a16z Podcast: The Basics of Growth — User Acquisition

Growth is one of the most top of mind questions for entrepreneurs building startups of all kinds (and especially consumer ones) — but how does one go beyond a mindset of “growth hacking” to thinking about growth more systemically and holistically? What are the key metrics to know; why; and how?

This episode of the a16z Podcast — one of two in a series — focuses on the user acquisition aspect of growth, followed by engagement and retention in the next episode. Featuring a16z general partners Andrew Chen and Jeff Jordan, in conversation with Sonal Chokshi, the discussion also covers the nuances of paid vs. organic marketing (and the perils of blended CAC); the role of network effects; where does customer lifetime value (LTV) come in; and much more. Because at the end of the day, businesses don’t grow themselves…

Transcript:

Hi everyone welcome to the a16z Podcast, I’m Sonal. Today’s episode is all about growth, one of the most top of mind questions for entrepreneurs — of all kinds of startups, and especially for consumer ones. So joining to have this conversation, we have a16z general partners Andrew Chen and Jeff Jordan. And we cover everything from the basics of growth and defining key metrics to know, to the nuances of paid vs organic marketing and the role of network effects and more. 

Part one of this conversation focuses specifically on the aspect of user acquisition for growth, and then we cut off and go into the aspects of growth for user engagement and retention, in the next episode. But first, we begin by going beyond the concept of growth hacks — and beginning with the fundamental premise that businesses do not grow themselves…

Sonal: So the topic we wanted to talk about today is growth, which is a big topic. What would you say are the biggest myths and misconceptions that entrepreneurs have about growth?

Andrew: You know, not only is there the misconception that it happens magically, then the next layer I think is that it’s really just like, oh, a series of, you know, tips and tricks and growth hacks that kind of keep things going as opposed to like a really rigorous understanding of, you know, how to think about growth not just, as kind of the top line thing but actually that there’s acquisition, that there’s engagement, that there’s retention, and each one of those pieces is very different than the other and you have to like tackle them systematically.

Jeff: It is a scientific discipline, done right, because it requires you to understand your business and business dynamics at this incredibly micro level.

Sonal: I love that you said that because one of the complaints I’ve heard about “growth hacking” is that it’s just marketing by a different name, and what I’m really hearing you guys say is that there’s a systemic point of view, there’s rigor to it, there’s stages, there’s a program you build out.

Jeff: If you’re fortunate enough to achieve product-market fit and your business starts to take off, typically, you know, when in the wonderful situation do you get this hyper growth where you’ll grow year over year, you know, it’s triple digits. It’s just exploding. And then gradually the law of the large numbers starts to kick in and maybe the 100% growth becomes 50% growth the next year, and then the law of large numbers continue to kick in and there’s 25% and then it’s 12.5% and so growth tends to decay over time even in the best businesses. And so the–

Sonal: — Didn’t you use to call it like “gravity”?

Jeff: I called it gravity, you just would…it comes down to earth. And then the job of the entrepreneur is to be looking years down the road and say, “Okay, at some point growth in business A is going to stop and so I want to keep it going as long as I can and there’s a whole bunch of tactics to do that,” but then the other tactic, the other strategies, okay, I need new layers on the cake of growth.

At eBay the original business was an auction business in the U.S. and so, you know, some of the things we layered on early days we layered on fixed price in the U.S. — it’s not revolutionary but it really did grow then we went international. And then we layered in payment integration and each time we did that the total growth of the company would actually accelerate which is very hard to do at scale.

Sonal: That’s the whole point… like there’s intentionality to it. It’s not an accident that you guys introduce new businesses, new layers on the cake.

Jeff: Businesses don’t grow themselves, the entrepreneur has to grow them. And, you know, occasionally, you stumble into a business that seems to almost grow itself but they’re just aren’t many of those in the world and that growth almost never persists for long periods of time unless the entrepreneur can figure out how to continue its growth.

Sonal: Right. I remember a post you wrote actually a few years ago on “The ‘Oh, Shit Moment!’ When Growth Stops” because people are a little blindsided by it.

Jeff: And that’s the flip side of it. You know, early on you get this great growth, you had to keep it going. When it stops your strategic options had been constrained dramatically.

