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Hila Qu is an user growth expert with extensive experience in growth strategy, architecture and tactics, including product-driven growth, paid acquisition, CRM, and analytics.  Currently, she is VP of Growth at Acorns, has helped the company to grow the user base to over 4 millions, and successfully launched 2 new products.  Previously, she was PM of growth at Growthhackers.com, and worked hard to build the community alongside Sean Ellis and the team. Born and raised in China, Hila also has unique insight into growth and startup strategy in both the US and China. She writes about growth hacking as a contributor to Startup Grind Publication in medium, and her recently published book about growth hacking was ranked as top 4 best business book of 2018 in China.  

Follow her on twitter @hilaqu or on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hilaqu/

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila, awesome to have you on for an AMA.

    I’m curious how much interaction you’ve had with Chinese companies trying to adopt a growth hacking process.
    1) What do you think is their biggest challenge?
    2) Given some of the huge growth successes in China, what is something that Chinese companies tend to do a lot better in growth than their American counterparts?

    7 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #1: I’m curious how much interaction you’ve had with Chinese companies trying to adopt a growth hacking process. What do you think is their biggest challenge?

      Hi Sean, super excited to talk about this topic. Remember when we travelled to China together in 2016 for a growth conference, at that time, the state of growth in China was that many people heard about it without knowing what it actually is, and only a few companies are actually practicing it.

      The reason for that is with such a vast market size and growing mobile phone users, many Chinese companies are in the mode of crazy acquisition and expansion, they can grow fairly quickly and fairly easily, and simply don’t need to look at data or experiments or any of that so closely.

      But in the past 2 years, as the market becomes more saturated, I saw many Chinese companies began to adopt growth team or growth process, I think the challenges they ran into are:

      #1. The super competitive and fast-changing market environment in China made it hard for growth teams to take time to analyze data & iterate, they have to deliver results from day 1. Also the rules/regulations are less established in China, so your competitor will win over you if you are not aggressive enough. So there is the question, whether growth works in China?

      #2. Lack of good infrastructure, this includes data analytics & A/B testing etc, from both tools perspective & know-how perspective. But a few SaaS players are emerging in this area and doing a lot of market education

      #3. While many practitioners are adopting growth, many CEOs or leaders are still in the “we can buy users” mode, or have incorrect expectation or myths for “growth hacking” to magically drive number up. Sometimes the leadership will give aggressive goals without giving right support.

      #4. The org chart and how growth team work with existing teams: in addition to product and marketing team, in China, there is typically “operation” team as well, which actually owns a lot of growth team responsibility. So where does growth team fit in?

      6 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #2: Given some of the huge growth successes in China, what is something that Chinese companies tend to do a lot better in growth than their American counterparts?

      Yes, that is a super interesting question. I think actually Chinese companies are growing extremely fast not only because of the large market size or the long working hours, there are a few areas I see Chinese companies are innovating and getting an edge on:

      #1. Due to the low labor cost, most Chinese companies have large “operation” teams that run activities that are considered labor-intensive and not scalable in US. This includes communities, chat groups, promotions, events, loyalty programs, social engagement etc., and the operation team interacts with customers super frequently and in a very personalized fashion, and it works great! I think these type of close human interaction with customers creates a “product” on it own outside the physical product, which is super powerful.For example, there is an English learning app, much of their sales, purchase, learning process happens outside of their main app in wechat groups organized by the company. I think US companies can learn from this, especially when every company is trying to automate everything, this becomes a new edge.

      #2. Driven by competitive environment, Chinese companies are very innovative in term of monetization strategy, and most companies don’t rely on a single revenue stream. While in US many companies are still relying heavily on advertisement as a revenue stream. This article here is a great summary: https://a16z.com/2018/12/07/when-advertising-isnt-enough-multimodal-business-models-product-strategy/

      #3. Wechat is the dominating social apps in China with over 1 billion MAU. It is a all-inclusive platform with chat & payment built in, and it also has something called “mini-program” which can work as a mini-app inside the ecosystem, so it is a dream platform combining large user base, viral distribution, commerce-consumer marketplace, & the ability to transact and serve etc. Recent success example is Pinduoduo, a company founded in 2015 and went public in 2018 as one of the largest that year, the e-commerce platform designed around wechat, which is really impressive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinduoduo

      5 Share
  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    6 months ago #

    Hey Hila!
    Finally we have you on the other end of an AMA :D

    a. What was Acorns growth/testing structure/process like when you joined? What do you think is the biggest impact your time there has made? What do you think is the biggest thing that is still not to your satisfaction?

    b. What is your growth stack at Acorns?

    c. What is the biggest thing you didn't learn from your time at GH that you felt you had to figure out on your own at Acorns?

