How do you define “hypergrowth”? If you Google examples of hypergrowth companies, Uber and Revolut would be some of the first examples you’ll see. For this reason and because I think she’s a fascinating product leader, I spoke with Irina Scarlat, who was Global Head of Growth at Revolut until March 2021 and she also led Uber’s growth in Romania until 2018.
She shared with us her recipe for achieving hypergrowth.
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Desi Velikova 00:00
Hi everyone. Today we’re talking about hypergrowth. If you Google examples of hyper growth companies some of the first names you see Uber and Revolut. For this reason, and because I think she’s a fascinating product leader I spoke with Irina Scarlat, who was the Global Head of Revolut until March 2021 and she also led Uber’s growth in Romania until 2018. Here’s her recipe for achieving hypergrowth. Enjoy this episode and don’t forget to subscribe to our channel wherever you’re watching or listening.
Desi Velikova 00:52
Hi, Irina, welcome to The Product Show.
Irina Scarlat 00:55
Hi, Desi. Thanks a lot for inviting me and for having me here.
Desi Velikova 00:59
I started The Product Show with the idea of speaking to founders and product people who are involved in the early days of growing a company to discuss the strategies and the tactics they use in the very beginning. So I’m really excited about our conversation because this is exactly your domain. Uber and Revolut might be big companies now but when you started there, the markets you had to grow were tiny. So tell us a little bit about your background your professional journey so far, and how are you doing on your sabbatical?
Irina Scarlat 01:32
So I started my career years back, I started in consultancy, I worked for for two years in consultancy. Then during my master’s studies, I did a Master’s abroad and also in Paris and I got involved in entrepreneurship in volunteering for different organizations. So as soon as I got back, back home, I started my own nonprofit, which I led for four or five years, we were doing entrepreneurship education programs for the youth. In parallel, I built a marketing agency working with with tech startups and I was working more on customer discovery and validation and go-to market strategy and product market fit than actual marketing and go to market strategies back in the day that I’ve joined for five years, the teams of How to Web and Tech Hub Bucharest, where I’ve switched from being the service provider for tech startups to being the catalyst for the for the tech ecosystem. And when I’ve learned and grown enough, I wanted to I wanted to make the switch towards Product Marketing. So I first joined Uber, as the first marketing hire. First local marketing hire, we launched in three cities, we grew the market to 1 million users locally. But at some point with Uber, changing leadership going through IPO, perhaps things became very corporate. So I wanted to go on a sabbatical. And I never ended up taking one because I was approached by Revolut. And then decided to join them. I joined initially as country manager for Romania, we had 20k users back then, now we’re approaching 1.5 million, eight months into the role, we started brainstorming about org structures that would allow us to further grow and reach our true potential in the markets where we operate. And this is how we came up with the idea of building a growth department. And I ended up leading what we called our growth machine, which is basically a fancy name for our efforts of building growth teams in Europe and in our expansion markets, that I was promoted to lead the CEE region. And last but not least, I was promoted to lead the global growth department. And it’s been an amazing journey. The past few years have been have been amazing. But at some point, I felt that the learning the learnings that I get the impact that I have, now at Revolut is rather incremental than exponential as it used to be. And I’m also really tired like when and I think that people working in high growth companies and in startups can can relate. One year feels like a dog years like I don’t feel like I’ve been traveling for three years, but for 10s of years. So I really needed a break. So I’ve decided to go on a sabbatical that i’ve i’ve been planning for my entire career and never to one. So here we are two weeks into my into my sabbatical. I still have plenty of calls. I still have plenty of emails, I started learning different programs, but it feels it feels good. Right. So
Desi Velikova 04:43
let’s go back to those early days with Revolut when you started and the Romanian market had around 20,000 users so your task was to grow to 100,000 in eight months, with no marketing budget. So there was a bit more about how you spend the first few months of the job, how did you decide what to focus on? You know, how did you identify the strategies that were going to move the needle.
