I’m here with Milan Thakoor, who is a growth lead at Lyft. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
So, my background has been in two veins— generally in the startup ecosystem in San Fran, more specifically in marketplace businesses. Going back a step further, I went to UC Berkley for undergrad and studied economics. Got really into kind of understanding labor markets. In socio economics, you understand markets and marketplaces really well from a theoretical concept, so pretty early I started working at different marketplaces in the Bay Area, starting with Rencycle, which is a startup which then pivoted to Gettable, which is a pretty successful marketplace that focuses on construction equipment. So when I was there I was on rental construction equipment which is part of their history.
From there, moved to another company, and then eventually transitioned to working more on the venture side. I worked with Bregman and Associates, which is a seed investment fund that has invested in marketplaces such as You and Me and Sprig. Had a relatively diverse portfolio, mainly did angel investments. Kind of helped there from a deal sourcing and strategy perspective but also worked on internal products. We were thinking about what kind of products we could build. From there, had a realization that investing was less exciting to me than being on the building side of the world.
I think a lot of people get that.
Yeah, totally. You know, I have some funny stories about my thoughts around it. It came to a head where there was this one particular meeting. We were talking to a company that was interestingly in the rental space, which I had some background in. The founder was so passionate and excited about their product and what they were working on. I could tell that we were one of the meetings that they’d had out of who knows, probably dozens, if not more. They were really hustling and it was just not going to be an investment that we were going to make. There was a moment that I was like— man that is cool. This guy is so passionate. I honestly think he’s going to make it. It’s not the right place for us to invest, they’re not the right type of thing for us. I don’t want to be in the place where we’re just saying no. As a founder, you’re in. As an investor, you’re casually sitting there. It was one of those moments where I was like, man, I want to be, not necessarily just founding companies, but on the side of building, and caring and being passionate about the thing that we’re working on.
I’ve heard it from a bunch of people. There are some people that I’m sure really feel empowered by the investing side. For me that was less exciting and (I was) not really wanting to get much deeper. And so actually, while working in that place, I started a company called Unwind Me which was a local marketplace and following that theme, I was a local marketplace focused on wellness practitioners. We were basically a company that started thinking about the massage space and massage therapists that are the practitioners in that space, and the problems in that industry, from both the consumer perspective as well as the therapist’s perspective. Really finding a way that we could be a matchmaker in the middle and thus a marketplace that desegregates a fairly traditional, and for lack of a better word, a backwards industry that really takes advantage of it’s practitioners. (One that) doesn’t necessarily offer flexibility that you’d want for clients and customers. That was a marketplace that I worked on for about two years, building a local marketplace and a community which we eventually ended up selling to a company in LA.
And you brought Unwind Me through 500 and YC right?
We did, kind of as part of being in Silicon Valley and raising money we went pretty heavily into the accelerator space and did both 500 and YC, which is relatively unique and an interesting decision. Some real positives came out of it, and some things were good learning points which maybe wouldn’t do again. But it was a really fun experience. And to round out the history, post Unwind Me I did an awesome thing taking 3 months of figuring out what my life was going to be about, still haven’t fully figured it out. I traveled a little bit and hung out, and ended up joining Lyft in early 2015. So I’ve been there about 2 1/2 years, which has been a pretty phenomenal experience.
Yeah, so how big is Lyft now?
From an employee standpoint, I think we’re over 1500, probably in the 1800ish range. It’s gotten pretty sizable from where I started and as a less than 5 year old company, has a pretty crazy growth rate in terms of a lot of things— employees being just one measure of that growth. And as a really exciting marketplace as well, I think is really impactful and the types of things that I care about.
So I want to dig into the growth team. How big is the growth team at Lyft?
Yeah, good question. So the growth team at Lyft is a relatively new team. I’d say about 8 months old now, 6-8 months. So not a very longstanding team at Lyft. There was a growth team in the early stages, it was disbanded for a number of years and we kind of brought it back under new leadership. I’d say it’s probably close to about a hundred people. All encompassing, primarily engineering driven, though a lot of different functions fall under growth at Lyft. And somewhat uniquely, the entire analytics function of Lyft sits technically under growth as well.
When you started there there was no growth team?
There was no growth team. The growth team existed, but was pretty much being dissolved into the major organizations. So when I joined and we were much smaller was when we had just started actually bringing in executives to Lyft, which was a pretty interesting time to come there. Within that same timeframe that I joined, we hired the CFO, CMO, COO. Under that leadership change, the formal organizations of marketing, operations, engineering and product being more clearly defined. Which was a really important thing for Lyft at that stage. And bringing back the growth team has been a very important thing for the stage that we’re at. So I think growth teams have a very specific function for the lifecycle of a company, and only for certain companies.
So when you started there are growth people on every team, but no formal growth team. How is it structured now?