    6 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #5. What is the biggest thing you didn't learn from your time at GH that you felt you had to figure out on your own at Acorns?

      The biggest thing I had to figure out is that in order to drive any changes, you need to both demonstrate the results and influence the culture/people. To advocate a more data & experiment-driven culture, I learned to not only find early wins and show strong impact, but also constantly share the insight and learning with entire organization, get people interested in understanding how it works and even debating the experiment design etc.

      5 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Hi Anuj, always happy to answer your question as always, sir.

      Question #3. What was Acorns growth/testing structure/process like when you joined? What do you think is the biggest impact your time there has made? What do you think is the biggest thing that is still not to your satisfaction?

      When I joined Acorns almost 3 years ago, on the acquisition side, we do creative testing, but not at a super high velocity; on the product side, we had Optimizely integrated, but we haven’t ran too many experiments either.

      Now on acquisition side, we test new creatives daily; on product side, we have ran more than 100 experiments. This is not just me of course, we have a great team and very supportive leadership.

      I think (hopefully) the biggest impact I had is to show the everyone the magic and power of “experiment, measure, learn”, not only once, but over and over again, in different areas.

      And also how often we can be wrong with our own assumptions. With that, more and more teams are beginning to adopt the experiment mindset, framework, process, tools to drive product development and business initiatives.

      The challenge that I think every company face is that how to find balance between the need to ship new features and continuous iteration.

      4 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #4. What is your growth stack at Acorns?

      Acquisition attribution: Adjust
      User analytics: Amplitude & Google Analytics
      Data infrastructure: Segment
      Data visualization: Tableau
      A/B testing: Optimizely
      CRM: Braze

  • NV

    Nicolás Vargas

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila! Thanks for the AMA

    1) What advice would you give to a college student about to enter the “Growth Marketing World”? What advice should they ignore?
    2) What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your career?

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #6. What advice would you give to a college student about to enter the “Growth Marketing World”? What advice should they ignore?

      1) Read “Hacking Growth” by Sean Ellis
      2) Talk with people who have done it to learn what it really is like
      3) Learn about 10 other things as well, because you may find out things you will also like.

      Ignore anyone who tells you you can’t do XXX because you are from XXX, you don’t have XXX degree, you haven’t done XXX before. If you want something really hard, there is always a way to do it.

      3 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #7. What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your career?

      Principle - by Ray Dalio
      First 90 Days - by Michael D. Watkins
      The One Thing - by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    6 months ago #

    Hey Hila!

    1. How are you doing?! :)
    2. What was the most challenging component of publishing a book in China?
    3. What are the main drivers of growth at Acorns. I know there are multiple product offerings, so I'm curious to how you manage and prioritize them.

    Looking forward to learning from you... yet again!

    Best,
    Dani

    4 Share
    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #8. How are you doing?! :)

      I am doing great! It is so nice to come back and chat with many old friends, feel like a home-coming.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #9. What was the most challenging component of publishing a book in China?

      After working at GH and thinking about growth everyday for many years, I thought writing a book is not that hard. But I was completely wrong. I had so many ideas, thoughts, and to distill it down to the essence, build a clear framework, and write it in a way that is engaging is not easy. Plus I have to write at night and during weekend, while working at a startup full-time, so it is not easy.

      But it is also very fun and fulfilling. After writing the book, my head becomes so much clearer. My readers include founders, executives, practitioners, students, and when they reach out the tell me how this book helped them set up process inside their own company, find wins, and build success, it is so rewarding.

      It is my small way of "sending elevator" back to first floor

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #10. What are the main drivers of growth at Acorns. I know there are multiple product offerings, so I'm curious to how you manage and prioritize them.

      The initial and strongest driver I think really goes back to what @Sean talks about all the time, the product-market fit. When Acorns was launched in 2014, the whole idea of “round up your spare change, and invest while you don’t even realize it” was resonating so well with the customers, and it really picked up growth organically. The product was just meeting a urgent need, and it was designed well & easy to use. Later on, we really amplify that with strong growth marketing and referral program. As we expand to new product areas, it is really to repeat that process of finding PMF and amplification via growth.

      2 Share
  • VG

    Vipul Garg

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila,
    Thanks for the AMA!