Andrew: A lot of times when you’re looking at what seemingly is an exponential growth curve. In fact, it’s really something like, oh, you’re opening in a bunch of new markets, right, so there’s sort of a linear line there, but then you’re also introducing products at the same time and you’re also reducing friction and, you know, sign-ups or retention or whatever, and so, the whole combination of those things is really kind of like a whole series of accelerating pieces that looks like it’s, you know, this amazing viral growth curve. But it’s actually like so much work underneath.  <Sonal: Right.> You know, that makes that happen.

Sonal: I’ve also heard you [Andrew] talk about, being able to distinguish what is specifically driving that growth, so you don’t have this like sort of exponential-looking curve without knowing what that lever that you’re pulling to make that happen or knowing what’s happening even if it’s kind of happening naturally or organically. Can we break down some of the key metrics that are often used in these discussions including just what the definitions are and maybe just talk through how to think about them?

Andrew: Right. Yeah, so when you look at a large aggregate number like, you know, total monthly active users, right, or you’re looking at like —

Sonal: — “MAUs”

Andrew: –Yeah, MAUs, right. Or you’re looking at, you know, the GMV like all the…adding up all the transactions in your marketplace–

Sonal: — So, “gross merchandise value”.

Andrew: Yup. And so, you know, when you look at something like that and if it’s going up or down, you don’t have the levers at that level to really understand like what’s really going on. You want to go a couple levels even deeper: How many new customers are you adding? As you’re growing more and more new customers, a bunch of things happen. If you’re using paid advertisement channels, things tend to get more expensive over time because — you know, your initially super, super excited core demographic of customers — like they’re gonna convert the best and as you start reaching into different geographies, different kinds of demos, all of a sudden they’re not gonna convert as well, right?

Sonal: Just to pause in that for a quick moment, you’re basically arguing that growth itself halts growth in that context.

Andrew: Right. Yeah. So the law of large numbers means that you know there’s only a fixed number of humans on the planet, there’s only a fixed number of people that are in your core demographic, right? Once you surpass a certain point, it’s not like it’s it falls off a cliff, it’s just more gradual that you know that the customer behavior really changes.

Sonal: How do you determine what’s what when you don’t have product-market fit? Sometimes aren’t these metrics ways to figure that out or is this all when you have product-market fit… like is there a pre- and a post- difference between these?

Andrew: Very concretely, you want to understand how much of the acquisition is coming from purely organic (people discovering it, people talking to each other), as opposed to, oftentimes you’ll run into the companies that have over 50% of their acquisition coming from paid marketing and that tells you something that you’re, you know, needing to spend that much money to get people in the door.

Sonal: Yeah. So CAC, “customer acquisition cost”, that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about acquisition.

Jeff: CAC is what it cost to acquire a user, “blended CAC” is what it costs to acquire a user on a paid basis plus then also what free users you acquire. So if you’re acquiring half your users through paid marketing you’re paying a $100 to acquire a user but half of your users are coming at zero, paid CAC is 100, blended CAC is 50.

I think blended time is a really dangerous number. Most of the best businesses in the internet age of technology haven’t spent a ton on paid acquisition. And so the truly magical businesses, you know, a lot of them aren’t buying tons of users… Amazon’s key marketing right now is free shipping. And then, yeah, the economics of paid acquisition tend to degrade overtime.

Sonal: As it grows.

Jeff: As it grows and you just try to scale it and, you know, largely you’re cherrypicking the best users and then you’re trying to also scale the number you get to grow. I need twice as many new users this year as last year and you typically pay more so that magical LTV to CAC ratio which early on says, “Oh, we are three to one, you know, in two years it’ll probably be one and a half to one if you’re lucky,” or something like that. So we typically do try to look for these other sources of acquisition be it viral, be it, you know, some other form of non paid <crosstalk>

Sonal: I want to quickly define LTV — it’s “lifetime value” of the customer, but what does that mean?

Jeff: When you’re showing an LTV to CAC ratio you have no idea of what you’re seeing essentially given all the potential variations of the numbers. So we will almost always go for clarity. LTV, lifetime value, should be the profits, the contribution from that user after all direct costs.

Sonal: How do we define the LTV to CAC ratio? What do the two of them in conjunction mean?

