The Growth Mindset: How we apply science to our startup

Growing any business is challenge, but by using a scientific framework for growth you'll see some surprising results.

What is What isn't Growth Hacking?

Last year, I was introduced to a "professional growth hacker" who gave me this tip: "You should write controversial comments on competitors' blogs to generate traffic to your site."

Is that really a growth hack? It seemed to make sense but was also ethically circumspect.

So when Popsa was invited onto the 500 Startups Series-A programme in January 2017, I was expecting more of that kind of thing.

But instead of guerrilla tactics, we saw science.

To grow your business you need high visibility

If you've never worked in a startup or had your own business, this might sound crazy; you'd probably expect a founder to know everything that's going on, but in reality, it's extremely hard to keep an eye on every moving part and every number without a system in place.

So how do you make everything visible?

1. Know Your Funnel

First, you have to know the sequence of core actions that customers take in your product to help them realise value from it. This sequence of core actions is the funnel.

Popsa's funnel looks a bit like this:
Visit App Store  →  Download App  →  Sign Up  →  Create Print  →  Place Order  →  (then hopefully Place Second Order, and so on).

Of course, before we implemented The Growth Mindset, we knew these things were happening in our app and we had a good idea of how many customers were getting all the way through the funnel, but the framework helped us completely refine our thinking and processes to achieve great results.

Mapping out the entire process in great detail allows you to find hidden bottlenecks that might otherwise lay undiscovered for years.

2. Measure Core Actions

With your funnel defined, it's time to measure what's happening at each stage. How many users get through from one step, to the next, to the next?

You'll need a professional analytics tool to find out (we use Mixpanel). If you're using Google Analytics, you're doing it wrong.

The important thing here is that you're measuring behaviour, not business metrics. That means understanding our customers and why they're performing actions so that we can make a better product.

With tracking in place, you'll be able to see what's happening at each stage of your funnel and make it as frictionless as possible.

In the early days of Popsa, this helped us discover behaviours that we simply couldn't predict such as leaving our app to view images full screen in the photos app. So we implemented a feature to preview photos by holding down to make it a much smoother experience.

3. Create a Dashboard

Now that you can measure what's going on, it is important you keep it visible for everyone responsible for growth (in a startup that's definitely the whole team).

Create a spreadsheet where you can record the values you're measuring and update it every week. This allows everyone to see how changes they're making directly impacts our customers over time.

Any outliers that crop up can then be investigated. This might be the first sign that a bug has been released, long before customers start complaining.

4. Identify The Problem

With all the numbers in front of you, it's very likely that one of them will stand out.

In our case, until we had done this exercise we were quite proud of our conversion from Sign Up  →  Order as it was standing at well over ten-times the industry standard.

But then we saw a red flag, right at the top of the funnel.
Visit App Store  →  Download App was much lower than we expected, a significant number of people visiting our App Store page decided not to download.

It turned out that the solution was not what we expected.

 5. Brainstorm Possible Solutions

There are usually loads of ways to fix a problem but some of them will involve more effort than others, whilst the impact may be hard to predict.

The best way of dealing with this is to be scientific in your approach. Don't simply go with the first solution you think of.

Brainstorm a multitude of options to see if there are alternatives.

When we're brainstorming we the team together with a stack of post-it notes - everyone writes their ideas down and sticks them to a board for 5 minutes.

Sometimes you can get a fresh perspective by asking outsiders (people who don't work in your business) to join in on this process.

After the brainstorm you'll have loads of ideas. Some of them will be crap but there will usually be some gems that weren't obvious beforehand.

6. Effort and Impact

The best way to pick a solution to implement is to weigh up how much effort is required verses the predicted impact of the result.

Low effort, high impact solutions are the best.

After a brainstorm, we scrub through every idea and give it a score for "Effort" (5 to 1, 5 being highest) and "Impact" (1 to 5, 1 being highest). Multiply these together to get a score. The highest score should be the lowest effort, highest impact.

Most of the time the winning proposal is not the one you thought of first.

Most people struggle with prioritisation and end up focussing on the wrong thing. But if you're trying to move fast and grow quickly, you simply want the biggest impact for the least effort.

7. Make Hypotheses

This is really important.

It's all too easily to make assumptions or rely on common sense, but unless you formally make a prediction about what you think will happen if you change something, you won't be able to calibrate your biases for the future.

Once you get into the habit of doing this regularly you'll start seeing that many 'common sense' solutions do not result in the expected outcomes, and it will help you maintain a healthy degree of skepticism when the pressure is on to make a change.

8. Smoke Test

Some ideas you can get away with implementing straight away - if it doesn't work you can undo it. But other ideas might involve weeks (or worse, months) of development time.

It's important to figure out whether there's some kind of smoke-test you can do to figure out whether the idea you've had is actually a valid solution.

So before embarking on a six-month build, try to simplify the proposition...

What is the simplest form that this proposal could take in order to test out our hypothesis?

Instead of building a whole website, could we test the level of engagement with just one page?

Rather than adding an integration with Flickr perhaps we could ask our existing customers if they're likely to use it first?

Depending on the idea, this could be as simple as drawing a UI on paper and getting feedback from actual humans in the real world.

It sounds simple, but requires self-discipline.

9. Write it up

No-one knows for sure what the outcome of any change will be, so this really is an experiment and should be treated as such.

At Popsa, before we make any changes, we write it up. We create a document and record the current numbers, explain the problem, our hypotheses, our ideas to fix/improve the problem, and details of the changes we're going to make.

This document is important; it's the way that the whole business learns, and how new starters know what you've tried.

This is the point at which you make your changes to try and fix or improve the problem you've identified.

We usually measure changes on a weekly cycle, but some experiments can be done faster, some take a bit more time. Generally speaking you want to see results within a week or you're not moving fast enough.

When you've got some results (good, bad, inconclusive) it's important you write them up to conclude the experiment.

10. Growth Meeting

This part of the framework is crucial.

With experimentation happening and numbers being recorded on a weekly basis, the team should meet review and decide what to focus on for the following week. This happens at the Growth Meeting.

At these meetings, the team can discuss all the key numbers on the dashboard and decide whether to investigate unexplained anomalies, or focus on improving other key numbers. At this point, the process repeats from step 4.

11. The Playbook

Once a quarter, it's important to review your growth and experiments, then write up your learnings in the company Playbook.

The Playbook is a document you maintain that describes your approach to problems and how you do business. It's the document that new starters read to quickly get up to speed on how you do things.

12. Have Faith in the Process

The Popsa team were already doing quite a bit of this, we learned so much at 500 Startups that this post doesn't come close to doing it justice.

You'll need a little bit of patience to get started as everyone needs to keep reminding themselves to iterate, test, predict and record, but it soon starts to become second nature.

It's inspiring to see the results each week and rewarding for everyone who comes into the business to learn a fresh, measurable and repeatable way of achieving growth.

At first it took a bit of faith, but now we can't imagine Popsa without it.