped us to identify a growth lane — put simply, a user acquisition playbook. 

To find your growth lane, you have to both consider your business model as well as look at what data you do have. For us, content was a natural fit because our programme is content-based, so we already had tons that could be repurposed, plus we were seeing crazy engagement on our newsletter and blog. When we narrowed our focus significantly, we were actually able to reach many more potential customers because our content was filling a gap for them, even if they weren’t ready to make a purchase decision right away. And while our high-level goals are still user growth and revenue, we now have a number of intermediate metrics such as cost per lead and time on page that are indicative of how well our marketing funnel is performing.  

It can feel scary picking a growth lane because it means saying no to other things that ”might just” work, but by doing too much at once there’s a good chance that in the end none of those things will work.

4. Avoid the knee jerk

Every good startup pupil has been taught to fail fast. Test, iterate, repeat. But in pursuit of growth, you actually need a bit of patience. When you’ve put something out in the world for the first time and are anxiously awaiting market feedback, it can be easy to draw a quick conclusion that it’s not working, throw it all out the window and start rebuilding. 

👉 Read: How to nail your next big fundraise

We reimagined (and rebuilt) our entire marketing funnel multiple times in an effort to find “the one” that worked — when in reality what works is the sum of dozens of different tests and tweaks. We even tried an SMS-only marketing funnel at one point (it only lasted a couple of weeks before we scrapped it, and took much longer than that to build). 

To get it right requires balance. You need to be willing to tear everything up and start from scratch when you’re in the early stages. But don’t actually do it until you have some data to make decisions with.

5. Don’t take it personally 

I wasted a lot of time thinking that I wasn’t doing a good enough job on growth when we weren’t hitting the finger-in-the-air targets that we set before launching. Being too harsh on yourself can really take its toll, particularly when it’s also your job to motivate the rest of the team. 

There could be countless reasons that you’re not growing as quickly as you’d like — proposition, pricing, marketing channels, the wrong targets to begin with — but chances are, you not working hard enough isn’t one of them. 

Learn to separate early-stage performance from your own belief in your abilities — your team, your loved ones, and most importantly, you will be much better off for it.

Napala Pratini is cofounder of healthtech Habitual. She tweets from @NapalaPratini

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