The rise of the growth product manager

There’s something interesting happening to product manager job descriptions these days.
Product‑led foundations
Product‑led Growth cOLLECTIVE


There’s something interesting happening to product manager job descriptions these days.

It’s become increasingly common (especially at innovative software companies) to see the word “growth” sneaking into PM titles. Titles like: Product Manager, Growth; Growth Product Manager; Product Growth Manager; and Product, Growth.

This image is a graph showing a 425% increase in search volume for the term “growth product manager” according to Google Trends. This picture shows a chart with a blue line moving up and to the right. From the Product-Led Growth Collective.

There’s evidence to support this trend at the macro-level: A recent Google Trends analysis for “growth product manager” shows a 425% increase in average monthly interest over the last 5 years. And a recent ‘People’ search on LinkedIn returns over 2,600 professionals with a title that contains the words “product” and “growth.”

More than half (53.6%) of those people reside in the United States, and nearly half (45.2%) of those people reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the next largest metropolitan concentration in the New York City Area (15%). Given the innovative nature of the role that we will further discuss below, it’s not surprising to see such a high concentration of these titles in the Bay Area, which received 45% of all US venture capital investment in 2017.

The growth product manager role is most immediately valuable within organizations that have embraced a product-led growth strategy. This often means leading with the product using a free trial or freemium model to drive acquisition and employing a low- or no-touch sales channel as part of their go-to-market strategy. In organizations like these, product teams are naturally inheriting commercial responsibility at a rapid pace.

This new commercially oriented reality poses a challenge for traditional product professionals—who, while highly-skilled at identifying and solving customer problems, building long-term customer value, and working closely with engineering to deliver on a well-defined product roadmap—are not used to carrying a quota or focusing on short-term business outcomes.

Hence, the rise of the growth product manager.

The growth PM role is still in its infancy. It lacks standard definition from organization to organization, and the goals assigned to the position can vary widely.

In this article, we’ll explore the growth product manager role from its broadest definitions to its common core.

A brief history of “growth”

All of this talk about growth may feel familiar—it sure isn’t the first time we’ve seen the word make its way into a job title.

Remember “growth hacking”? Typically associated with startups, growth hackers used creative, low-cost strategies and employ a range of experiment design, analysis, and coding skills to help businesses acquire and retain customers.

Unsurprisingly, the term “hacking” was a bit controversial and loaded with negative connotations. Over time,  growth hacking gradually became “growth marketing.” The role has the same general scope of responsibilities, but is typically understood to leverage more of a traditional marketing toolkit (email, website optimization, advertising, social media, and others) in their day-to-day.

But while Growth Marketer is still a common enough title, many companies have begun to strip the word “growth” from their marketing teams altogether. The expectation is that all digital marketers should approach their responsibilities with more of a test-and-optimize approach. Growth marketing has become just good marketing.

Now, “growth” is experiencing a resurgence in the product organization. The growth product manager is thriving, adding a ton of value to their organization, and helping their teams deliver on commercial goals once relegated to sales and marketing functions.

What is a growth product manager?

Depending on the maturity of the company in which they reside, a growth product manager’s responsibilities and home within the organization can vary quite a bit. 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 all the way 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 through to monetization and retention. Depending on the current focus of the business (ie. what is the 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 this work done, the growth PM ideally works with a dedicated, cross-functional team—sometimes referred to as a pod—of engineering, analyst, and design resources, paired with additional non-dedicated resources from teams directly impacted by the goal at hand. For example, if the goal is to increase activation rate in Product A, the core product manager of that product will be involved to some degree.

In less mature organizations, the growth PM may only have access to a dedicated, full-stack engineer—or may have no dedicated resources at all. In this scenario, the growth PM must build a strong business case to gain access to a number of non-dedicated, cross-functional resources to assist them.

Growth PM job descriptions

To see how companies are scoping growth PM roles, let’s take a look at a few real-world examples of growth PM job descriptions at Segment, Twilio, and Square, all posted in the spring of 2019.

The overview

Segment’s Product Manager, Growth position is described at a very high-level as cross-functional and focused on solving customer needs and driving business impact.

“As a PM at Segment, you will work alongside our team of world class product managers, engineers, analysts, product marketers, sales and success leads. You and your team will identify and execute on the biggest opportunities to solve customer needs, drive business impact and realize Segment’s mission.”

Twilio, on the other hand, describes their Senior Product Manager, Growth position in a lot more detail. This role seems focused explicitly on the experience between new user signup and launch (presumably Twilio’s activation moment).

“Twilio is fueling the future of communications, a vision that attracts thousands of developers to sign up for Twilio every day. It’s up to the Growth team, and this role in particular, to deliver an amazing experience from signup to launch. To do so, we instrument the user journey, find places where there could be friction, and build innovative products & features to speed developers toward their goals. This role is a special opportunity for someone who enjoys the intersection of Product and Marketing, using data to help millions of users experience the magic of Twilio.

We measure the number of developers who sign up and number of projects they build & launch. Working directly with a team of 6+ engineers, this leader will have access to analysts, UX designers, a sophisticated experimentation platform, and an army of product managers with whom we collaborate.”

Finally, Square posted a Senior Growth Product Manager that seems specifically focused on their international business.