Irina Scarlat 05:10
So when I, when I joined Revolut was approaching 1 million users globally. And in Romania, we had, we had 20k users, or and those were the the early adopters, the innovators, the people in the tech community that were familiar with a product from, from Tech conferences. I mean, it wasn’t easy. The initial growth that we have was purely product driven growth. So rumanian started using using Revolut, because the product was much better than there any existing alternative. But product driven growth can only take you so far. So what I did, given that we didn’t have any any budget, and I didn’t have any local team at that point, was to focus on building a sound layer of community driven growth. So I pushed a lot on inbound marketing on content on user user education. I leverage the power of the community we had the active users of Revolut, were ambassadors for the program Revolut was was a love brand for them. So I invested a lot of efforts in building a strong community around the product and keeping in touch with with our brand evangelists. In hearing them, whenever they had, they had feedback for us. And this, turned them into our biggest promoters and into a major growth lever for us that later on created creating network effects. We worked on closing strategic partnerships. We went on, we focused a lot on communications, we went to a lot of events, and all these in order to in order to first build a strong community around the product. And secondly, but an equally important to build trust. And to position Revolut as a FinTech thought leader in Romania.
Desi Velikova 07:08
Right. And from all the comparison projects that you just mentioned, which are the ones that brought the biggest impact, and you’re most proud of, do you Can you recall an example?
Irina Scarlat 07:18
There were a lot. I think it’s I’m a firm believer in the butterfly effect. And I think that with expert experimentation, constant experimentation, and by doing small tweaks here and there, you can get very, very strong results. So I don’t know one of the one of the most impactful, there are two things that we need to be campaigns that are very close to my heart. So one of them was a referee tour. So basically, I embarked on a journey beginning, picking the cities in Romania with the with the biggest communities of Revolut users. And I organized events in order to meet with these users. What are they differently, as opposed to how we were doing things back Back then, was that I, instead of inviting to those events, just our most active users, I kept those events open to the public, because this was going to later on create network effects. If you speak in front of a room, half of it are active users of your product and evangelists. Half of them are just interested in finding out more at the end of the event, you’re not going to be the only one answering questions about the product, half of your room is and this actually got the ball rolling. And then on other things back then, we had we had the possibility of offering or users when signing up The First card for free. So in order to do that, they had to sign up at a specific promo link. And again, I did a very small tweak. I said, I don’t want my users to get the first card order for free only if they sign up at the promo link. Because this means that we’re going to create a lot of business debt for the for the customer support teams, there are going to be people that are just going to download the app and then they’re no longer going to be eligible for the for the card. And this creates a barrier to growth. How about we just changed the pricing for the first card order enough to zero for five days straight, just give me five days to test it out. And we were 75k users by by then. And we acquire 25k users the remaining until 100k over the next five days. Because it went like it went viral online. So it’s basically looking at the low hanging fruit, the playbook looking at what your colleagues did, and just doing small tweaks in order to in order to in order to improve and to get exponential results.
Yeah, absolutely amazing. Sometimes the small tweaks can bring bigger results. Rather
we try to look at very creative ideas. We try to look at very bold things. But if we look at the very simple things, first, we might be amazed of the result that we can deliver. But then I’ll never forget that back then. It was the first time in in Revolut history when a market was growing faster than faster than UK. And you’re comparing a market that was 3x 4x smaller in size than the UK. And that was with no budget just by looking at how to how to you can improve what you’re
already doing. In the product and design community. We love talking about product lead growth. And I also believe that Gianni sustainable growth strategy really growing through your product, but it feels like our trendy obsession with product lead growth has somehow demonized marketing driven growth. But we have to be using them together, right? I mean, we have to be thinking about the top of the funnel as well, especially when it comes to new products in new markets. So how do we make sure that these two are aligned, and we’re striking that balance right? To achieve how hyper growth?