    How should a startup devise a growth strategy among big players? Long term efforts like creating valuable content and investing in organic growth are valuable but how to do that without impacting the short term goals of getting leads and keeping the spend in check. I always find myself in the dilemma of wether I should write that awesome guide that no one has written yet or should I aggressively focus on optimising my ads and reaching out to those prospects manually.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #16. How should a startup devise a growth strategy among big players?

      This is a great question!

      I remember at GrowthHackers, we experienced similar problem. At small startups, there are so many things you can do, but the resource is extremely scared, so what do you do?

      We tried to do 10 different things at once, but we felt we were spread too thin and didn’t see visible results. Then instead, we decided to define a focus area each quarter with a measurable KPI, that made a big difference.

      So there are 2 steps involved:
      First, define the focus area - - - find out what is the single most important thing to work on at this moment, for GrowthHackers, we identified that it is new user onboarding, you can use something called growth model to help figure it out

      (I wrote two posts here on how to build a growth model: https://medium.com/saas-user-onboarding-resources/how-to-build-a-growth-model-part-2-59f5f508492)

      Second, think of all ideas that can potentially help you improve that focus area, for us, new user on-boarding experiment, drip emails, better sales call script etc. We rank them, and do them, and track how that impacted our KPI.

      Go back to one of the book I recommended "The one thing": at any given time, there is only one most important thing. By doing that, everything else became easier.

  • NW

    Natasha Wahid

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila!

    Super excited that you're doing this AMA—thank you.

    1) What are your thoughts on how to maintain growth / create sustainable growth? Many "disruptive" companies experience a high growth moment, but struggle to continue to growth in a manageable what past a certain point—what are your tips / tactics / strategies?

    2) How does experimentation fit into your growth strategy at Acorns?

    All the best,
    Natasha

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #12. How does experimentation fit into your growth strategy at Acorns?

      Experimentation itself is not a strategy.

      But it is a foundational piece to Acorn’s growth infrastructure, just like data analytics is another foundational piece, user testing is another. These are scientific way of doing marketing/product that can greatly increase your odd of success.

      Nowadays, everything is digital and tracked, it is just such a low cost to test, so why guess? Just test!

    • NW

      Natasha Wahid

      6 months ago #

      Ah! So many odd errors in this question, ha. Re-do! "...Many disruptive companies experience a high growth moment, but struggle to grow in a manageable way past a certain point..."

      • HQ

        Hila Qu

        6 months ago #

        Question #11. What are your thoughts on how to maintain growth / create sustainable growth? Many "disruptive" companies experience a high growth moment, but struggle to continue to growth in a manageable what past a certain point—what are your tips / tactics / strategies?

        This is a great question and an important one.

        I think sustainable growth is something you can’t achieve via just a tip or tactic, it is the entire package which can’t be “hacked”.

        Many companies grow crazy just for some time and disappear, because they didn’t build a solid product that solves a valuable problem for a big enough market. Without that, nothing else matters.

        I often say growth can be faked, but only for a limited time. With technology, big social networks, and money, you can buy new users and thus the illusion of growth, for quite some time.

        However, if in the end of the day, nobody retained, either because the need is not there, or the product you built is not the right solution, no amount of “growth hacking” tactics can save that. I remember reading “No market need” is #1 reason for startup failure according to CBinsight, which unfortunately is the bloody truth.

        Sustainable growth is also a moving target, even after you find your initial PMF, because market changes, competitors merge, it might goes away and in order to continue to grow, you need to adjust it or adventure into new market. Netflix is a great example in achieving success at DVD subscription, then moving to streaming and content creation.

        So short answer I guess, sustainable growth is extremely hard.

  • DG

    Dejan Gajsek

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila, thanks for doing the AMA.

    Here's a couple:
    1) What's the one thing growth marketers often overlook?
    2) How do you usually structure your work day/week.

    Thanks!

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #13 What's the one thing growth marketers often overlook?

      The human factor!

      At least I often have to remind myself that behind each conversion, action, click, there is a human trying to make a decision. Sometimes we can be so focused on numbers, and forget about the psychology, need, desire, and emotion behind that.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #14 How do you usually structure your work day/week.

      Friday: summarize the week, identify top 3 for next week

      Monday - Thursday: Start my day with reviewing top 3, think about my progress on these, if anything can be checked off, gladly check it off. If not, dedicate time today to do that. I block 2 hours per day on my calendar to focus on the top 3, otherwise the real important things will get lost in your busy calendar.

