Growth lessons beyond classic PLG
Learnings from Ramp's Fmr Head of Growth Sri Batchu
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If you follow fast-growing startups, you’ve no doubt heard of Ramp, the corporate card and finance operations tech darling.
In March 2022, Ramp crossed $100 million in annualized revenue — hitting that milestone only two years after launching. The company continues to accelerate, reportedly growing by 4x in 2022 and recently acquiring Cohere.io, an AI-powered customer support tool.
Sri Batchu was Head of Growth during that period of hypergrowth — a role that spanned paid marketing, field marketing, lifecycle/CRM, automated outbound, SEO and growth product — and he managed channels that drove the majority of company pipeline. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Previously, Sri was Head of Growth at Instacart during the heady days of the pandemic and before that he was VP of Operations at Opendoor, a real estate tech unicorn.
Sri joined Growth Unhinged to reflect on his hard-won learnings about building a high-performing growth function. He unpacked growth motions for a product category that’s not traditionally PLG-friendly, how to foster a culture that prioritizes velocity, and what to look for when hiring growth pros.
KP: Ramp has friction to getting started — it’s a financial platform after all — and isn’t a “classic” PLG product. What growth motions have you found effective for these types of products?
Unlike other classic PLG products which have a freemium or free trial experience, to be able to use Ramp’s core product, you need to go through an approval process typically completed by the finance team. This meant that our north star metrics were focused on acquisition rather than engagement or paid conversion.
In general, I find there’s a balance on growth metrics you have to strike. You want the north star to be highly correlated with business value creation (e.g. LTV, contribution margin, revenue) but you want it to be influenceable by the growth team with a timely enough feedback loop. During most of my time at Ramp, we struck that balance by using $SQL pipeline that sits somewhere between visitors/MQL’s and LTV and contribution margin to balance the aforementioned tradeoffs.
You can still bring product and technology to growth acquisition efforts, for example:
SEO including lead gen tools
Increasingly, you can leverage product and AI to automate your outbound. Data and technology at scale should be able to outperform the typical SDR on intent signals, ICP customer identification, contact data enrichment, optimized first copy and objection handling.
We have historically run product growth for acquisition and growth marketing as one combined team for joint planning, resource allocation and goals. Teams bring together projects that they score based on the north star metrics.
People might notice product-oriented growth acquisition projects from Ramp’s website including the VC database, mission statement generator, burn rate calculator, etc. We also tried some awareness-related product growth ideas of this category, e.g. a Chrome plug-in for cost of meeting. These product growth initiatives helped build consideration for the product and they captured people at early stages in the buying process, for example when they’re at a small company that could eventually grow into a larger Ramp customer.
KP: You don’t see many growth teams partnering closely with sales. How do you envision growth engineering being able to impact sales productivity and efficiency?
Bringing product, data and engineering resources to improve sales team efficiency can be incredibly powerful. However, I’ve found that historically trying to have an engineering team focused on sales efficiency has been challenging:
Many engineers don’t find it to be an inspiring or challenging technical problem
It’s hard to set an influenceable north star for the engineering team, e.g. should it be leads per SDR, time per conversion, etc.
Having an engineering team own the same goal as a sales team (e.g. pipeline and payback period) had a few advantages:
Incentivizes engineers to understand the full funnel
Engineers feel ownership of the results driven by them
There’s a clear scorecard showing business impact, tightening the feedback loop
If you’re trying to improve your sales team efficiency, the starting points are what you might expect:
Observe the sales process to understand where the fall-offs are on conversion and where the particularly cumbersome and time consuming parts of the process are.
Analyze the variance among sellers, i.e. figure out what makes your best sellers different. What inputs of theirs do you hypothesize are having the impact and how can you standardize, automate and scale those behaviors?
In general, you want to focus the energy of your sellers on the most critical tasks that have incremental impact from human input. I would suggest trying to automate as much of the sales funnel as you can until you have expressed intent from the customer.
KP: Ramp is known for intense product velocity. How did you translate that mindset into your teams and how did you keep them motivated to maintain that pace?
For us, velocity was key across all teams. We famously count the days since the founding of the company to remind people of shorter cycle times. The shorter your planning and activity cycles, the faster your output and feedback loop. Never put off something for tomorrow that can be done today.
We leveraged the same structures, cadences and tools for our growth and marketing teams that we used for our product and engineering teams. Our marketing teams had cross-functional pods of engineering, data science, ops, etc. that had combined goals. Similar to our product teams, they had joint planning and a two week sprint cadence. Also similar to product teams, we had a clear impact metric that was to be moved in that sprint by a cross-functional pod including longer term projects for that metric through the quarter.
I tend to find that burnout is rarely an outcome of velocity or hours worked. It is more of a function of lack of autonomy or purpose.
If people (a) are bought into their goals (preferably that they helped set), (b) have flexibility of time and the benefit of organizational alignment and (c) are provided the appropriate resources and rewards, there is low risk of burnout.
Burnout happens when teams feel not in control of their time and actions. You are wasting your time in non-productive meetings or working on things that you don’t find important. So that’s where leaders can work to provide the requisite conditions for their teams.
And rewards don’t necessarily mean monetary incentives. Different people are motivated by different things. Understand what motivates your best performers and reward them with that where possible.
KP: What are your biggest lessons learned from things that didn’t go as well as you expected?
The biggest failures are ones where you didn’t learn.
That is, if you invested time, money and effort to lead to an inconclusive test with no new hypotheses to test. Usually this is avoidable by doing some thinking on expected impact and significance analysis before the test. You can also maximize the treatment when in doubt and plan to cost-optimize later if the test is successful.
A common failure beyond these principles that I tend to see happen often is for complex tests with lots of manual steps where there can be human error. Often, people are focused on speed and want to do these in one-go, but sometimes one error somewhere in the process can lead to the whole test being useless.
I recommend breaking expensive, complex tests into multiple “sends.” Do a smaller run before doing the full test run.
KP: What skills do you believe are most important for growth folks today and what do you look for when hiring?
I’m probably one of the rarer growth leaders that is not a long time marketer or product manager.
A strong growth team builds and executes on a system of high velocity rigorous experimentation to drive measurable impact. My view is that great growth teams have three key archetypes of people:
Analytical systems thinkers
Project managers with deep domain expertise
Creative minds in-tune with the zeitgeist
For a leader of the team, perhaps I’m biased, but I’d lean towards (1) but the other two types are also critical to success.
I tend to find that rapid problem solving, intellectual curiosity, and a growth-mindset are typically the highest predictors of success that can be identified in the interview process. The characteristics are often correlated. You are basically looking for high aptitude, high agency people.
I often give people a real business problem we had solved in a past growth team to live whiteboard during my interview. I want to see how quickly they can internalize the problem and bring some structure to it with clarity of communication. I tend to interject during the discussion or certainly after with feedback on their approach or response. Great candidates do not get defensive, but also don’t accept all the feedback blindly either. The best ones show a genuine interest in the problem outside of the context of the interview and want to know what actually happened.
KP: Do you have any other advice for software founders and operators?
My main point I want to reiterate to software founders and execs is to not limit yourself on the definition of PLG to freemium or free trial.
You can bring technology and product to turbocharge your acquisition, retention and expansion in creative ways outside of those two modalities. Incentivize/encourage your growth teams to collaborate more closely with your technical teams. You’d be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes!
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Catch up on the best editions from Growth Unhinged in November: the pre-PMF guide to product management, insights from the 2023 SaaS Benchmarks report, and an AI sidecar product that drove 30% of new signups.