Jeff: Well, let’s break them down. LTV is lifetime value. What you’re describing there is the incremental profit contribution for a user over the projected life of that user. So not revenue per CAC is that you know typically there’s cost associated to user. What’s the incremental contribution that the user brought from that <crosstalk> <Sonal: And that you mean the user brought to your company’s value.> To the company, yeah.

Sonal: So it’s a value of your customer to the bottom line?

Jeff: It’s the value of each customer to the bottom line, and then you compare that to the CAC or “cost of acquired customer” to understand the leverage you have between what I need to spend to acquire a customer and how much they’re worth. If your CAC is higher than your LTV you’re sunk. Because it’s costing you more to acquire a user…

Sonal: Than the value you get out of it. Now I get it.

Jeff: …then you’re going to get out of that user.

Sonal: Yeah.

Jeff: If it’s the opposite, at least you’re in the game. You know, I get more profit out of the user than I get the cost to acquire that user. And then there’s this dynamics on how does it scale over time, CAC tends to go up, LTV tends to go down. Because you’re, on the CAC side, you’re acquiring the less interested users over time. So they cost more to acquire and they’re worth less, and so that the LTV to CAC ratio, in our experience, almost always degrades as over time with scale.

And so, you know, when you’re in that conversation, you’re in a very specific conversation of, “Okay, how much room do you have?” “How is it gonna scale?” “You know, what’s gonna impact your CAC like a competitive thing?” So there has to be a lot, it had to be like 10 to kind of get you over that concern that oh, my goodness, those two were so close, that you have no margin for error.

Sonal: Right. This also goes back to the big picture, the layers on the cake, because if you have other layers you don’t have to only worry about one layer CAC to LTV ratio.

Jeff: It really does affect the calculation. If it’s, I’m in a new business, and I have a whole different CAC versus, you know, LTV ratio then that’s a different conversation as well.

Sonal: And the big picture there, is that if you don’t know the difference of what’s doing what when you may get very mistaken signals, mixed signals about your business, and so you guys don’t want blended CAC because you want to know what’s driving the growth.

Andrew: I think what blended CAC gives you is it gives you a sense for at this particular moment in time, you know, what’s happening. The challenge is that when it comes to paid marketing, in particular, it’s easy to just add way more budget and a scale that than it is to scale organic or to scale SEO. So your CAC is giving you a snapshot, but then as you’re trying to scale the business you’re trying to increase everything by 100% over the next, you’re trying to double everything then all of a sudden, you know, your blended CAC starts to approach whatever your dominant channel actually looks like.

And so if you’re spending a bunch of money then it’ll just approach whatever is your paid marketing, you know, CAC. What entrepreneurs should think about is what is the unique organic new thing that’s gonna get it in front of people, without spending a bunch of money, right?

Jeff: A lot of the best businesses have this very interesting, I’ll call it a growth hack. I mean OpenTable, when I was managing it, did not pay any money at all to acquire consumers. Like how can you do that? You know, it had millions of consumers. The restaurants would mark it OpenTable on our behalf.

Sonal: Right.

Jeff: They go to The Slanted Door website like when they were an OpenTable customer and you’d see, you’re looking…you go there to try to get the phone number to make a reservation and they’d say, “Oh, make an online reservation.” And we then got paid to acquire that user in its core form. But that hack was a wonderful thing. It scaled with the business and got us tons of free users.

Sonal: To be fair, and this is another definition we should tease apart really quickly before we move on to more metrics, that also had a quality of network effects which we’ve talked a lot about in terms of these things growing more valuable to more people that use it… is that growth? What’s the difference there?

Jeff: Well, the business grew into the network effect. The key tactic to build the network effect was that free acquisition of consumers that the more restaurants we had, the more attractive it was to consumers the more consumers who came, the more attractive it was to restaurants. So there is a wicked network effect.

Sonal: Like a flywheel effect, right.

Jeff: If you’re not spending anything on paid acquisition of consumers, how do you start it? And the placements that OpenTable got in the restaurant book both physically in the restaurant but particularly in the restaurant’s website was the key engine that got the network effect started. You had to manually sell some restaurants come for the tools, stay for the network, but then once the consumers got enough of a selection and started to use it, it was game over.

Sonal: Right, that was one way of going around the bootstrapping or the chicken-egg problem and seeding a network.

