Box, Airbnb execs share lessons for driving sustainable growth

Summary:Engineering leads from cloud software companies to the purveyors of the sharing economy discussed tried-and-true (or failed) tips for maintaining user growth.

airbnb

SAN FRANCISCO---When any given startup finds its sweet spot, user growth numbers can escalate like wildfire.

But sustaining that momentum is almost always finite, and ensuring user growth for the long haul can prove to make or break some companies.

This is a problem experienced by businesses large and small, even demonstrated by Facebook.

A social network with more than a billion users worldwide and counting might seem like the end goal, but even Facebook itself knows that is only the beginning. Projects such as Internet.org and multi-billion dollar acquisitions like that of Whatsapp demonstrate how valuable user growth (often more than revenue) matters for the bottom line.

But not all companies can make game-changing moves and formulate long-term road maps along these lines — nor should it be entirely expected of every business.

During an afternoon of engineer-led fireside chats at Airbnb’s SOMA district headquarters, engineering leads from cloud software companies to the purveyors of the sharing economy discussed tried-and-true (or failed) approaches implemented toward sustaining user growth.

"There isn't a magic set of metrics to look at," Schillace said, explaining it is more of a process of honing in on specifics that makes your service different from everything else.

Although no one wants to let the core of the business (the product) slip to the side, there comes a time when startups might need to pay more attention to growth instead.

Gustaf Alstromer, head of growth at Airbnb, suggested it isn't mandatory to draw in millions of users before establishing a dedicated growth team but rather solicit users and engage them for feedback, an old school version of data collection that can be turned around to propel growth.

"You can use whatever metrics you want, but you need high engagement," concurred Sam Schillace, senior Vice President of engineering at Box.

Highlighting Facebook as an example, Schillace argued that metrics are usually different for each service.

"There isn't a magic set of metrics to look at," Schillace said, explaining it is more of a process of honing in on specifics that makes your service different from everything else.

Schillace speculated that Box never had a point person for growth, arguing that the enterprise cloud platform "resonated with the market."

For small businesses that aren't sure where to start, Annie Chang, head of product for home cleaning marketplace startup Homejoy, advised to start with asking users about their ongoing attention to the product and the brand. 

Reminding businesses to keep scale in mind, Chang stressed that maintaining user growth typically traces back to keeping existing customers happy.

However, she acknolwedged that optimizing for attention and growth "can be opposing activites."

Alstromer followed up, observing that some new companies are better at balancing other priorities over growth, such as uptime. But rarely, he lamented, is someone appointed to understand user growth.

"Generally you should start earlier than you think," Alstromer concluded.

Topics: Data Management, Apps, Cloud, Start-Ups, Web development

About

Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for MainStreet.com, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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