Google’s Approach: How to Grow to 100 Million Users

Editor’s note: You’re about to read an extract from “Ship It 2.0”. You can get the full book here.

Joris and his team at Google focus primarily on India, as it’s the second-largest market for smartphone users worldwide, with 375M and YoY growth of +75M.  The US comes in at a close third, with 252M users, but with only +25M YoY growth, it’s a mature market.

Joris Van Mens

Joris leads a group of products built for emerging markets users, including the Files by Google app. It has three main aims, to help users clean their phones, browse local files, and share files offline easily.

In India, these features are particularly useful. Statistics found that one in three users ran out of space on their phones every day. Not only does this mean that cleaning comes in useful, but that they have a lot of files to sort through and organize. The ability to share files offline means that information can be shared without using data, as the availability of WiFi is lower compared to the US.

The app launched and quickly became the highest-rated Google app on the Play Store. At the time of writing the app is quickly reaching the 100M user mark, with a rating of 4.6/5 from over 1M ratings.

In this chapter, we’ll walk through the three main stages of product; ideation, iteration, and growth.

Stars

Stage 1. Ideation: The Road to Launch

Ideation can be summed up as ‘lots of talking, lots of trying.’ 

A Product Manager’s key inputs at this stage starts with research. Talking to users and trying to understand them is the very first step of any product. What it involves is interviewing and observing your target demographic, reading research papers, and digging into market analysis.

A. Research

One of the things Joris’ team found at the research stage, was that people’s phones were filled with ‘Good Morning’ images. Most people they spoke to were in large WhatsApp groups, and would receive dozens of these images daily, taking up a large portion of their storage. The team could never have guessed that this was a recurring problem for their target market – it’s only thanks to user interviews that they had this information. 

Good morning messages

If you’re part of a larger corporation, taking a close look at the company’s strategy to make sure your product is in line with the overall company goals is key. The tech boundary will also be something for a Product Manager to consider, as well as prototype feedback.

At Google, OKRs are set every year and made very clear to every team, which helps to keep everyone aligned. Exploring how you can help the company reach its goals will also help you out when the finance teams are inspecting your performance!  

While conducting interviews in India, Joris also found that privacy was a major concern for users.

Phone

Device sharing between family members is fairly common, which can cause problems if any of the users have sensitive information. As soon as Google knew this was an issue, they worked on a solution to empower their users. Now, they are able to maintain a certain level of privacy on their smartphones.

B. The Tech Boundary

Another part of the ideation phase is understanding the tech boundary, and knowing what is just possible. For Google this meant running complex machinery models on low-end devices. At the time Machine Learning had been around for a while, but mostly in the cloud and  very computationally expensive, requiring immediate connectivity which couldn’t be guaranteed in the Indian market. 

Running great models on-device is becoming more and more possible, opening up new solutions to problems. As the tech is so new, it’s a rich opportunity for a company like Google, as no one else has been able to provide these solutions before.

Success at the tech boundary requires working with a great Tech Lead, particularly if you’re not a very technical Product Manager. They’ll help you to identify these new opportunities.

Files

C. Bugs and Prototypes

At this stage you have to ideate with your team, taking all of the inputs you’ve collected and brainstorming new ideas. Of the best ideas (and there’s plenty of ways of figuring those out) you draw concepts or build prototypes, depending on your resources. 

This gives you something to test with users. It can be very enlightening to see a user’s reaction, either positive or negative. 

Prototypes should be scrappy as the whole point is to save yourself a lot of time by not actually building the product. 

Without prototypes you could spend all the time and money building and launching a product, only to have it not do so well with users in the end. A prototype should just get the idea across, and give you a tool to test with users.

A common tool for getting prototypes made and concepts drawn, is a design sprint. 

Build Idea Launch Learn graph

A design sprint serves a shortcut, where instead of building a full prototype, you test the idea with users, gather feedback, and then go away and iterate on the idea.

In Joris’ team, they always build prototypes to test with users, with a two to three-week turnaround. At Google X, he’s heard, they try to test up to twenty ideas in a week, so it depends on your circumstances and how easy your prototypes are to build. Anything is fine!

Once you have built and verified a series of prototypes, you end up starting to build something that looks like a real product, which you can then call your Alpha or Beta. It will have a lot of bugs, and a lot of features will be missing, but it’s something that you can get into the hands of users and get feedback on, which is important for building the right products. 

After a while when your Alpha starts to really solve users problems, you can finalize it, call it your MVP, and launch it into the market.

Stage 2. Iteration: The ‘Easy’ Part

The story of Files Go takes a different turn here, as it was leaked. A few months away from being ready, with a few features missing and a couple of bugs, it got out onto the market. Google owned up to it, and got a lot of users and feedback very quickly.