  • AR

    April Rassa

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila, how do you measure retention at Acorns? And, how do you nurture a customer back to reactivation?

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #22 How do you measure retention at Acorns? And, how do you nurture a customer back to reactivation?

      Great question. For retention, it is important to look beyond typical DAU, WAU metric, and really understand what it means for your business: what is the right time frame to measure retention (daily, weekly, monthly), what is the right definition of “active”, and whether you need to look at retention in multiple ways.

      For example, Let’s assume you build a note-taking app for graduate students, what should be your retention metric? Is DAU good? Actually there are more nuances to that. Do you think your users need to use your app daily?Maybe not, graduate students usually don’t have classes every day, so maybe weekly active user (WAU) is more appropriate.

      Then how to define “active”? Simple logging in doesn’t mean people are using your product the way they should be and are getting value. So in this case, do you want to define active by looking at whether they are reading notes, taking notes, doing both or something else?

      Maybe you decide you want to track retention in multiple ways, first Weekly log in users, then weekly notes reading users, then weekly notes taking users. So you have different ways to understand how engaged your retained users are.

      For nurture & reactivation strategy, the best way to think about it is that there are multiple stages to retention. The first step is often overlooked, which is activation, you have to make sure users got value from using your product the first time, otherwise there is no "retaining", they are never actually real users.

      After they began to use your product, how to establish a habit? Before they leave the product, is there any signal you can capture and intervene.

      The last step is to win them back, which usually is done via emails, offers, new products, social connections, but it is challenging at that point already.

  • RP

    Ritesh Patil

    6 months ago #

    Hi.

    Thanks for information.

  • NC

    Necco Ceresani

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila,

    Thanks for doing the AMA.

    How does your growth strategy differ between mobile and desktop? Do you run separate teams, do you run similar ads on both, do you track different KPI's? Do you feel you have to be in a different mindset for each?

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #14 ow does your growth strategy differ between mobile and desktop?

      We use similar strategy and KPIs. The tactics might be different, in the end of the day, it always goes back to consumer, product & channels.

  • NV

    nikhil varude

    6 months ago #

    hi hila
    how much it is important to think mobile first

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #15 how much it is important to think mobile first

      Acorns is a mobile app, so we are mobile first by nature. It really depends on the context of your question and the nature of your product, but for 2C category, I suggest you think about mobile as an essential platform.

      It is similar to real estate: location, location, location. For business, go where your customers are, so if US adults spend an average of 3 hours, 35 minutes per day on mobile devices, why wouldn’t you think mobile as critical piece of your strategy?

  • AF

    Alexandre Ferrari

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila, thank you so much for the AMA! =)

    1) Looking for growth insights and product/mkt-fit maintenance, what your main advice at setting up regular communication with customers?
    2) At the pace for a continuous/rapid experimentation process, what seems crucial to you?

    Will be amazing to listen from you! Thanks again.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #17. Looking for growth insights and product/mkt-fit maintenance, what your main advice at setting up regular communication with customers?

      Talk with like real people. I feel we lean too much towards Conversions and automations, sometimes it is refreshing to have someone talk with you like a real person. At Acorns, we have an email from our CEO sent to new user after they join Acorns for sometime, asking them to share their money story, we got so many awesome and touching stories from that! That emotional connection is much powerful than just a conversion.

      Also communications should be useful and valuable, it is not so much about fancy design or beautiful language, in the end of day, am I getting value from the communication? I received emails from a bootcamp program I went to, that was the ugliest email template I’ve ever seen, but it has so much useful information about fitness, tips, recipes, and I read all of them

      • AF

        Alexandre Ferrari

        5 months ago #

        Makes total sense, getting value and take advantage of good moments (like first welcome) to build that. Thank you so much, Hila!

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question 18. At the pace for a continuous/rapid experimentation process, what seems crucial to you?

      Document the learning, and share them with other teams. If you are testing at really high velocity and not capture and distribute learnings, you could end of testing similar things, or not finding the really good insight by connecting all the dots.

  • TA

    Temitope Adelanwa

    6 months ago #

    Hello Hila, Temitope from Lagos, Nigeria here!

    My questions are:
    1. How do I communicate the technical side of growth to small business owners who are not tech savvy.
    2. How do I strategize for growth offline
    2. How did you find time to invest in yourself and update your skills, what do you advice?

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #19 How do I communicate the technical side of growth to small business owners who are not tech savvy.