“You'll build growth product experiences and infrastructure in order to grow the business internationally. You’ll own the strategy, roadmap, and execution of key growth product initiatives focused on unlocking remarkable experiences for our global audience. You’ll drive strong decision-marketing through quantitative results and AB testing, and qualitative research and customer insights.”

Details of the role

Across all three postings, there were a lot of similarities in the details. Words and phrases like optimize, move the needle, experiment, communicate, and collaborate were mentioned many times.

Segment described one of the core responsibilities as identifying “opportunities for innovation, increased efficiencies, and outsized impact,” which we think really nails the role at a high-level. They also mentioned building “highly personalized experiences” that “span every digital touchpoint.”

They even look to their growth team to be exemplary Segment customers: “by the time you’re done, our user experience is so cohesive and thoughtful, that our own marketing team features your work as a case study of what’s possible with Segment.”

Both Twilio and Square went on to specify that 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—and in an ideal world they aren’t ever—but they can lead to very different approaches. The core PM is thinking about delivering long-term value by solving customer problems, while the growth PM is primarily focused on delivering more easily-quantifiable business outcomes.

A PM’s purview typically includes multiple products, which means they’re often popping into a core PM’s product for a brief optimization project. This usually means building a business case, presenting it to the core product manager to gain buy-in, then working with them to schedule the work.

Proper scheduling is essential and ensures that there is no active development on that specific part of the product by the core team, which could conflict with the growth PM’s efforts. Once the core PM agrees to the timeline, the growth work can begin.

It’s not hard to understand why friction between growth product managers and core product managers 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.

But 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?

While there are degrees of variability in role and responsibilities from organization to organization, the type of person who lands in a growth product manager position is largely consistent.

This is an image showing science laboratory tools, beakers, and test tubes in purple, blue, and orange gradients. This is a colorful graphic of scientific experiment equipment. From the Product-Led Growth Collective.

Interviews with successful growth PMs revealed 3 key common traits. The first is a tendency to be skeptical, curious, and analytical. In a word: scientific.

Their default is 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.

This is an image showing a colorful speedometer with blue gradient on a white background. This image illustrates a growth PM’s need for speed. From the Product-Led Growth Collective.

Good growth PMs also have a need for speed. They tend to be impatient and crave results as quickly as possible. Generally, they prefer to improve iteratively as opposed to placing big, long-term bets.

People with these qualities thrive as growth PMs—it’s how they’re expected to operate, and how they sustain success. 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—are at odds with the natural operating patterns of a great growth PM.

This is an image illustrating adaptability and flexibility. It is an abstract visualization of a flexible attitude. It shows a sideways figure 8 with blue and black gradients. From the Product-Led Growth Collective.

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.

Over the course of our research, we identified 2 additional qualities that seem to separate the good growth PMs from those who can be considered truly best-in-class. Whether you’re hiring for the role or you’re a growth PM looking to level-up, we suggest you prioritize the following:

Diplomacy:

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. But nowhere is this skill more important than in managing relationships with core PMs. Building trust and effectively negotiating access to product codebases requires empathy and tact.

Communication:

For many of the same reasons that growth PMs benefit from being diplomatic, they 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 dedicate time to educating their peers on what they do, why they do it, and how it adds value to the company overall. This is especially true in organizations introducing the growth function for the first time.

Additionally, the growth PM needs to consistently generate buy-in on their initiatives and ensure coordination across teams. A skilled growth PM who is also a great communicator is a true asset.

Looking at the list of qualities above, it’s not at all 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 PM’s generally prefer a combination of specialized, best-of-breed solutions. Here’s a look at their growth tech stack:

  • Analytics and 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

  • Engagement and optimization: While growth PMs and engineers often work directly in the code to improve marketing and product experiences, they rely on technology to quickly spin up new experiments, test hypotheses, and (surprise!) move faster.

    Examples: Google Optimize, Optimizely, Appcues, Drift

  • Project management: With so many initiatives running in tandem and multiple teams involved in each one, project management becomes even more critical for growth PMs than it is for traditional PMs. Good project management software is a must in any growth stack.

    Examples: Clubhouse, Airtable, Zenhub, Asana

  • Internal communication: Growth PMs need to be excellent communicators, and the right tools can enable that.

    Examples: Confluence, Slack, Google Docs

The future of growth product management

With so many passionate growth product managers making a significant impact within their organizations, it’s easy to forget that role is still in its infancy. Most current growth PMs shrug when asked where they go from here. There’s not much precedent, no stories of successful growth PMs going on to become X, Y or Z. The role just hasn’t been around long enough.

Most likely, they’ll go on to become directors of growth, VPs of growth, or maybe even CPOs in the right organizations. One thing is for sure: The growth PMs we talked to have strong opinions about the future of growth in the context of product management—they believe that “growth product management” will eventually become just good “product management”.

There’s a shared belief that, 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.

If this is true, traditional product managers have a lot of preparing to do. The future will look quite different indeed.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that both roles will continue to exist distinctly, but the way in which they work together will evolve. The skills required to be successful in each role are dramatically different, and each role brings unique value to its organization. Only time will tell.

Or we could always run a quick test.