There were people that worked on specific functions that contributed to growth. Growth is a very broad and vague term— there were teams that were more impactful to the current growth of the business in these different orgs. There was some coordination but not necessarily alignment, and certainly not cohesive team structures. One of the things that was fundamental to why the growth team was created and how the growth team functions is basically creating potted teams that include people from the growth marketing side, from product, from engineering and from analytics who have shared goals, who literally sit together. That’s a thing that, in the world of siloing and becoming a bigger company, we had a marketing org that was sitting separately from the product org, from an analytics org, etc. Now we have embedded teams that have very cleared shared goals and are specifically driving the immediate growth of the business, and figuring out how we will be able to continue growing at the pretty exponential pace that we have been growing at.
Now that it’s like it’s own thing, how does it work with the other functions from as compared to when you first joined?
That’s a good question. It’s hard. It’s been a process that we are honestly still in the middle of. So one of the ways that it works is that there are actually very specific teams that sit within growth that don’t sit anywhere else. As an example, or kind of the definition of some of our growth teams, similar to growth teams at some other companies, there is a clear acquisition team and there is a clear engagement team. In the world of Lyft and in many marketplaces, we subdivide those into our two consumer bases, so there’s a passenger acquisition and driver acquisition, and then there’s passenger engagement and driver engagement. These four pillars of bringing users into our ecosystem, and then engaging those users once they are in our ecosystems. Building brain value also building actual volume in the marketplace. Those are the core functions, and then we have a fifth team, that is called market health.
In Lyft context, it basically works on automation and coordination of the balance of our ecosystem. What makes this team function without conflicting with the rest of the org is those functions are centrally owned by the growth team, and there are other teams within operations and marketing that give inputs, but the drivers of those core growth functions fully sit within the growth team. That was an important part of building the growth team- from the very beginning, having full ownership and resources sit there. Even if those resources used to be in marketing— the team that I worked on and managed— we moved from marketing directly over to the growth team, as did other teams. So that’s very fundamental. That being said, we also worked very cross functionally especially with the operations org, which helps manage all of our local markets, and so we do a lot of coordination with budget owners, operations, etc., so there is a lot of coordination with he other orgs to make sure the values and specific specialty skillsets within those organizations help impact growth and give the right inputs and we give the right outputs.
You talk about engagement, and you have the other side which where it’s supply and demand. How do you balance the work on the growth team between retention and acquisition? How do you prioritize the work for the growth team?
It’s hard. It’s something that we are constantly trying to figure out, and build very sophisticated models to help us understand, and then three months later realize they were wrong or blunt, and go back into a world of building the most sophisticated model again, and three months later, realize that was blunt, and now we realize what was sophisticated and build that sophisticated model. To be honest, a process that’s always in flux at Lyft and probably a lot of places. One of the things we are starting to realize is that there is unlimited need on both sides and at the scale that were are, we basically can’t ignore engagement and retention. Early on, we had a much heavier focus on acquisition, which is I think an apt thing for young companies.
What we’ve realized now is that there are many more nuances to our business than just that divide. There are markets that are very mature, and places of our businesses that are very mature that it may be much more important to understand the engagement side of the world. And there are other places, literally geographies, in terms of markets or things that are less real world from a strategic standpoint that we can actually do a lot more investment from an acquisitions standpoint.
For us it’s understanding our levers on both supply and demand sides of acquisitions and supply and demand sides of engagement and knowing the right places to deploy those different levers and tactics. So that’s the sophistication that we’re at now, understanding the granularity there.
Yeah. I know the feeling of rebuilding growth models and just being a little bit less wrong than the last time but always figuring that out…
Yeah, and always being convinced it’s the right one. I think that’s part of the process. With the information you have, you have to say this is going to be the future. If you don’t start with that mentality that, with all the information available to you, you’re trying to create something that can literally last a year or two years more and it can be the perfect model and the perfect system. You better be convinced that that’s the thing to build otherwise don’t build it. But then also be open to the idea that in six months, if you look back and are like “no this is not the thing” and have a better idea for what the thing for the future should be, be willing to scrap the last thing you build whether it be a growth model, whether it be a balance model, whether it be honestly any product or feature. That’s a mentality that is so vital. A growth function, and hopefully for any function at any business. Definitely something that we embody at Lyft.
How do you guys drive constant experimentation? You have different markets, some mature, some not. You’re saturating some markets, you’re focused on engagement and acquisition in different balances in different markets. How do you make sure you’re still trying new things?
You have to believe that experimentation and trying new things is going to be the driver of growth. To me, the way you phrased that question, fundamentally you have to philosophically believe that trying new things is the only way to drive exponential growth. I would say probably half of my commentary on experimentation is philosophical, and the other half is processes and tools, and the infrastructure that gets built to support experimentation. On the philosophy side, it’s a belief in basically reinventing the wheel. That is what our company can be. The founders of Lyft talk about this pretty openly internally that it’s very ok for us to be a very different company in two years, have a very different product as long as we serve the same mission and are building the future that we set out to. Their history shows that, in Lyft being a different company.
