6 Actionable Takeaways from Brian Balfour’s Growth Hacking AMA

growth hacking brian balfour

This article starts off what will be a continued series which will break down and analyze the advice, speeches, AMAs, podcasts and webinars of growth hacking thought-leaders.

Here are our six favorite takeaways from Brian Balfour’s recent Ask-Me-Anything on GrowthHackers.com. Brian is V.P. of growth at Hubspot, co-founder of three successful startups, and one of the leading voices in the growth hacking movement. We’ve broken down his answers into bite-sized pieces and added our own actionable growth hacking takeaways from what he’s said.

1. What do you think is the biggest challenge companies need to overcome when implementing a growth team and what is your recommendation for overcoming it?

Brian’s Answer:

I think the biggest challenges are Defining Roles, Team Structure, and Ownership lines.

What I’m finding is that most established companies that try to implement growth teams fail because they have other teams/executives “protecting their turf” creating an immense amount of friction.

I’d highly recommend people talk to a variety of established growth teams about the above three elements and the pros/cons of the various structures that are out there. No matter what I think three things need to be present:

1. Buy in from CEO (and ideally all key executives)
2. Recruit from within as a starting point
3. Give enough ownership to the growth team to establish wins and momentum.

Our Actionable Takeaways:

Prior to starting your growth hacking team and efforts, have a serious conversation with your CEO to establish reasonable expectations, reaffirming the concept that much of growth hacking is about trying things that might fail.

I also love Brian’s attention to the fact that growth hackers need ownership as individuals. This is something that Wishpond’s growth team has taken to heart. Give each member of your growth team responsibility for a couple key performance indicators (KPI’s) related to their tasks and ensure they can explain their weekly, or bi-weekly, successes.

Brian also has a great article which expands on the idea of growth team structure and establishment. Check out “10 Reasons Why Companies Fail At Growth” for more on this subject.

2. What are some of the most overrated growth metrics being used today?

Brian’s Answer:

I think the first thing is that your “north star” metric [the over-arching metric towards which your marketing strategy drives] isn’t one size fits all across companies. It needs to be custom fitted to your product, biz model, and the value you are trying to deliver to users.

After you have a great north star metric, most of the analytical power of the org should be around figuring out all the inputs that effect that metric (at a very granular level) and how you might be able to influence them.

Our Actionable Takeaway:

Metrics are essential for any growth team, but because there are so many of them it’s easy to get lost. Our actionable takeaway for this one is actually related to the takeaway in the first answer: give each member of your team ownership of a couple of Brian’s “granular level” metrics. Doing so will ensure you can keep careful track of what it takes to find success on a higher level.

3. What are some ways you have proactively found mentors in your career?

Brian’s Answer:

It is just a lot of networking and hard work. I do recommend a few things though:

1. Find someone external. Everyone is biased (your manager, your investors, your board, your friends, etc). You want someone to give you brutally honest advice.

2. Find someone who asks incredible questions that make you think about things from angles you otherwise wouldn’t have. Great mentors don’t give you answers, they help you FIND a better answer than you would have otherwise.

3. Set up a regular cadence and format. Consistency helps extract the most value out of the limited time you usually get with a mentor/coach.

Our Actionable Takeaway:

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Thought-leaders (big and small) have never been more accessible than they are now. Connect through social media and don’t be afraid to ask for an edit, advice, or guidance via email (so long as you put time and effort into a professional, friendly approach). Once you’ve established an initial relationship, don’t let it go. You’ll never know when it’ll come in handy down the road.

4. If you were a brand new startup with no funding, what would be the most effective ways to gain traction in the short-term?

Brian’s Answer:

I don’t know. Anyone who tells you they do is wrong.

Most people in this space will tell you that “you must try this” or “this is the best channel right now.” F*ck that.

Stop looking for your answer from someone else. Take two days to research and create a giant list of traction ideas.

Our Actionable Takeaway:

I love this answer, particularly coming from one of the field’s most well-known thought leaders. My takeaway is related to his last sentence though: research and create ideas, then test them. If you have the creativity to come up a huge list of things that might work, you have the ability to succeed in growth hacking.

Brian does have a really solid other articles where he discusses early-stage business growth, focusing primarily on creating traction and transitioning into growth. I’d recommend them both:

5. If there was one thing a young startup should focus on during its early growth, what would it be?

Brian’s Answer:

Without a doubt….RETENTION.

Retention is your growth foundation. You can’t build something great with a shaky foundation.

Retention is literally what separates the top 1% from the bottom 99%. Great post on there here by Andrew Chen: New data shows losing 80% of mobile users is normal, and why the best apps do better.

Our Actionable Takeaway:

It’s easy to get bogged down in building your top and middle-of-funnel successes higher and higher, forgetting that those successes are only stable if people are remaining with your business beyond the free trial or demo. My actionable takeaway for this one is to assign one member of your growth team (or a week per month, perhaps) who is entirely devoted to reducing churn and building relationships. Consider personalized email drip campaigns, timed customer check-ups, and randomized, personal calls or emails (actually personal!)

6. Do you have a particular growth experiment that was a big learning experience for you?

Brian’s Answer:

This isn’t an experiment but in the early days of Sidekick [an email initiative which Brian heads] the assumption was made that the tool was for salespeople.

The first week I joined I looked at the data and found less than 30% of our users were sales people and we actually had 4 key personas.

We generalized our messaging across our site, ads, etc and almost every number drastically increased.

Lesson, never assume who your audience is and why they are using your product. Do your research.

Our Actionable Takeaway:

Rather than talk about testing again, my actionable takeaway for this answer is to do exactly what Brian talks about: take a look at your business’ traffic sources, high-traffic pages and (if you can) landing page or survey responses, etc. to determine exactly who your users and customers are.

This knowledge can frame the entire way you create inbound marketing content, write emails, tone your website, complete sales calls and much more. I’m not surprised Brian’s numbers increased when he generalized, as the tone and language your brand uses online has a huge influence on growth.


If you’d like to see more of this type of article, or if you have a recommendation for a thought-leader, speech or podcast you’d like broken down into palatable and actionable takeaways, let me know in the comment section!


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