Start Here for Growth: Learning from Brian Balfour

As a general rule, I really don’t like writing extraneous content that already exists, and the internet is a huge place with a lot of content that already exists, and a lot of that content sucks. That being said, as an aspiring growth guy studying at @Tradecraft, I think Brian Balfour’s work doesn’t suck. I’d go on to say it is so insightful and valuable that it’s worth me writing a primer, just to get you to read his stuff at-length. Brian’s extremely high quality content has been a fantastic jumping-off point for my education in growth, and would provide equally helpful advice and reminders for practicing practitioners.

A quick primer about Brian Balfour:

· Currently VP of Growth at Hubspot

· Formerly EIR at Trinity Ventures

· Cofounder of Boundless, Viximo, Unique Production, and Celestine Inc.

· Investor and advisor to others

· Killer writer

· Genius dude

I wanted to share some high-level takeaways from his writing.

Growth is concerned with the full funnel

Traditionally, marketing organizations have been concerned with and measured against the top of the classic funnel, or the first two A’s of the pirate metrics: awareness and acquisition. Brian’s view, which seems to have been adopted by many in the growth field, is that growth is concerned with the full funnel: awareness, acquisition, activation, retention, revenue, and referral, all the way through.

This change in scope has several important implications. From a personnel and team perspective, it means that growth initiatives need much more than just marketing resources; they also require collaboration and buy-in from designers, engineers, and data people, since much of the funnel outside the purview of traditional marketing organizations is actually dependent upon the product, and thus upon the teams that work on it.

Perhaps more importantly, adopting this mindset creates many new opportunities for competitive advantage. Understanding that the final goal of a growth team lies at the end of the funnel opens up new levers that impact success at the previously ignored layers of the funnel. Brian shares a simple example of two nearly identical companies, where the only difference between them is that one retains users better. The company with better retention has then a better projected customer LTV, giving this company the opportunity to outbid in paid channels, focus more on unpaid channels, and potentially have the resources to explore previously unavailable channels, illustrating that a strength further down the funnel has implications through the whole funnel.

Further reading:

There’s no magic bullet

I am personally both exhausted and depressed by how many articles whose titles start with “[natural number] surefire ways to…” and promise mystical results. Brian makes a point to recognize that while many “growth hacks” are presented as a guaranteed solution to your growth problem, each business is unique. Instead of blindly implementing any solution you find there on the webtubes, you can think through several points to get the most out of your topical reading:

1. Understand the context

2. Compare (your businesses and assumptions)

3. Align with your priorities

4. Test against a control

This process will help to better understand any potential growth tactic in one’s own context of execution. That is to say, this process will help any company, as different as Zynga and Instacart, evaluate a growth tactic. But, before you begin lamenting the lack of an easy out, know that there is a surefire strategy to succeed.

Focus. Lots and lots of focus. To quote Brian, “Diversification is a trap.” Instead, through testing, find something that works and ride it. As far as growth tactics go, this is particularly valuable in the “Traction” and “Transition” phases for a company.

Further reading:,

How to get good at growth

If you don’t read Brian Balfour in an attempt to grow your business, you should probably read Brian Balfour in an attempt to get a good (growth) job. He has some do’s and do not’s for learning growth. Well, perhaps they are more cans and cannots. Here are ways you cannot learn growth:

· Learn everything from one course

· Learn everything you need to know in college

· Learn everything by reading blogs and watching videos

· Get certifications (I hate to break the pattern, but alas)

Instead, build skills in order to fill the “T-shaped” model.

In this model, you develop several tiers of capabilities.

Tier 1 — Basic capabilities that are not marketing-specific, but will be used in the following tiers.

Tier 2 — Marketing foundation skills that underpin channel marketing activities

Tier 3 — Channel expertise, comprised of basic knowledge of many channels and deep expertise in a select few

There are several important avenues for developing these skills:

· Get something to experiment with

· Learn from others (especially the pros!)

· Learn from other companies

· Keep a scrapbook of ideas

Further reading:

Call to action

Brian’s thoughts and writing provide guideposts for me as I foray into the world of growth. The thing about guideposts, though, is that it’s really stupid not to read them, even if you end up not following them. Without beating a dead horse, I’d recommend getting the news straight from the horse’s mouth (I know, mixing metaphors is no good). Find Brian’s writing at and read it.