Irina Scarlat 11:09
Yeah, so let’s, let’s take them in terms. So first, with growth, I feel oftentimes that growth is a buzzword nowadays. And if you ask 10 persons, what the growth is, you’re going to get 10 different answers from the mere simplistic definition of growth as performance marketing. So everything that’s paid marketing is growth growth. managers, heads of growth are impacted by digital marketing managers, or paid marketing managers, to different variations along the theme. For me, growth equals marketing. For me, growth is marketing all along the funnel from building brand awareness to top of the funnel, user acquisition, conversion and further down the funnel, engaging engagement retain a retention of your of your users. So that’s how I define growth. Secondly, I think that we’re putting in the same time too much and too little emphasis on product led growth. So product led growth is not the only growth strategy. Product led growth shouldn’t be the only growth strategy, but it should be the first growth strategy. So you can, if you pardon my variable language, if you have a shitty product, no matter how much money you’re going to pour into into it, it’s still going to be a shitty product at the end of the day. And even if you’re going to pay money to acquire your users, you’re not going to retain those users, so you don’t have a business. And so product lead strategy is instrumental and is the first thing that that you have to do as a startup, focus on your product, make sure that your product is good, make sure that the product stickiness is high, you know, that you’re in, you’re doing this right, you’re doing the product driven growth stage, right? When you see that the number of your users grows organically, week over week without, without paying money for it. When you see that users are referring your product without any incentives, because it’s very easy to say, Okay, I give you 100 euros if you bring me a user, and then you’re going to find users to refer your product. No, if you want to validate that you’re doing it right and that your product did it right in the product lead growth stage non incentivized referrals should work, you should see high product stickiness, you should also see that your users are voting with their wallet. So they’re actually paying for your for your product because they see the value that your product brings. And you should see that your users are engaged, they are willing to talk to you, they are willing to give you feedback, they are willing to criticize you when your users criticize you, that’s a very good thing. This means that they care. So the product lead growth stage is super important than production be at the center of any any high growth strategy. But one thing that the product and marketing has to figure out and has to understand is that product can take you to being a unicorn product alone can take you to millions of users because it doesn’t work like that. Very good product. And the very sound product is going to create an initial an initial virality. But just in the communities of early adopters of innovators and early adopters, you’re not going to go past that that point without without pushing forward. The problem in my view is that we’re rushing into marketing driven growth. And we’re forgetting the, the chain in the middle and that’s why I see a lot of companies failing with their commercials. And you know, that point it’s actually community driven growth. So from product led growth, where you’re using your product as a growth factor community driven growth, you’re using your community your users as a growth factor. Because if you did product growth, right, and you did it right, you’re going to be able to unlock the next wave of growth, which is community driven growth. And here, there are various ways to do it. With no or very little budget, you should focus on inbound marketing, you should focus on thought leadership, community events, strategic partnerships, media, and communications, all these things, they aren’t free, anything is free. Even if you hire a person to handle these, you’re still paying for it. But they don’t require massive investment. And only then only afterwards, this creates the basis for the network effect. And this creates the basis for the exponential growth, for turning your company into unicorn if you have the product lead foundation. If you have the community driven, community driven,
Irina Scarlat 15:56
growth stage down, right, you can then switch to marketing driven growth, where you should still of course, focus on the customer. But you can experiment with cross channel marketing campaigns with outbound marketing ATL indorsement. You name it.
Desi Velikova 16:13
Amazing. This was like the growth strategy playbook. Thank you very much for sharing. So let’s talk a little bit more about the difference between created accounts and real users. And you just touch base on that earlier. activation and retention can sometimes be masked by aggressive acquisition campaigns and mind blowing your account numbers. But we all know there is a huge difference there. This is a very common trend for fast growing startups and unfortunately, many young startups small startups without big fundings copy paste that without realizing the long term implications. Have you experienced this chair? One chin? How do you tackle it?
Irina Scarlat 16:52
Yeah, so it’s, it’s normal. To communicate, sign up numbers I don’t want I don’t even want to talk about that download. So it depends if you’re if you’re looking for substance or if you’re looking for vanity indicators, I always advise look for substance. So your Northstar metric can be signups because signups in themselves don’t mean anything at all. So your Northstar metric can only be the the active users. Your Northstar metric can only be the revenue generated by those active users the revenue per user or the gross profit per user, you name it. If you if you want to have a sustainable company. It’s true that in the beginning, for early stage founders, it’s super important to acquire users. But even then, and even when your KPI is signups forget about our app downloads, please forget just for the sake of it, don’t bring them into conversation. So even if your your objective initially is to is to drive top of the funnel user acquisition, you should still follow the follow the journey of those users that further down the funnel. Because drop high drops in conversion rate might mean that you have a product issue that you need to solve hydrops in retention mean that your product is not solving is not solving the problem you think it’s solving for your users, or your users don’t perceive the value. So you should always look holistically throughout the funnel. And not just at simple parts of the funnel equally equally, I think this holds true the other way around as well. Because if you only look at the at the number of active users and those are constant, you have to look okay, you can bring active users two ways top down or bottom up, top down by top of the funnel user acquisition bottom up by doing churn prevention activities by avoiding to let your users become dormant. You have to you have to balance both ways you focusing on only one side is wrong, irrespective which one.