Andrew: Network effects have…there’s a lot of really positive things about them and one of the big pieces is that virality is a form of like something that you get with the network. You know, the larger your network is, the more surface area, the more opportunities you have in order to encounter it, right. And so, you know, in the case of Uber (where I was recently), by seeing all the cars with the Uber logo like those are all opportunities to be like, “Oh, what is this app? I should try it out.” And so it’s mutually reinforcing: then you get more riders and then you get more drivers that are into it and so, I think all of that kind of plays together.

Jeff: I’ll bring two examples up, the pink Lyft mustache when I first got to San Francisco.

Sonal: I remember that.

Jeff: You can see it once in the car and you’d go, “Oh, that’s pretty weird.” You see it twice in the car and you say, “Something is going on here that I don’t know about, and I have to understand what it is.” Lime is the same kind of thing.

Sonal: Right.

Jeff: They’re bright green and they glow essentially. So when someone sees one in the wild, someone bolts by them in a glowing green electric scooter and you’re just like, “Okay…what is that?” And Lime hasn’t spent a penny on consumer acquisition. <Sonal: Right.> Because their model is such that physical cue in the real world leads to it.

Andrew: The other one I’ll throw in as well is within workplace enterprise products there’s a lot of kind of bottoms-up virality that comes out of people, you know, kind of sharing and collaborating.

Sonal: Like with Slack.

Andrew: Yeah, like for example Slack is a great, it’s an example of this. And so, these are all kind of really unique ways that you can, you know, get acquisition for free. And so then your CAC is, you know, “zero” as a result.

Sonal: Yeah. You guys have talked a lot, about organic. It makes it sound to me as a layperson that you don’t want paid marketing! Like what’s your views on this — is it a bad thing, is it a good thing; I don’t mean to moralize it but — help me unpack more where it’s helpful and where it’s not. Are they any rules-of-thumb to use there?

Jeff: I mean a lot of great businesses that have leveraged paid marketing. The OTA sites (online travel agencies – Priceline and Expedia) just spends, you know, they spend a GDP of many large countries in their acquisition; and then it’s often a tactic in some good business. But if it’s your primary engine, a couple of things happen: One is it tends…the acquisition economics tend to degrade over time for the reason we’re saying…  <Sonal: Right this is…> And it leaves you wide open to competition.

Sonal: It gets commoditized basically.

Jeff: If you need to buy users, I mean if you’re selling, you know, the new breed of mattress and you need to buy users and early on, you’re the only person competing for that word, flas-hforward a year or two, they’re like six new age mattress manufacturers with virtually identical products competing for the same consumer. The economics are not going to persist over time. And so, you know, one of the key questions in businesses driven by heavy user acquisition is how does the play end? You know, it usually looks pretty good at the beginning of the play but in the middle it’s starts getting a little complex and there’s tragedies at the ends.

Sonal: There’s literally an arc.

Andrew: And I think, you know, if it is something that you’re using in conjunction with a bunch of other channels and you’re kind of accelerating things, that can be great. For example when Facebook in the past broke into new markets they started with paid marketing to get it going. And so in a case like that really paid marketing is a tactic to kind of get a network affect jumpstarted right? <Sonal: Gotcha.> And then you can kind of like pull off from that if you’d like. <Sonal: Right.>

Andrew: But if you’re super, super dependent on it and you don’t have a plan for a world that you know all the channels atregonna degrade [in] then you’re gonna be in a tough spot in a couple of years.

Sonal: Totally. Do you have sort of a heuristic for when to stop the paid? Is there like a tipping point, you know, THIS is when you move?

Andrew: I think in terms of how much paid should you do as part of your portfolio, I think that’s the right way to think of it is it’s one out of a bunch of different channels, right? And so I would argue the following: First is you really have to measure the CAC and the LTV and be super disciplined about not spending ahead of where you want it to be and not to do it on some, you know, blended number that doesn’t make any sense. <Sonal: Right.> And then I think the other part is you really want it to be kind of a small enough minority of your channels. Such that if you were to get to a point where it turns out to be capped that you’re okay, that you can live with that.

Sonal: Your business will survive and you continue to grow and be healthy.

Andrew: Right, exactly, and you can still get the growth rates you want and you can still, you have such strong product-market fit that you’re able to maintain that.

