by Brian Sun, Senior Manager, Content Marketing, Autopilot

Lessons Learned From My Time at

We had a chance to sit down and talk with Hila Qu, the former Product Manager of Growth at and now the Director of User Retention at Acorns. With a diverse background, Hila brings an analytical viewpoint to the world of marketing and product.

Here’s a look at what she’s learned during her time as a growth practitioner.

1. How did you first get into the world of growth?

My story’s sort of unique. I majored in Biology and mastered in Biochemistry. Afterwards, I decided to move from China to the United States in 2009. During that period, I was constantly in the lab doing experiments. While I enjoyed the scientific approach, I was always intrigued by the business world. Just like in the lab, you can run experiments, get quick feedback, evaluate results and then iterate. It occurred to me that my analytics background could be applied to the world of business and marketing so I went on to get my MBA at UC Irvine.

My first job in the industry was with a company in Los Angeles named My role there was marketing analytics, which planted the seeds for my future growth roles. I then worked with a Fortune 500 company, diving even deeper into the use of analytics. After that I came across the opportunity at as the Product Manager of Growth. I fell in love with the role soon after I joined. I became a firm believer in the “growth evolution,” the concept of bringing traditionally siloed marketing and product teams together to make one holistic growth team.

2. What lessons did you learn about growth during your time at GrowthHackers?

1. Growth is holistic. It’s important that all the pieces (acquisition, activation, retention, referral, revenue, and also sometimes resurrection, also known as pirate metrics) are cohesive.

2. Growth is analytics and results driven. With my analytical background, I always want to narrow everything down to the numbers and from there make improvements if there’s an opportunity. My mantra is, “What can’t be measured, can’t be improved.”

3. Growth has a clear goal. You need to have a clear goal or a North Star metric. Not only that, but tracking has to be set up correctly so that you can measure your inputs, analyze your results and understand whether there’s been improvement or not.

4. Growth is constantly changing. There’s no set of tactics that work for every scenario. Every product, audience, situation, and competitive landscape is different, so your approach to growth needs to be, too.

5. Growth is experiment-driven. helped me realize that this industry is about experimenting and figuring out what works best for each unique scenario. We have the freedom to try things out and just see what happens.

3. It seems like you learned a lot from your time at GrowthHackers. Why did you decide to make a change?

I made the switch from to join Acorns, a mobile investment app to focus more on user retention. I’ve always felt retention is such a key part of growth, which for a lot of companies, goes overlooked. Traditionally, people think about retention as what you do after you get users. I think retention is evolving to start right from the moment a user is acquired. That means continually finding opportunities to improve the user experience to drive engagement, both inside and outside of the product. This new role gives me the opportunity to dive deep and learn more about this area of growth.

4. Earlier you mentioned the importance of finding a North Star metric. Can you explain what that is exactly?

Yes, I actually talk about it in my most recent blog post, “A Growth Practitioner’s First 90 Days.” It’s the idea that the first thing you need to identify is the metric that everyone in the company is looking towards and guided by. This is what I call the North Star metric. Once you identify that, you need to find the metrics that feed into that North Star, which tends to be the difficult part.

You have to spend some time to think about what is the overall metric and also what the specific metric is for acquisition versus retention. If you have a vanity or incorrect metric, it doesn’t help move your growth progress forward. You won’t be optimized. You’ll be doing the wrong experiments from the beginning.

5. This whole North Star metric seems pretty important. How can people break down the numbers in order to reach their goal?

I use what I call a growth model to discover all the important variables that will feed into the North Star metric. For example, if your North Star metric is weekly active users of your SaaS software, what steps does a user need to go through to complete the desired journey? They need to be aware of your products, become a visitor of your site, signup for a trial and then convert to a paid user.

To simplify, have an overall goal, also known as the right North Star metric, and then identify the inputs to this North Star metric. When you have this growth model, try to get numbers behind it. You will be able to see, for example, the bottleneck is actually the trial-to-paid conversion. You can then hone in on that part of the journey to improve the customer experience and overall North Star metric conversions.

6. You also mention the importance of “early wins” in your blog post, especially for newly hired growth team leads. Can you explain how to achieve those?

Because growth is holistic, people can get lost when it comes to what to do first. The right way to approach a new growth project is always find the main bottleneck in your growth model. This is done by evaluating your pirate metrics (acquisition, activation, retention, referral, revenue, and sometimes resurrection) that I mentioned earlier.

Once you breakdown your metrics and find where the main bottleneck is, you can focus on improving that specific piece of the journey. Use a fast iteration experiment cycle to create impact and learn what does or does not work to get an “early win.”

7. Everything with growth seems to come back to testing. When does it make sense to really start experimenting?

You usually don’t want to think about growth before you have your product-market fit. Early on you should focus on proving your product fits the market, because otherwise, if you run into problems you don’t know if it’s the growth or product team’s fault. So once you think you’ve proven your product has a market fit or there’s a strong indicator you have that, then begin to experiment.

The other thing to consider is numbers, which is hard to set an exact benchmark for. As long as you have enough people, you can run tests with reasonable amount of traffic or users. Before that, just focus on getting enough people so that you can at least begin to run experiments.

8. Is there a way to vet ideas to see if it’s an effective experiment to run?

At we had a system called ICE. The ‘I’ is important impact or potential impact of the idea. ‘C’ is confidence, or how confident you are that this is it going to work. ‘E’ is ease, how easy it is for you to implement this experiment. Usually that’s related to how much development or design resource it requires.

Here’s an example of how you could use the ICE approach when you have three different experiment ideas. One is you focus on getting referrals rather than spend money on Facebook ads. Two is on Facebook, you can try different messages and different ad designs to highlight customer testimonials. Three is you send an email, give a number to call or schedule a call to help the people convert into a paid customer.

Once you have all those ideas, you begin to rank them by ICE and see which one has the highest score. You want the idea with the highest impact and lowest resource. Then you just go from there. Test the first one, see what the results are and whether it works or not. If not, learn from that and see what you can change in the next iteration. If it does work then implement that into part of your marketing campaign or product ideas.

9. One last question. If you had to sum up the key steps to growth, what would they be?

The most important thing to remember is that growth is cross-functional. You have a big tool box you can choose from between your product and marketing teams. Once you have a clear North Star metric and inputs to the goal, find the bottleneck and launch an experiment to try to improve that bottleneck. That’s the high-level concept. It’s all about how you can improve and run experiments efficiently to make sure your company is heading in the right direction.

What type of experiments has your company run, and what growth lessons have you learned? Let us know in the comments.

Author Brian Sun, Senior Manager, Content Marketing, Autopilot

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