DI

Creating Unicorns – The 6 Essential Growth Competencies

Sean Johnson

Sean JohnsonPartner at DI and Founder Equity. Kellogg professor. Very pale.

Great growth people are extremely hard to come by. The combination of skills necessary to be effective is rarely resident in a team, much less a single person. A true growth person is the new unicorn.

At Founder Equity and Digital Intent we’ve attempted to grow rather than hire. Over the last 18 months we’ve taken several novices and turn them into productive growth team members who can point to meaningful results for their respective companies.

Individuals who a year ago didn’t know what LTV or CAC meant are now acquiring users at scale for less than a dollar, consistently growing communities by 7-10% week over week, improving conversion rates by orders of magnitude and effectively iterating on referral loops.

The framework combines extensive training on a broad range of skills (statistics, UX principles, copywriting, etc), deep dives into distribution strategies, and exercises to give them reps, both inside and outside of our fund companies.

We still have a ton of room for improvement (primarily because of my weaknesses, not theirs). But overall we’ve been thrilled with the result.

But it doesn’t work for everyone.

The right knowledge, skills and tools aren’t enough. In order for them to become effective, there are competencies they have to possess – aspects of their makeup that aren’t specific to a particular tool or job function.

We’ve identified 6 competencies that are highly correlated with success in our growth program. If a candidate has them, the odds are high they become successful in a growth role. If not, their likelihood for success drops considerably.

Below are the six competencies we look for, and what we think an A-player looks like. If you’re looking to identify your own A-players, hopefully this can get you started in what to look for.

Outcomes Focused:

A-players are relentlessly focused on achieving tangible results, not simply being efficient. They don’t shy away from accountability – they relish it. They love having targets and striving to hit them. They tend to think like salespeople – they are hunters, aggressively making efforts to achieve meaningful improvements at each stage of the funnel.

An A-player probably has projects on their resume that they’ve quantified in some way. Revenue generated, sales made, customers signed up, growth rates achieved, etc. If they don’t, ask them to tell you what results they created for their companies, clients, etc. A-players should be able to tell you.

Data Driven:

A-players are outcomes focused, so naturally data is their best friend. They know data is their lifeline to reality, telling them whether their experiments are working or not. They routinely rely on quantitative and qualitative information to make intelligent, informed decisions. Data becomes the key they use gain insight, guide decision-making, and hold themselves accountable for results.

Curiosity:

A-players have insatiable curiosity. They have a wide antennae – they’re always reading books or articles to get better. They look outside of their own industries for new ideas, and treat every conversation as a chance to learn something new. They love leveraging best practices and testing ideas that have worked successfully for others rather than reinventing the wheel every time.

Asking someone about the most interesting book they’re reading right now can be great shorthand. A-players always have 2 or 3 books they’re in the middle of, at least one of which is relevant to their career. True, there are plenty of curious people who don’t read books, and you might miss some. But it’s a virtual certainty that the people who are constantly reading are looking to get better.

Resourcefulness:

This is the uber-competency, as it’s able to make up for many problems. Gaps in knowledge, missing skills and subpar tools can often be overcome by someone who’s willing to take initiative and solve the problem despite the constraints.

A-players are expert Google searchers. If they don’t know how to use a tool, they pore over the documentation to figure it out. If they read something interesting but have a follow-up question, they track down the author’s information and reach out directly. If they can’t accomplish something using their current tools, they figure out a way to create an 80% solution using the resources they do have. They understand that good enough is better than perfect but unimplemented.

Resilience:

Most of your ideas are going to fail, which can be discouraging. Just like successful salespeople, success is largely a function of sticking it out, continuing to stay positive as you run test after test in search of the 10x boost.

A-players know this and mentally prepare for it. They know that a failed experiment still represents learning, bringing them that much closer to a solution that works. They don’t let failure get them down, but evaluate the experiment and try again. And again. And again.

Asking for a story of when they failed can be telling. If someone doesn’t have a story, odds are they’re either lying or aren’t willing to take enough risks. If they do have a story, you want to hear how they bounced back, dusted themselves off and either tried again or moved on to something better.

A Sense of Urgency:

A startup is an exercise in jumping out of a plane and trying to build a parachute before you land. There’s no time to waste – every day must be taken advantage of before you run out of money or are outflanked by a competitor.

A-players get this. Because they know most of their experiments will fail, they constantly try to optimize their build-measure-learn loop to run more experiments than their competitors. They make the extra call, send the extra email.

A-players push the envelope. They aren’t afraid of challenging the status quo. They are willing to ask the question “is this something we don’t do just because that’s the way it’s always been done?” A-players stretch the rest of the team, and often find the CEO reining them in. That’s okay – if the CEO has to be the one pushing the team to be more aggressive there’s a problem.

They have the competencies – now what?

If you find someone with these 6 competencies, you’re in luck. You have the raw material you need to create a unicorn.

What do you do now? We’ve made the outline of our growth training program available to you at the link below. It outlines the 15 skills we focus on, what we expect out of team members, how long it should take to create a unicorn, and a ton of resources you can leverage to get them there. Hopefully you find it valuable.

If you have any questions about the above, or if you think you have these competencies and would like to talk about what working at DI is like, I’d love to talk.

We host regular workshops and produce a monthly digest on innovation. Join the conversation.