Jeff: Take a couple of sector examples. You know, ecommerce, a lot of companies struggle with, “Okay, how do I get organic ecommerce traffic?” So most ecommerce companies rely heavily on paid user acquisition, you know, typically one of the interesting things is they degrade over time and they’re all competing for the same user. It’s hard for ecommerce companies in most segments to be profitable and you’d look at the same kinds of dynamic and restaurants delivery. You know, if you can’t differentiate yourself and you’re highly reliant on paid marketing, the movie typically doesn’t end really great, and so, we look for segments where there’s a balance or they come up with that really unique growth hack and they’re not then reliant on paid channels.

And then by the way, paid channels can degrade too. I mean, I’d made a couple of investment mistakes where the paid acquisitions looked really good and then actually what they were doing is they’re arbitraging something like Facebook’s early mobile attempts where the people who participated with Facebook mobile ads early got real deals. They were nowhere near kind of the price they should have been trending at, so you’re like, “Look at these user analytics. They’re awesome!” And then Facebook, you know, kind of got the equilibrium when supply and demand met and the cost went up multiples, and those businesses that looked so good early just got incredibly stressed because they had no alternative to that inflation.

Sonal: That’s the case of platform risk where you’re dependent on the channel of on Facebook mobile or whatever the specific channel was there. But Andrew, you were also earlier talking about just a cap on how much is possible, and you both referenced the fact that things can become very competitive, that your competitors can also buy the same channels and then it gets very crowded or very expensive. So there’s multiple layers of the risk of the paid is what I’m hearing, but you have to be aware of that.

Andrew: Yeah. So I think on the acquisition side today, there’s a couple of really interesting opportunities that might be, you know, temporal, right, and like it may go away, right? <Sonal: Like, anything that crosstalk> For example, I think that if you have a product that is very highly visual, and I think this is, you know, one of the reasons why eSports has gotten so huge is because you have a product that naturally generates a ton of video in an age which all the platforms are trying to rush to video.

Sonal: That’s fascinating.

Andrew: Right? And so, you know, maybe this will be less of an opportunity coming up but like, you know, that’s a thing.

Sonal: Why would you say that’s temporal because it seems like…

Andrew: Because the competition will…

Sonal: …Do the same thing?

Andrew: …Yeah, will do the same thing, right. I think we’re now gonna move to a thing where all of these different kind of software experiences all are incredibly sharable. Like there’s no point these days in building a new game that doesn’t have like built-in recording and publishing the Twitch stream. And built-in tournament systems and all the community features and all that stuff that you need and, you know, I think it used to be that you would think of a game is just the actual IP but in fact, it’s sort of these layers and layers and like social interaction and content around it. And I think that’s about true as well as, all of these different brick-and-mortar experiences that are making themselves highly Instagrammable, they are adding the areas where you actually stand there and pose…

Sonal: Oh, my god, my favorite story about this is the restaurant trend of making square plates and layouts so it really fit beautifully with Instagram. That’s like one of my favorite cases; that’s one of my favorite things in the world is when the physical world adapts to the digital!

Andrew: And then you can go the other way too which is, physical products like scooters that remind you to engage digitally. The other, fun example I always like is everyone’s had the experience now where they’re just like in the room talking and then their Amazon Echo just turns on and it’s trying to go and I’m like, you know, they have no incentive to fix that. <Sonal: Yeah.> Because it reminds you that it’s there and reminds you to talk to it.

I think the big takeaway here is that you have to really be creative and really be on the edge of what everyone’s doing, right? And so if it turns out that everyone’s really into video and they’re really into Instagram right now, you have to think about like how does my product actually fit into that trend? <Sonal: Yeah.> And if you can find it, then you can get an amazing killer way to get jumpstarted and if the trend lasts then great, accelerate it with paid marketing, accelerate it with PR, do all that stuff to kind of keep it going.

I also want to make the distinction that we’re mostly talking about growth and acquisition.

Sonal: Yesss!

Andrew: And that is what startups mostly care about in the early days, because you don’t really have any active users, right? But the other part of this is that you see all the users would show up and how active they are starts to change over time… <overlap/crosstalk>

Sonal: <overlap/crosstalk>…The engagement. Well, thank you guys for joining the a16z Podcast.

[see part two on growth for user engagement and retention]