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De-Risking Startup Growth in the COVID-Era

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Kate Fairhurst GrowthMinds

How Kate Fairhurst is using GrowthMinds to grow startups during the pandemic.

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times? 

Kate Fairhurst: We’re doing well, thank you. We’ve found our lives utterly turned upside down by COVID these past 12 months, much like everyone else, but we’re safe and staying sane. Mostly sane, anyway!

Tell us about you, your career, how you founded GrowthMinds.

Kate Fairhurst: When I was 22, I joined the media industry, and the rest is history. I spent 7 years or so at the Press Association, leading thinking on how disintermediation fueled brand storytelling before having enough of big business and joining the SaaS startup scene. At ScribbleLive, I was quite early through the door and responsible for launching their European operation – that experience gave me the hunger to go it alone, and I launched my first startup in April 2014. I can’t say that the first venture was a huge success, but I learned a good deal from it and launched GrowthMinds (in Feb 2016) with more confidence in what’s needed to create a viable startup.

How does GrowthMinds innovate? 

Kate Fairhurst: We approach our own growth at GrowthMinds in the same way we suggest our clients do. Everything we do is underpinned by our evidence-based, step-by-step framework, which makes sure we’re always focused on activity that will actually deliver value, ignoring anything that simply distracts or takes away control. The 4 stages of this framework are Map, Measure, Modify and Multiply. The Map stage is where we process product/market fit, audience volumes, core messages and marketing benchmarks to prioritise ideas and potential opportunities. Validating these ideas through the Measure, Modify and Multiply stages helps us organise what we do as a team, so we’re focussed on where impact is predictable.  

How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?

Kate Fairhurst: It was March 6th last year when we received a message from our lead investors at Gorilla Capital entitled The COVID Effect. They warned us that the ripple effect of the pandemic would be far-reaching and that very few businesses would be completely immune. It was best to hope for the best but prepare for the worst whilst also being open to any opportunities that might arise. And so, our plans to invest in our expansion were reshaped to more prudent plans to play things safe and weather the storm.

We sat down as a management team and agreed on a new priority – to make a step-change in our approach to startup growth and start to tackle head-on the things that were impeding our clients’ performance. 

Our approach until that point in time had been what you would expect from any growth marketing agency. We launched campaigns on behalf of businesses looking to scale and took a lean startup approach of build-measure-learn and then accelerated working. Sometimes this approach blew the doors off. There were campaigns where we were able to half the cost of acquisition in a few weeks whilst doubling conversion rates at the same time. 

Sometimes, however, whilst our output would be faultless, this approach just would not work at all. It was clear that sometimes there were things impacting growth that were out with our ability to control. So in March last year, we agreed that our revised priority under COVID was to learn everything we could about what those growth blockers were and what we needed to do in order to be able to overcome them. 

Since this point, we’ve done a rigorous piece of jobs-to-be-done research to update our learnings on the actual pain points that startup leaders face. After these conversations with existing, past and prospective clients, we had a much better sense of what information we should provide to allow businesses to de-risk their growth decision making. Many of the startup leaders we spoke with were actively trying to improve what was holding them back but weren’t confident on the best way to do it. We knew from our experience with an evidence-based decision-making framework and data processing tools. Our clients would be much better equipped to prioritise and tackle their unique growth blockers. Since we’ve developed these tools and used them with our clients, we’ve been able to make the path to growth for our clients a lot more predictable and controllable. 

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

Kate Fairhurst: Startup life is full of difficult decisions. Obviously, for many businesses, the objective for the last year has been survival, not growth, but solid business practice is the key to both. Interviewing founders through our jobs-to-be-done research has made sure we’re not just helping startups solve functional problems but truly eliminating what’s stopping them from reaching their business objectives. With qualitative and quantitative evidence, decisions become less risky, and outcomes become more predictable. 

What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

Kate Fairhurst: From our deep-dive into de-risk startup growth decision-making, we identified several common growth blockers that many businesses tend to avoid in favour of doing what feels good. The need to solve these blockers is nothing new, but COVID has just made ignoring them even more risky. 

The difficulty startups face is knowing what information to consider when defining priorities. So over the past year, we’ve been busy creating tools and workshops that help startups turn information into insights. For example, one tool we’ve built is to help define customer journey messaging and a clear value proposition. By inputting information about the target customer, the jobs they’re trying to get done, the existing market, competitors and product attributes, the tool helps teams refine key information down, so there is complete alignment on how to position the product and persuade prospects to buy it. 

For businesses with live marketing activity that aren’t clear what good performance looks like, we’ve also created a tool that collects multiple performance metrics from across the business and benchmarks them against our growing database of startup performance data. The tool then outputs a visual to indicate key areas for improvement and highlights what needs to be done in order to create the foundations for a scalable business.

One of the biggest shifts in how we work in the last year has been going fully remote as a team. We’ve always collaborated mostly online with our clients, but the last year has pushed us to develop new ways of communicating the thinking behind how we map, measure, modify and multiply our clients’ growth plans. Using our own tools internally has really helped us to keep on track and work to realistic OKRs. 

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

Kate Fairhurst: Before March last year, I would have said our competitors are all the other growth hacking agencies out there. The idea of “fail fast and fail cheap”, rapidly testing and adapting according to market reaction just isn’t always the right approach for startups. We’ve moved away from this high-risk approach and put all our effort into helping startups make informed decisions about where to place precious time and money. So one of the biggest changes from the last year is that we call ourselves a startup growth consultancy. Breaking out what we do into Brainwork and Legwork means that we can support businesses at different stages to forecast impact, follow a realistic route to scale, and solve the functional challenge of finding trustworthy growth marketing experts to get the hard work done.

Your final thoughts?

Kate Fairhurst: We meet very few startup founders who are completely unaware of what is slowing their rate of growth. The majority are working flat out to solve what’s blocking their growth. In such a volatile business environment, the most effective and stress-free way to avoid wasting time, energy, and money is having a clear structure to follow and specific tools that can be used to counteract each potential blocker in turn. The businesses that are willing to do what’s right (not what’s easy) will always have more sustainable success than the ones searching for a silver bullet ‘hack’. 

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