The Rise of the Growth Product Manager
In the small (but growing) world of software companies, it’s becoming common to read the word “growth” into product manager titles.
Have you ever read titles such as:
- Growth Product Manager;
- Product Manager, Growth;
- PM, Growth;
- Product, Growth.
- Product Growth Manager;
The growth product manager role is more common in organizations that have adopted (or try to adopt) a product-led growth strategy. In this case, the business is led with the product using a freemium model or free trial to generate acquisition and is employing none, to little touch sales channel as part of the go-to-market strategy. This is a strategy that was adopted by many successful technology companies.
In these organizations, the product teams naturally inherit a significant degree of commercial responsibility. This is a commercially-oriented reality that poses a certain challenge for “traditional” product professionals who might be highly skilled at identifying & solving customer problems, building long-term value around them, and working closely with the engineering teams to deliver on a well-defined product roadmap. However, they are not used to be responsible for a “sales” quota or being focused on short-term business outcomes.
Hence, the growth product manager is rising. The role of growth PM is still in the infancy stage, so it lacks a standard definition, and we can see that from an organization to another, the goals assigned to this position can vary very widely. Let’s explore a bit the role of growth product manager, from its broadest definitions to its common core.
A brief history of “growth”
There is a lot of “hype” around growth and that’s why all this talk about growth feels familiar. Though, it’s isn’t the first time we’ve seen the word making its way into a job title. Ever heard of “growth hacking”? It’s typically associated with startups and digital marketing. Over time, growth hacking gradually became “growth marketing”. But while the “Growth Marketer” is still a common title, many companies have begun to strip the “growth” word from their marketing teams altogether. It is expected that all digital marketers approach their responsibilities with more of a “test & optimize” approach. Therefore, “Growth marketing” has become just “proper marketing”.
Now, “growth” is experiencing a resurgence within the product organization. The role of the growth product manager is thriving and adds a ton of value to the organization because it helps the team to deliver on commercial goals that were once relegated to sales & marketing functions.
What is a growth product manager?
Depending on the maturity of the company, a growth product manager’s responsibilities and place within the organization can vary a lot. That said, most growth PM roles have plenty in common.
Growth product managers are peers to traditional (or core) product managers. But rather than owning a specific product, the growth PM is focused on improving a specific business metric or commercial goal. That metric or goal can correlate to virtually any point in the user journey, as a growth PM’s purview covers the entire funnel, from new user acquisition through customer retention and expansion. To improve the metrics they own, growth PMs rely on a series of short-term experiments to incrementally improve and increase efficiencies throughout the funnel. In organizations fairly new to the growth function, a single growth PM will typically oversee the entire engine from lead generation to monetization and retention. Depending on the current focus of the business (highest priority this quarter), or based on a business case made by the growth PM, they’ll hone in on one specific problem, form hypotheses, run experiments, and move the needle until they’ve optimized the number. In the latter scenario, the growth PM and their team will meet regularly to identify and decide on the highest impact initiatives, then proceed with designing experiments, shipping improvements, and measuring results.
The growth PM’s team
To get it done, a growth PM would ideally work with a dedicated and cross-functional team (or a pod) of engineers, analysts, and designers. It can also be paired with some non-dedicated resources from other teams directly impacted by the goal at hand. For example, if the goal is to increase the activation rate in Product ABC, then the core product manager of product ABC will likely be involved to some degree. In organizations that are younger, less mature, the growth PM may have only access to a dedicated full-stack engineer, or it may have no dedicated resources at all. In the latter scenario, the growth PM must build a strong business case to convince, and gain access to some non-dedicated cross-functional resources.
Growth PM job descriptions
It’s interesting to see how companies are scoping growth PM roles. Words and phrases like to optimize, move the needle, experiment, communicate, and collaborate are often mentioned. One of the few core responsibilities is identifying the opportunities for innovating, increasing efficiencies, and reaching outsized impact. There are also mentions of the need for building highly personalized user experiences that “span every digital touchpoint.” Sometimes, the user experience includes optimizing support flows as well as conducting basic user research and gathering customer feedback to inform future product development and optimization.
How do growth PMs work with traditional PMs? The growth PM’s primary stakeholder is the business, while the core PM’s stakeholder has traditionally been the customer. These mindsets are not always at odds but they can lead to very different approaches :
The core PM is thinking about delivering long-term value by solving customer problems, The growth PM is primarily focused on delivering more easily-quantifiable business outcomes, more short-term. The purview of a growth PM typically includes multiple products. That means they’re often popping into a core PM’s product for a brief optimization project. At this point, they must gain buy-in from the core PM and this usually means for the growth PM to build a business case, present it to the core product manager, then work with him/her to schedule the work. The right schedule matters here. Indeed, it’s essential to ensure that the core team is not actively developing that specific part of the product, because it could conflict with the growth PM’s efforts. Once the core PM agrees to the timeline, the growth work can begin. It’s easy to imagine why friction between growth PMs and core PMs can become a real challenge in many organizations. You can imagine how easy it would be for a core PM to get protective or dismiss the short-term focus of a growth PM.