Lyft came out of a hackathon project from a company that was called Zimride. A lot of people don’t know that story. That was a company that the founders ran for almost 5 years. That was in the transportation space, but nothing like what Lyft is. It was not a ride share company. It was a long haul transportation matchmaker, with a focus on transportation. Lyft in what it is is an experiment. It was an experiment from a five year old company and it is a less than 5 year old company. You have heard of one and haven’t heard of the other. So like, the core to Lyft’s being is experimentation and the idea that you can build new things. So philosophically you have to agree to that. Philosophically, you have to also agree that every product and every feature that you ship is in some ways going to be a V1 no matter how well though out it is. So every feature that you build and everything that you do from a broader marketing context is always V1.something. Then there’s a side of the actual “how do you do it”?
I think the second thing is understanding and agreeing on metrics. One thing that we spend a lot of time and focus on is on individual team context and a broader org context. What are the metrics that we want to drive as a growth team, and as sub teams within growth. What are the things we want to drive? Once you can agree upon the business metric that you need to impact, because growth teams should invariably impact growth metrics, you then can understand how you chip away at the question, what is a metric for a sub growth team, for the next one, what is it within a quarter? How do you really create a condensed thing. Once you can define that, you can say, ok, here are the things that we need to do to measure and build experiments that effect this, and once we have that metric, we can create unified metrics across our business.
We tried not to be thrashy (??) with the metrics we create and then we honestly build a lot of infrastructure to make experimentation really easy, and make reporting easy. Not to say there’s not a lot of manual analysis but Lyft is invested in having an experimentation engineering team, and experimentation PM. We think of experimentation as a core part of our product ecosystem on growth. And when you build infrastructure on experimentation it becomes a lot easier to experiment. Because then it’s not ad hoc. It is literally a team helps you do it.
I want to shift away from Lyft. How do you think companies that are early stage— or late stage that don’t have a growth team need to think about implementing a growth team if they do believe they need one? Is it a business model? Is it how far along you are in product market fit? Is it the market that you’re in?
I don’t think it’s about the market that you’re in. If you’re not at product market fit, and you don’t think you’ve understood that the entire company should be the growth team, and be very conscious about that— I’d say it’s post that type of stage. Post the stage of figuring out what you are as a company, or what we are as a company. At that point the whole company should be considering themselves a growth team. As you get bigger, the central function of why you have a growth team rather than more separated orgs is if you don’t have unification across the disciplines that come from different areas of the business and that’s something that you need to explore internally as a company. I’ve seen companies that are very successful that I’ve worked with that truly feel like they have that alignment without need what is considered a more unified quote unquote “growth team.”
The core marketing, the core product, the core engineering, the analytics, these functions can have their own realms, and can work more closely and clearly on a share to the same problem. I think as a company realizes that either because of scale, or because of some other internal forces, they are not able to do that, and don’t necessarily need everybody focused on immediate growth of the business. That’s where you create a growth team. Growth teams focus on the immediate growth of the business. If you want to hit what is happening that quarter, six months, twelve months, you are truly driving that side of the growth.
Lyft was at a stage where two things were happening. One, we had separated orgs that were not working close enough together, and two, we were also at a stage where there were things that we wanted to do that were outside of our core day to day business. We don’t want to distract those functions from growth, and we also don’t want growth to distract from the truly important work of doing next gen stuff. At a place like Google, with unlimited resources of Google, you create Google X. At companies that are not as big, I think that’s where teams are really important. Where you’re ready to bring people back together when you’ve come out of your early stage startup mode, and you want to really create focused attention around business metric growth that involves product, that involves engineering, that involves business and marketing people. And/or you want to create space between core function and side functions of the business.
Where do you see growth as a function going in future companies? It’s still really new even out here. I like to ask people, do you think you’re going to see CGOs in the future, or do you think it’s going to stay nested and stay kind of this loose structured, company to company basis type thing?
I think you’ll definitely see CGOs. I think while the term growth feels vague now, it will get more and more defined, as owning very specific areas of what impacts the business. Things like acquisition, which sometimes sit in the core marketing team, sometimes have like an ad tech engineering team but there isn’t a core (?? 22:25) on, here is an acquisition team that is involved that understands money, that understands long term value understands analytics, understands the value of marketing, understands the infrastructure needed to do acquisition. And onwards to other parts of growth functions. As more and more companies realize that, it will become fundamental to who they are. They may not always call it a growth team but it will absolutely function the way that more and more companies in the Bay Area are thinking about it as. So yeah, I think it’s very possible you see CGOs. I hate acronyms and more titles, but it’s very possible. And if not, you’ll see a person that has the skill set, and the philosophy of management that is effectively the same thing.
