TractionSF Conference: Revenue growth tips for B2B companies

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All companies are starved for growth. Startups. Public companies. B2B companies. That’s the hypothesis of Morgan Brown, co-author of Startup Growth Engines, a book of case studies on how successful startups unlock growth without traditional marketing.

At the recent Traction Conference in San Francisco, Brown and many other speakers gathered to evangelize growth hacking and other techniques to startups and entrepreneurs as the keys to growth.

The main thrust of Brown’s session at the InterContinental Hotel stressed rapid experimentation as the key to growth. He related how many in the past had advocated “hustling” as the way to make growth happen. But moving quick without a plan is just “reckless,” according to Brown. And after 15 years of hustling Brown says he’s tired. “Hustling won’t be enough for growth.” he added.

For a cautionary tale, Brown cited Everpix—the best photo app ever, he says—as an example of a startup company that hustled but ran out of money due to lack of user growth. Other chimeras of growth Brown said to avoid include blog posts and listicles on growth hacking. “No great company was built on the back of a listicle,” Brown noted.

However, growth is nothing without a great product, according to the California-based author. And to build a great product takes rapid experimentation. For example, Twitter built many of the features that led to its user growth with slick hacking between 2010 and 2012. During these two glory years at Twitter the company ran 10 experiments per week. With these tests Twitter was on a quest to discover what worked, or a process nicknamed “echolocation” by Brown. “Once you find something that works, optimize, optimize, optimize it,” he said.

What happened at Twitter does not represent an anomalous approach to finding what works and can apply to realms outside of technology or B2B. An uptempo approach to the process of experimentation leads to more learning, according to Brown. And more learning equals more growth.

To illustrate his point, Brown used a mini case study of the Baylor University football team. According to Brown, the up-tempo offense that the Baylor football team runs results in an average of 88 plays per game, which are 14 more than its opponents.

Baylor football team. Photo via Flickr user Rockin Rita
Baylor football team. Photo via Flickr user Rockin Rita

You might say, “Pfft, so what? What difference can 14 more plays in a game make?” For an individual game, you may have a point. But, aha, Brown insightfully noted that during the course of a season, running 14 more plays per game gives Baylor the equivalent of two more games’ worth of experience—or experimentation.

While rapid experimentation can lead to breakthroughs in workable paths to growth, to the outside observer, it’s not obvious. Until one day the great leap forward takes place. “But inside it’s grinding and experiments,” Brown said.

Growth as a process

The way Brown explains it, there’s no magic path to growth. “Quit looking for the pixie dust spreading, unicorn riding growth hacker,” Brown says. What you need to get to growth exists within your current B2B team. But the team needs a process. Just as the Baylor University football team has a system to get players on and off the field rapidly, so do B2B companies need a process for rapid experimentation. In Brown’s growth process model, four stages in a feedback loop comprise the system: ideate, prioritize, test, analyze.

Ideate like a boss

Ideas represent the fuel for growth, according to Brown. To reinforce this concept, Brown’s presentation displayed a famous quote attributed to the late Dr. Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner for chemistry and peace: “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

And in order to have a buffet of ideas requires full team participation, in Brown’s view, which includes even support departments such as human resources, legal and so on. However, B2B companies must teach the team to think in terms of scientific cause and effect hypotheses.

Prioritize

In the second stage of Brown’s growth process, focus and prioritization represent the start of the winnowing activity. The growth lead needs to own the focus stage and should administer it using a methodology such North Star, OKR (i.e., objectives and key results) or a similar system for qualifying and quantifying ideas.

Thus, the full team hypotheses receive scores based on their anticipated impacts, confidence levels and ease of implementation of getting the experiments into the “wild,” according to Brown. The growth team will nominate the experiments for testing.

Test

Once the team’s ideas narrow to a manageable cohort, the testing stage takes place. Under the rapid experimentation credo, Brown suggested taking a “disciplined tempo” to evaluation. In his presentation, a weekly small-scale schedule served as the typical pace for testing. Weekly growth team meetings also need to happen for planning and launching “sprints,” which need right-sizing to hit the desired tempo.

Analyze

And just as in contenting marketing measurement, everything in growth process experimentation must go under the microscope. If B2B firms don’t commit to complete metrics, learning opportunities get squandered. “Learning must be accessible,” Brown said. “If the team doesn’t have access to learning, you cannot improve ideas.”

B2B takeaways

What B2B practitioners can take away from Brown’s session boils down to three bullets:

  • Speed is a competitive advantage—disciplined speed
  • Not about hacks—it’s about team, process, tempo
  • Don’t do new things just for the sake of doing them—run high quality experiments that have a chance to succeed

Photo via the author

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).