Desi Velikova 19:01
So who do you think are the victims of hyper growth? What are the usual sacrifices and trade offs that you have to make to achieve those numbers? Especially when it comes to the product? We’re gonna talk about teams later.
Irina Scarlat 19:15
So I don’t think we you should make trade offs in terms of product. So I’d rather keep the product simple. I’d rather keep the product with fewer features. I’d rather keep the product very if you make trade offs in terms of product, you’re sacrificing growth, all the all the companies that have achieved hyper growth have achieved hyper growth on the basis of a very, very good product. making sacrifices or trade offs in terms of in terms of product quality, is completely contradictory to having hyper growth. What you need to do though as a product person is to prioritize correctly, is to understand what’s the main problem that your product is solving for the users and prioritizing to keep a limit third set of features in the product that actually caters to those to those users need. Everything else is noise, you have to keep those features intact and flawless. And with the perfect UX for your users, everything you add on top of that can be can be deprioritize. But you have to dedicate all your resources towards the, towards the core product features if you want to, of course, if you want to achieve hyper growth.
So again, a huge part of your success as a growth leader is having the right people and the right team structure around you. At Uber and Revolut you had to grow the teams from just a handful of people. What was the right rotation model that worked for you, especially given the fact that you had to manage distributed teams across Europe? And what were the challenges?
So there are two things, two things here first on the team structure, I’m very sorry to say this, but the true answer is that there is no correct answer, there is no such thing as the right team structure for the growth team. There is only the right growth team structure for your company. The team structure that we had a tuber is different than the team structure that we had at Revolut. And both of them might completely fail for another. For another startup, I think it’s very important when deciding how to structure your team, I have a couple of very, very basic principles. So first, you start from the from the goal, you start from the KPI, what’s the KPI that that team has to achieve. So here is the KPI, what’s the profiles of people that you need in order to achieve those KPIs. And then always start small with the team, I feel that oftentimes, startup founders, particularly in the early stages, are not aware of the impact that they have on humans life, it’s a huge responsibility to hire. to hire a person, you only hire them if you need them. So I’m a firm believer in in minimum viable teams, in lean teams. So start small, start with a small team, hire two three people depending on the on the profiles, and then start scaling the team. As you see a competency gap, you need a different competence that you don’t currently have in the in the team, or, an overload
Irina Scarlat 22:30
problem, when people in your team can can no longer deliver more, because they’re swamped, and then you have to bring because they risk to become strong, don’t wait for them to become some don’t burn them out. That’s another mistake that oftentimes, startup founders startup founders make. So just hire lean hire, when you need more competencies, or hire when you need more, more bandwidth in the team and more people. But don’t hire just for the sake of hiring and big mistake that you can do is to put up the team that you want to hire in an Excel sheet, and start hiring without looking at the goals first, that the competencies first that the skill set that’s already in your team. Now,
Desi Velikova 23:13
I watched a few videos of you I also read some of your articles. So I think it’s fair to say that or just maybe to give a little bit of context to our listeners and viewers, you have three master’s degrees, you started your career in marketing with zero experience by quoting mailing the right people. So I think it’s fair to say that a huge part of your professional success and what you’ve achieved for the companies you worked for, is down to your personality, your determination, your drive to get things done your hunger for challenges, is that what it takes to be successful at fast growing company, a fast growing tech company. And also I read an article where you defend Revolut and the bad press they are getting where you’re basically saying it’s it’s you who decided to work weekends and nights, no one made you do that, you wanted to do it to achieve the results, to get things done, to prove it to yourself, to deliver for your team. So basically, this is the sort of a profile that these fast growing companies attract rather than this culture being imposed on them. So what does it take to work at a fast growing company?