Yeah, I think you see more VP of growths that essentially serve that function that just report to the CMO.
Yeah, or the COO or the CEO or it doesn’t matter, I think it could be anywhere. But I think it’s truly bringing sides together in the middle. There is no C-title that belongs there right now. I honestly think it could even almost always report to the CEO until it becomes it’s own CGO.
So what advice would you give to entrepreneurs trying to hire for growth for the first time? What do you say they should look for in that person, and in the stage of the company that they’re in? Where do you see them hiring the best candidate?
I’d say one thing that is special and unique about growth and the person that you’ll want to find for that role is people that no matter what side of the (??24:00), whether their background is in analytics or a background more on the product side, or a background more on the marketing side, (a good candidate is) somebody that understands the business or the future of the business holistically. So if you’re a founder, especially of a smaller company, you need people that are able to take on many different functions or many different roles. You want to have people that truly understand the business as much as you do. You want them to be a counterpart, especially if they’re early growth hires. Honestly, even as you expand out, and have people that are managing parts of your growth system, should help share that vision and build that vision with you, rather than being role players for specific channels, or specific tactics. If you can get that, you can get somebody that understands that, and can bring their specialty towards it— their specialized skillset. I think you definitely want people with those specific backgrounds to help lead those areas, but really really believe that they understand the value of the business, believe in that value, and want to share a vision that you have for what it could be in a year, in 5 years, in 10 years. In 5x, 10x of what you are today, in 100x the scale you are today. People that think about that and understand what 100x-ing means, or at least believe that it’s possible. That’s who you want to get.
What about people who are working in different functions right now, or people in college that want to get into growth. What advice would you give them?
I’d say broadly, outside of pure growth hook, if you’re in college, or early in your career, figure out what you care about more than anything. And you can care about many things. You don’t have to have one thing. So really understand the spaces you want to work in, in terms of your passion about the problems you want to solve or help solve. And the professional problems you want to solve or get you excited. Once you do that, you can say, “cool, I really want to understand and get excited by the data that drives a business. I understand the long term context of businesses, and studied that, and feel confident in looking at other businesses and how they work, and I really understand the analytics side of that.” Once you can pick out what’s going to get you ticking, you can find your inroad into a growth team, because you till want to have a very core value add area. It’s hard for everybody to be great at everything, and I think most people that are successful in the growth world understand a lot of things and have a really strong main skillset in one, maybe two of those areas, and a perspective on a lot of them. And that’s a thing that’s worth understanding. You should always be a full generalist, and have an ability to go deep in an area, and go fully core value while expansively understanding the scope of the business, that makes you really a proactive and productive part of a growth team.
Yeah, that’s actually something that Brian Balfour talks about, is a t-shaped marketer going deep and then being a generalist in every other function of marketing, growth or product.
I think he has one of the most well built schemas on individual development from that context that makes a lot of sense and there are probably some disagreements from different places, but certainly not as at different stages, but I 100% agree with that format, because you really do need to have a broad spectrum, and then a t.
Those are all the questions I had. Thanks for joining us. Is there anything you want to plug, or are there and cool new features you can tell us about that Lyft is coming out with?
I can tell you that we are continuing to invest in caring about our community in a pretty big way. It’s something that’s fundamental to why I joined Lyft, why I started the company I started, how I tick. There are problems I think are really important. Personally to me in the world, that are probably important to a lot of people, and there is a philosophy on how you solve those problems. For me I am really interested in the ideas on labor force empowerment, empowering people that want to work and be part of our economy, to be productive in that economy if they have the willingness. I think Lyft does that in a really positive way, pretty obvious with our driver community, the ability for people to flexibly work, earn money, but also feel very empowered by flexibility and the ability to earn income. What Lyft is doing that I think is honestly central to even the growth team’s concept, is making that not just a message in the marketing, but represent that message in our product experience and what our passengers and drivers experience everyday. So one of the features I would say really speaks and lives up to this, we call “round up and donate.” It’s live in android right now, coming soon to a lot of users. It’s a feature where you can opt in to specific organizations or charitable organizations. On every single ride that you take, we’ll help round up, if you’re going to pay $6.75, we’ll round up the last 25 cents and fully donate that to this organization. That way every ride that you take is contributing to something that’s important to you. We take absolutely none of that money, we take no fee on that, it’s just helping say that we have this large community, we can make an impact, we already help build impact for our driver community. So that’s a feature that really represents who we are as a company, and I think companies that do that really well are very exciting. And finding that mission value, I think will make not just companies but individuals significantly more successful and happy in what they do. That’s my plug for life and for Lyft.
There we go man. Thanks a lot.