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Lessons from Wise: How to run a growth team

Nilan Peiris has led the growth team at fintech unicorn Wise for over nine years. Here's what he learnt along the way

By Anisah Osman Britton

Nilan Peiris

When we asked Twitter who we should be speaking to about growth, Nilan Peiris was recommended numerous times. It’s easy to see why — he’s led growth at Wise for nine years. In that time, Wise has become synonymous with international money transfers, grown to over 3,000 employees and in July 2021 went public on the London Stock Exchange. Nilan has an opinion or two on scaling a company — and it’s not what they teach you at business school. He first gave his top tips in our Startup Life newsletter.

Don’t have growth targets

Targets are often set to manage board expectations who are accountable to shareholders — it’s a game of passing on accountability. The alternative is to build bottom-up: teams closest to customers identify growth opportunities and set the path for their execution. We then invest in those areas — that’s our growth strategy. For example, in Malaysia we have a team working on a Wise debit card. I could set what we should focus on but they’re on the ground and probably know where the biggest opportunity lies. The team identifies this, works on it and can ask for more resources because they’re more likely to be right than me.

Leadership needs to keep everyone in the loop

Decisions made by the team need to be communicated simply and in line with company strategy to the CEO and board. The person who leads this doesn’t need to be a VP of growth. It could be a VP of product, a CMO… someone to stand up to the pressures from shareholders on short-term results — to articulate sacrificing valuation in the short-term, for real problem solving that will lead to long-term shareholder value.

Track growth

At Wise, we do this by looking at our forecasts so we can know how we’re trending over time and if we’re in line with what was predicted. It helps us to see if we’re in line with company growth and works better than picking an arbitrary number to try and hit. We also look at our growth curve, specifically at fighting the S curve where at one point growth stagnates: when you launch a product, the uptake is steep from 0 to having customers. When those customers tell everyone about you, the curve shoots up and everyone that can possibly use it is using it. Then only a few new customers join every month and the curve slows and mellows out. So your job is to keep the curve going up.

Your product can’t just be a small marginal benefit for someone to switch to — there has to be nowhere better to go. If we drop the price or embed Wise into their bank, it may be worth them using it. These are the types of things that I spend my time on that keep us growing.

“In the early days, you should only be goal planning for the week ahead”

Build a culture where everyone is responsible for growth

At Wise, we work in squads where each team has the skills (designers, developers, marketers, etc), budgets and insight they need to make things happen. This enables our bottom-up innovation culture. As a founder, to lead this type of culture and keep people onside you have to avoid two pitfalls — greed, where the founder takes too much out of the company or checks out mentally once personally satisfied; and fear, where the founder micromanages decisions, especially financial ones.

Timelines should vary by company stage

In the early days, you should only be goal planning for the week ahead. Then, start setting goals once every two weeks. Keep tweaking. When I joined Wise full-time at year two, we were looking one month ahead. Now, 10 years in, there are definitely some investments that fall into the multi-year category and many teams focus on quarterly progress, but a lot of my time is still in moving stuff immediately.

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter, which comes out weekly on Wednesdays. Sign up here.

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