Earth

The key inputs after a launch (or in this case a leak) are user feedback and usage data. The main forms of user  feedback are reviews in the app store as well as in-app feedback. Companies like Google can also expect their product to be talked about in forums such as Reddit, and in the media through press coverage. There’s no shortage of opinions on the internet once a product has been launched!

A. Feedback People

Here you can see two examples of app reviews:  

Reviews

One positive and one negative. What’s interesting to note is that although the team initially planned the product to be primarily a file cleaning app, some users were thinking of it as a file manager, and then criticizing it for not being a full local file manager.

Feedback can be biased, to what can be called ‘feedback people.’ These are the kinds of users who enjoy going online and telling people what they think about software. This is a specific demographic of people, who are tech-savvy early adopters, and tend to be predominantly men. So although a lot of user feedback via reviews is useful, it’s good to keep in mind that it doesn’t all come from your average user.

B. Usage Data

From usage data, you can understand feature usage and retention drivers, gather error reports, and learn some surprising stats.

Graph
  • The blue line represents users who used the app to clean up their phones. 
  • The red line represents how many people used the app as a file manager, which surprised them as it wasn’t the team’s intention. 
  • The green line represents offline sharing, which they hoped would be used more, but because that feature requires both parties to have access to the tool, they didn’t see as much pickup in the early stages.

Surprisingly, 60% of users didn’t free up space with the app! Following this, the team were able to go through the feedback and the data, taking away action points for the future.

Stage 3. Growth: Analyze, Estimate, and Test!

Growth is all about analyzing, estimating, and testing. It’s a very quantitative endeavour, and the key to the success of Joris’ team was a very quantitative Product Marketing Manager who he was able to work with closely. Product Marketing has to be data-focused to succeed.

At the start, they laid out all the options they had for growth, starting with a list of channels.

  • Organic: relying on people talking about it, or the press writing about it.
  • Partnerships with another company
  • Ads
  • Referrals: rewarding people for referring the app to someone else, very popular in consumer tech
  • Cross-promotions with another product
  • Feet on the street: people with fliers or in a kiosk helping people download the app

After laying out what the possibilities were, Joris looked at the potential and the cost of each channel. He then thought through how they’d actually be able to use these channels, asking “if we use ads, where would we show ads, on what type of network” etc.

Network graphic

Ads have almost unlimited potential, but of course, that would require unlimited budget! Feet on the street causes a lot of excitement within the team, but it’s difficult to do at scale and at good cost. Cross promotions didn’t have the right scale as they needed. They tested paid and unpaid referrals, both of which yielded a decent ROI, but didn’t have the scale they needed either.

They soon found that partnerships were the most viable option, as smartphone companies also benefited from the user’s limited space problem being fixed. When users quickly ran out of space on their new devices, they were quick to leave negative reviews

Making deals (some paid and some free) with some major smartphone manufacturers, particularly of low-end devices, gained a lot of traction and yielded excellent results for the app.

You can see from this graph of weekly new-user acquisition how partnerships (represented in red) boosted growth. Without marketing, they would have been left with only organic acquisition (represented in blue):

Acquisition graph

The 4 Pillars of Strong Analytics

1. Key Metrics

There are 4 key metrics which Joris and his team used to track their progress:

  • 28 Day Active Users (pretty standard at Google)
  • Week 1 Retained Users (useful for seeing if users just open the app once, or if they come back) 
  • Week 4 Retained Users (a proxy for what long-term retention is like)
  • Google Play rating (gauges how positive people feel towards the app)

These metrics can be applied in different ways. Joris’ team looks at them globally, by market, by partner, by growth channel, etc. These metrics can be split up in different ways to see what works and what doesn’t.

2. Dashboards

You need a lot of dashboards to dig into the data. Google have excellent Marketing Analysts who build dashboards for the teams to be able to easily read and understand their data.

3. Ad hoc analyses

Very often you’ll have a specific question on your mind about growth, and somebody does an analysis on the data to help you answer that question.

Graph

4. Weekly growth meetings

These meetings can include marketing, business development, product management, engineering, design, and finance. Everybody comes together to go through the metrics and decide if/what action needs to be taken.

As an example, these are  some of the topics which come up in his weekly growth meetings:

  • Key metrics
  • Acquisitions
  • Pre-install deep-dive
  • Feature usage
  • Retention by country
  • Onboarding by app version
  • Referrals in India

From 0 to 100 Million

The key to growth is to analyze and implement. Growth should always be data-driven and highly quantitative. Make this chapter your guide to growing from 0 to your first million users, using Google’s tried and tested secrets.

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