Irina Scarlat 24:30
So I think there’s one thing that helps you succeed, or that transcend everything from ambition and drive and getting things done and that’s passion. That’s being passionate about what you do. The reason why in in high growth companies and in startups in general, people are working long hours or are working, working overtime. It’s not because somebody ties them to the to the chair is because they actually care about about the work they are doing. Is that they’re very passionate. They’re very, they’re very bent with this passion comes the drive comes the ambition comes the creativity comes the desire to do more. It all starts from from passion I was I was talking earlier with a student that I mentoring. And she was telling me that she’s she found the dream job, but she’s not passionate about about the industry at all. And I told her, it’s not the dream job then. Because in the end, there are two things when choosing to choosing to work for, for a company. It’s the product you’re working on. And it’s the people you’re working on. If you don’t understand the product, if you’re not passionate about the product, it simply won’t work. It’s going to be just the job. And in startups and intact, it’s never just the job.
Desi Velikova 25:53
What qualities are you looking for when hiring people for your team? Is it this drive and determination and passion that you just mentioned? Or is there more to that? How do you hire people like you?
Irina Scarlat 26:06
So I think it depends a lot. First, I don’t aim to hire people that are just like me. Because I like to have a diverse team diverse perspectives I like to have in my team, I’m an extrovert, I talk a lot. I want to have both extroverts and introverts in the in the team. And I’m working, I’m working really hard in order to make sure that introverts in my team, always get to have a say at the at the table. So I think it’s very important beyond competence. I mean, you have a clear set of competencies that you want to hire for. It depends on the on the position, but beyond the competencies and the skill. It’s always about the attitude. I don’t know, there are, for example, in my interviews, and I said that I’m going to write about it. And I am going to, there are two questions that I always ask people during or during my interviews. And for my team, one of them is what book are you reading now. And one of the things is what’s one key thing that you’ve learned over the past year, because if they aren’t reading, and if they haven’t learned anything over the past year, it’s clear that they aren’t looking to learn continuously. So it’s much easier. There are questions that you ask and you read between the lines, I’m always hiring for attitude I want I want people with AI. If that’s a quote from Harvey specter from sweet suit, it’s I hate negative people, they have a problem for every solution. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my team I want. I want people that are driven, that are entrepreneurial, that are good problem solvers. I like people that for more senior positions that can do the strategy, but I’m not hiring the type of managers that sit back, do the strategy and have a bunch of minions implementing the strategy, I want my managers to be able to roll up their sleeves and execute along with with the team as well. And I think there are more and more people like this. And I think that as long as you lead by example. And as long as you have clear expectations from your team, things are going things are going well.
Desi Velikova 28:19
What do you think is the secret to sustainable product growth? Is it the people who surround you? And what is it more to that?
Irina Scarlat 28:27
So it’s, it’s the people and when I say people, it’s the team behind the product, and it’s the users of the product? Because if you lose sight of any of the two, you’re going to mess up the product sooner rather than later.
Desi Velikova 28:41
What’s next for you then?
Irina Scarlat 28:44
So that’s a very good question. I haven’t decided yet I am exploring several, several alternatives. So I will either join a startup or another startup in order to in order to help them help them scale and build the build their teams and the the marketing growth strategy to help them succeed. Or I will launch my own startup or I would just work with in an advisory role with with a bunch of smaller more early stage startups. That’s still to be seen. I’m still considering my options. I’m not I’m not in a hurry. And I really want to stay for a bit for now what’s what’s next for me spending time with the with my kids in our in our backyard needs reading a lot. I’ve already signed up for a couple of online certifications, online courses that I that I want to take. It’s reading, learning, binge watching spending time with my family, and I’m sure that the very good ideas and very good opportunities will arise like this.
Desi Velikova 29:59
This sounds amazing. And before I let you go arena, tell me what’s your advice to people for just starting in the industry, they want to grow into growth in product management space, and they don’t know where to start from, how should they spend the first few months after university.
Irina Scarlat 30:16
Start from somewhere. Going around the circle doesn’t, doesn’t help. So just start from, from somewhere, read, whatever you can find. Do courses online, spend money on courses only if you’re convinced that those courses are good, and they’re right for you. And there, there are a lot of very good, very good courses available available out there. An intern, intern, volunteer in order in order to get a grasp of how things are and if you join a company as an intern and you exceed expectations and you prove that you deliver, you’re definitely going to grow.