However, with a strong focus on excellent communication and a relationship founded on trust, their combined efforts can lead to incredible results.
What makes a successful growth PM?
Despite the role’s variability from a company to another, the type of person who lands and thrives in a growth PM position is relatively consistent.
3 primary common traits
The first is a tendency to be skeptical, curious, and analytical or in just one word: scientific. They tend to question assumptions and to challenge the status quo unless there’s solid data to back it up. They ask questions like:
What is the real answer here? Why doesn’t this work? How should it work? The growth PM then uses data to get to the truth. They evaluate challenges through data and feel an experiment must have measurable results to be worthwhile.
Good growth PMs also requires speed. They tend to be impatient and crave results as quickly as possible. Generally, a growth PM prefers to improve iteratively, rather than placing big & long-term bets. Finally, people who make successful growth PMs are adaptable and flexible. Comfortable being thrown into largely ambiguous environments, growth PMs love figuring things out and are energized by new challenges. They’re more tinkerers and innovators than polishers or craftspeople.
Put these people in too structured an environment with playbooks and too much process, and their fire will burn out. Traditional product management responsibilities like planning long-term roadmaps and conducting deep qualitative research into customer problems while being at the mercy of methodically planned development cycles can be at odds with the natural operating patterns of a great growth PM.
2 additional qualities
They separate “good” growth PMs from those considered the “best-in-class”.
Few roles work more cross-functionally than the growth PM.
To start, growth PMs regularly interact with a wide variety of personality types and biases from technical engineers and analysts to creative designers and marketers. These folks aren’t short on opinions.
A growth PM needs to be able to wrangle those opinions, reconcile them with data, and make sure people are rowing in the same direction.
This skill is critical when managing relationships with core PMs, as gaining their collaboration is key to growth PM success in the organization. Building trust, showing empathy and demonstrating tact is essential to effectively negotiate engineering time or access to product codebases.
Growth PMs benefit from being excellent communicators (and not just in the context of negotiating or building relationships).
Given that their role is still new to many people, a growth PM should communicate to their peers on what they do, why they do it, and how it adds value to the company overall.
Growth PM’s ability to communicate well is critical in organizations introducing the growth function.
Skilled growth PMs who are also great communicators will consistently generate buy-in on their initiatives and ensure fruitful coordination across teams.
Considering the 3 primary personality traits and 2 additional qualities outlined above, it’s not surprising that many growth PMs are former founders, entrepreneurs, and marketers.
Growth product manager tools
Unlike the role itself, the growth PM’s tech stack is fairly well-defined.
Growth PMs generally prefer a combination of specialized, best-of-breed solutions in their growth tech stack:
Analytics & data visualization:
Growth PMs want deep, flexible, and comprehensive analytics covering the entire funnel from marketing acquisition to product usage.
Examples: Mixpanel, Amplitude, Heap, Looker, Tableau, PowerBI, Google Analytics, Redash, Google Data Studio
Engagement & Controlled experimentation:
Growth PMs are focused to improve marketing and product experiences. They rely on technology to quickly test hypotheses and spin up new experiments.
Examples: Google Optimize, Appcues, Optimizely, Unbounce, Drift
With so many initiatives running in tandem and multiple teams involved, good project management is more critical for growth PMs than it is for traditional PMs. Project management tools naturally are part of any growth stack.
Examples: Trello, Asana, JIRA, Clubhouse, Airtable, Zenhub
Growth PMs need to be excellent communicators, and the right tools can help with that.
Examples: Slack, Confluence, Google Docs
The future of growth product management
Many passionate growth product managers are making a significant impact within their organizations, but it’s easy to forget that this role is still in its infancy. Where will they go from here, in terms of career development? The role just hasn’t been around long enough to know exactly. Some of them might become directors of growth, VPs of growth, or maybe even CPOs in the right organizations.
One thing is for sure: There are strong opinions out there about the future of growth in the context of product management. We believe that “growth product management” will eventually become just good “product management”, much like what we saw happen to growth marketing.
The word “growth” is destined to be stripped from the growth PM’s title, and everything a growth PM does today will become a core responsibility of all product managers.