The Startup Issue

Growth Design at Mercury

Hi Growth Designers,

Welcome to the Startup Issue! Growth teams can often be associated with Big Tech. With mass market adoption and huge budgets, these behemoths have the luxury to invest in our design specialty.

However, is growth design at Big Tech all that it’s cracked up to be? Does testing button colors and optimizing CTA copy sound frustratingly small? If so, then this month’s newsletter is meant for you. We’ll discuss questions like:

  • What’s the difference between growth at early-stage vs. later-stage companies?
  • Will I hone my craft as a growth designer at an early-stage company?
  • As a growth designer, what should I look for when deciding to work for a startup?

Read on to find the answers to these questions and more!

Bonus alert! 🚨 Join me with Ran Liu as we discuss live on Thurs Mar 20th @11am PST.


Startup-ly Yours,

Scott Christensen

What’s the diff?

So, you’ve found your passion as a growth designer? Welcome to the club! Now, where do you go to practice and deepen your craft? What type of company fits your work style, preferences, and personality?

As one who’s worked at companies across the maturity spectrum, I’ve seen how each affects how growth design can be practiced. Early in my career, I didn’t realize how much company stage determined my day-to-day reality as a growth designer. Now, over a decade later, it’s apparent that it affects everything.

If you’re considering your next career step, I recommend resisting the natural inclination to merely choose from the options that you see on this week’s job board. Instead, take personal inventory with yourself. Reflect on how you enjoy working and what means the most to you.

To help with this, I’ve outlined 3 important considerations below. Download the full decision framework to dial-in what you want.

                    Download full pdf

1) Which experimentation philosophy resonates with you?

Companies naturally get more conservative and risk-averse over time. This undoubtedly bleeds into its experimentation philosophy.

Early-stage companies move quickly, test rapidly, and are more aggressive with scope and size. For example, it’s commonplace to test a redesign of the entire onboarding flow at a startup. Conversely, in a bigger company, you’d more likely be asked to experiment with just one step at a time, to reduce risk.

Andrew Chen, former head of growth at Uber, underscores the importance of this in a blog post:

In evaluating a company for experimentation, it’s good to understand how open folks are to a big change to the homepage, for instance, even if it’s 1%.

Another point regarding testing philosophy is that earlier-stage startups tend to test much less – a cardinal sin at more mature companies. Instead, startups prioritize tests for the most ambiguous and/or impactful changes.

There’s definitely a balance, yet many companies large & small struggle to find it.

2) What kind of impact & ownership do you want?

If you’re wanting to work with leadership on pivotal flows that will fundamentally alter the course of the product, then startups might be your jam.

You give that ownership up when designing experiments at a larger company. However, you still can make a big impact since you’re working with a larger user base – think about the billions of users that could see your tests at a company like Meta.

When it comes to ownership, at early-stage companies, you’ll likely be owning most or all segments of growth (acquisition, engagement & retention, resurrection).

Team structures will funnel you onto just one of these areas at a later-stage company, allowing you to become more specialized and focused.

This leads me to the third question to consider.

3) How important is deepening your growth specialization?

An important aspect to point out is that early to mid-stage startups may require growth designers to split their time on core feature design, rather than pure growth experimentation. This is expected for two reasons:

  • Startups need generalists due to tight resourcing
  • Most large ‘growth leaps’ come from launching new product capabilities (see Lenny’s newsletter).

Generally speaking, the earlier maturity of a company, the more likely the core feature sets are still being built. Therefore, companies may prioritize big ‘growth unlocks’ by simply prioritizing core value delivery. Consequently, your role will likely blend into standard product design.

Conversely, the later-stage a company is, the more likely it will require you to fine-tune and optimize flows to help users find value faster. Hence, these ‘growth unlocks’ require more precision and scientific experimentation.

Which startups should I consider?

You’re sold, right? Growth at a startup sounds like the perfect fit for you – fast, fun, and big impact. Exciting stuff! Now what? How do you narrow in on which companies to look for? Do go-to-market sales motions really matter?

B2C Startups

Consumer product companies are the creme-de-la-creme when it comes to growth. Strategically speaking, most B2C products make their margin based on the volume of users.

These companies typically have low average revenue per user (ARPU). Consequently, they optimize for viral acquisition tactics, among other growth loops (see Reforge article to learn more).

B2C startups will likely invest heavily in growth teams over time. Getting in early is a great call, as you can grow with the team, which will be critical to the success of the company.

Product-led B2B Startups

PLG is all the rage in B2B SaaS nowadays (see OpenView’s primer). And for good reason – who wants to use crappy enterprise SaaS tools anymore (I’m looking at you, Concur).

The good news is that startups employing a PLG sales motion have become quite commonplace. Most every industry vertical seems to have a bottoms-up, PLG competitor nipping at the heels of old-school, sales-led incumbents.

These startups need growth designers and will invest in the team. It’s critical for them to invest in growth design to best sell their product or service.

All that to say, positioning yourself at a PLG startup is a sure bet for rocketship career trajectory as a growth designer.

Be Wary of Sales-Led B2B Startups

Probably stating the obvious here, but I’d be remiss not to call it out — If a top-down, B2B SaaS startup is advertising a role as growth, you will be sorely disappointed.

It’s highly likely that you’ll be hard-pressed to do true growth design in these orgs. The business model just doesn’t afford much room for our craft…unless you consider pumping-out sales prototypes as growth design. 😬

Let funding be your guide

Last, but definitely not least. When deciding on a startup, always research the funding stage (Crunchbase is your best friend here).

The amount of capital raised can vary drastically from startup to startup, and, realistically, is less important. However, the stage is a more solid indicator of what type of work you’ll be doing.

For instance, startups that are pre-product-market-fit (e.g. angel, seed funded, most Series A companies) don’t need growth teams. If these companies are advertising growth design job reqs, then call BS! You’ll likely be spending your time pivoting the product to find PMF instead.

Series B, C & D is the sweet spot — there’s a reason they call this the growth stage of a company lifecycle. These companies have found PMF and are scaling up the company, hence the pivotal need for a growth designer.

You will have a massive impact at these stages of a company. If you can deal with some inefficiencies and organizational growing pains, then these companies are a great spot for you.

In Conclusion

Working at a startup will give you growth skill sets that you can’t get at larger enterprise companies. And, in fairness, the same is true in the reverse – you can deepen your craft at larger companies that startups can’t yet offer.

At the end of the day, you are the captain of your growth design career. Joining the right startup at the right time will be a magical personal growing experience.

Best of luck as make your decision!

About the Author

Scott Christensen is an OG co-founder of the GrowthDesigners Slack community. Formerly Head of Design at two startups, he now runs his own growth design consultancy, specializing in engagement & retention flows at early-stage startups. Reach out anytime → LinkedIn | Website