Where did all the Growth Leads go?

The talented growth marketing people are abandoning startups to run their own companies.
Written December 18th, 2023
I haven’t had a growth person to recommend for a role in over a year. None of them are even open to it.
I interview growth leads for my newsletter – so I know a lot of them. I do not know a single talented growth person in my network who is looking to join a startup.
I know a very small number who are currently on a rocket ship and won't get off. They're unapproachable. You'd have to pay so much, either in salary or equity, it would practically not be worth hiring them.
The vast majority are going a more entrepreneurial route. The world's most talented growth leaders no longer want to work at other companies.

Leading growth is brutal

There's a lot to be gained from successfully growing a startup: fast career growth, potentially a good salary, and you'll learn rapidly. But mostly, there's a potential equity pay out.
That's both a financial and ego incentive. If you succeed, if you get the company to hit its growth goals all the way to an IPO, there's an absolutely massive cash out and you become an industry hero.
But being a growth lead is rough. When growth is going well, it's because of the fantastic product. When it's going poor, what you’re doing isn’t working.
The best growth leaders have perfect situational awareness. They track revenue, their high level goal, but they’re also tracking multiple products, existing acquisition channels, new growth experiments, and more. As a company grows they also lead a bigger and bigger team.
At any moment in time, odds are there is something not working. There's no way everything will be going up to the right unless a) you've succeeded and achieved hyper-growth or b) you're in a bubble. Both are short-lived.
The growth lead shares top level goal with the CEO, and there is a lot of pressure that comes with that.
Still, as long as revenue is going up and to the right pretty much everyone will be happy. And that's why through the end of 2021, you saw growth leaders quite content in their roles.
We were in a tech bubble – everyone was growing at least a little. Many growth roles also come with commissions and performance bonuses, meaning the money was also flowing.
Then the downturn came. Layoffs hit tech. Hard. But not the growth leads. They suffered a worse fate – an impossible task.
With stripped budgets, teams and resources, growth leads were expected to maintain ZIP growth goals with nothing to back it up.
The work become exponentially worse and the pay stagnated. And so, they left.

Where did the growth people go?

During a downturn, most employees tend to stay put in their jobs. The theory, which is often correct, is that the longer you've been in a role the safer you are for layoffs.
But a unique phenomenon happened with growth people during this recent downturn. The good ones realized that the skills they possessed were widely applicable. Why make chump change growing someone else's product or service when you could just grow your own?
The result is that the mediocre growth people desperately cloned to their jobs during a downturn when things stagnated. The talented ones, who actually know how to grow and sell, left for better pastures. Pastures that were in fact greener because they were only available to them.
A certain fraction are taking on co-founder type roles. They've either built something themselves, or partnered with another co-founder.
Another, perhaps even smaller fraction, are going the creator route. Building newsletters, YouTube channels and courses around startup growth.
But the vast majority are starting productized services, more commonly referred to as agencies? In fact, that’s what I did (at least in part).

The upside for startups

By focusing on the growth channel they're the best at, growth leads can make a lot more money by having many clients. They can spend their time doing the hard knowledge work and outsource everything else.
This may sound exploitative, but it's actually good news for startups. It means that instead of making an expensive internal hire for an experienced growth lead, they can spend a fraction of a salary genuinely testing the growth channel.
A startup only needs one growth channel to work, and so they need to be able to test as many viable channels as possible. This model makes it much easier to do this.
Of course the vast majority of agencies and consultants are terrible. This is true of every industry, but especially, if not even more so, for the marketing field.
So how do you find the good ones? The criteria is quite simple. Find people leading growth service agencies who previously mastered the channel at an actual start-up.
If you want to test SEO, find someone running an SEO agency who has successfully built the channel as an internal hire. Same for cold emailing, social media or content.
So where did all the good growth leads go? They're still here. They're just not putting up with meetings, management, and company politics anymore.