      I would start with the “ build-measure-learn” lean framework, this basically can be applied to anything. If you are building an app, launching a website, selling a product, you need to build it, measure the result, and learn how it works. Then you tweak something, build it out, test, and measure it again.

      The technical side of growth such as marketing attribution, automation, data analytics are really there to help you measure and learn better.

      "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it" Tell them these tools exist to help them see the results and make them better

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #20 How do I strategize for growth offline

      From what I learned, the biggest challenge with offline is that it is attribution. But nowadays there are technology to make it easier for you to attribute you budget to offline.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #21 . How did you find time to invest in yourself and update your skills, what do you advice?

      My company conducted a Gallup strength finder test (BTW I recommend everyone to do it, it's like $20), and out of the 34 strengths, my number one is Learner.

      So learning is natural for me, it spark joy :)

      I really read books anytime I have a few minutes, read awesome growth blog posts, take courses, follow smart people on Twitter, and write ( which is a great way to learn actually)

  • C👩

    Chasity 👩🏾‍💻

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila! I've got a number of prospective clients who I truly want to help grow their businesses - but I'm afraid they only see me as focusing on one element (social media). How can I expand my skillset so that I'm able to help them focus on multiple facets of their business? What are some great books on hacking that I should begin to read? Thank you so much for your help in advance!

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #21 How can I expand my skillset so that I'm able to help them focus on multiple facets of their business? What are some great books on hacking that I should begin to read?

      Some must-follow blogs on growth
      Andrew Chen
      Casey Winters
      Brian Balfour
      Andy Johns
      Sylvia Ng

      Some growth books I really enjoyed:
      Lean Startup
      Lean Analytics
      Sprint
      Blazescaling
      Hacking Growth
      Hooked
      Designing for Behavior Change
      Influence
      Predictive Irrational

  • NS

    Nitesh Sharoff

    6 months ago #

    Hey Hila!
    I'd love more insight into your growth architecture. How are you creating an environment for rapid experimentation?
    - What software is supporting you with reporting & logging?
    - How are you defining next steps?
    - How frequently do you and the team meet?

    Thanks!

    Nitesh

  • CH

    Cindy Huang

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila, thanks for doing the AMA :)

    1. Why there is no outsourcing service for big company's growth?
    2. Is there any growth hacking case you would like to share from European companies?

    All the best,
    Cindy

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question #24 Why there is no outsourcing service for big company's growth?

      Interesting one. I think my gut feeling is that growth is extremely hard.

      Half of the job for a growth person is really to "figure it out" - how the product works, how the user interact with the product, what are the channel dynamics etc.

      And all of these require deep product and consumer knowledge.

      The acquisition piece is the part that can be outsourced relatively easily. But acquisition alone can't support a sustainable growing business.

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question 25. Is there any growth hacking case you would like to share from European companies?

      Not too familiar, but on top of my mind, Skyscanner, Tranferwise, Bookings, Spotify, SoundCloud, all have pretty strong growth team and case studies out there.

  • AS

    Alanna Sousa

    6 months ago #

    Hi Hila,

    Enthusiastic about your AMA later today. Thank you for your availability! :)

    My questions:
    1) How different it is to build/develop a culture of growth in the US and in China?
    2) What challenges - if any - did/do you face being a woman in the growth area?

    Thank you and enjoy your session.

    Alanna

    • HQ

      Hila Qu

      6 months ago #

      Question 26. What challenges - if any - did/do you face being a woman in the growth area?

      I don't think females have any particular challenges in growth particularly, if there are, it might be more for women working in business general. I talked about a little about that here: https://markether.org/blog/herstory-hila-qu-vp-retention-experiments-acorns

      Personally, I have a OKR for myself in 2019, become 20% tougher, whatever that means is still to be defined, let's see how it goes :)

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    6 months ago #

    Hi all, morning :) First of all, it feels so special and humbling to come back to share at Growthhackers, the community I helped built and has shaped my career and life. I am excited to share all that I learned and if you want to continue the discussion afterwards, shoot me a note via Linkedin or Twitter :)

    2 Share
  • JC

    Jack Carter

    5 months ago #

    How does your growth strategy differ between mobile and desktop? Do you feel you have to be a different mindset?

    • KT

      Kenneth T

      5 months ago #

      yeah, mobile has exponentially grown over the recent years while desktop seems to have become stagnant. More focus on mobile app now and need to be more aggressive on the marketing side for this market.

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