Top 10 Ways to Break into Growth Marketing as a Nontechnical
By GrowthX Academy mentor Yunzhe Zhou
The odds were definitely stacked up against me: I majored in Psychology, only interned in nontechnical roles and on top of that, lived in a middle-of-nowhere town in Virginia (needless to say, the amount of contacts I had in California was about zero). And yet, I still wanted to move to the golden land of startups.
While the major department thought I’d end up in a research lab, I instead got my dream job doing a different type of experimenting: as a growth marketer in San Francisco. Through trial and error, I’ve realized that there’s not a single point in time where you miraculously get to a specific title (after all, at that time my title was technically unemployed); rather, you work with what you have, learn and apply frameworks like a growth marketer would. It’s a gradual build-up and the best time is to start now.
I’ve organized lessons I gained into how to accelerate learning growth marketing and finally getting that job. Here’s the top 10 takeaways covering both parts to help you make that transition:
1. You already have more skills than you think you do.
Due to the various subsets of marketing, it’s often difficult to pinpoint what areas you’re good at, especially if you don’t have much direct experience. It’s helpful to understand that growth marketing encompasses multiple skillsets from analytics to behavioral science to storytelling, and chances are they overlap with some of what you already know. For example, as a Psychology major, I had conducted numerous experiments as well as user research. These experiences directly tie into A/B testing and conversion optimization as a growth marketer. Likewise, you can broaden the scope of your existing growth marketing toolkit by thinking about how skills from other experiences can transfer over.
A valuable exercise is to write down all the experiences you have that are related to growth marketing in some way – you might be surprised by how much you already know.
2. Understand the landscape.
To delve into growth marketing, it’s essential to be a self-directed learner and take advantage of all the resources online. There’s tons of websites like GrowthHackers that have case studies on how the giant tech companies (Airbnb, Slack, etc.) grew their users; books like Startup Traction that introduces you to all the different channels to reach your market. Take a look at the T shaped growth marketer chart and how you can gain a strong foundation while becoming an expert in a specific area. Learn frameworks that can be used over and over again like AARRR, Bullseye, design thinking, etc.
3. Create more than you consume.
Just like how ideas are nothing without execution, there’s a big difference between reading about growth marketing and applying it. This could mean documenting your learnings in a blog (especially helpful for beginners to organize and synthesize information), running mini-experiments on Google / Facebook, or creating a project specifically for a concept you want to learn or a company you want to work for.
Having something to show that you’re making progress is a great way to highlight your potential and adaptability to learning new skills, both of which are fundamental for on the job.
4. Surround yourself with experts.
The experience of hearing first hand from marketers talk about what worked and what didn’t, as well as meet others in the same field is incredibly valuable. At events, the exchange of information and ideas is extremely helpful. GrowthX Academy hosts Growth Marketing events and webinars. Josh Fechter, a GrowthX Academy mentor, runs tons of great events and the largest online growth marketing community. Additionally, mentorship doesn’t have to be in person – nor do you have to know them well. With a click of a button, you can have instant access to the thoughts of experts like Sean Ellis, Brian Balfour, etc.
5. Know what you’re optimizing for.
When you’re applying to jobs, think about: do you want to learn growth marketing at a big company or small? Is learning through wearing multiple hats or having a strong mentorship more important? Would stability or once in a lifetime opportunity be more appealing to you? These are all factors that will influence your final decision, the kind of career and growth rate you’ll experience.
Above all, I’d recommend choosing learning opportunities over financial packages if you are in a position where you can make that choice (Paul Graham also endorses putting learning first).
6. There’s riches in the niches.
While most people advise casting a wide net, being specific will allow you to stay focused and maximize the ROI on your search efforts. The better you can define the type of industry, company and work you want to do, the better you can package yourself to be the perfect fit a company is looking for. For example, when I was job searching, I knew I wanted to work at a fast growing startup in social impact, specifically education. Throughout the process, I learned about what Edtech employers were looking for, what skills I needed to hone, and how I could tailor my experiences to this specific field. As a result of having a clear focus, my story also became more cohesive and I became known as the Edtech person – and now I’m at my dream job in education.
7. Focus on the 20% that matters the most.
According to the 80/20 rule, 80% of the results will come from 20% of your efforts. You can work smarter by looking at job descriptions to see what you must need to know versus what would be nice to know, and identify the 20% that would have the most impact. I spent a lot of time trying to get certified in Google Analytics, coding, etc. to feel more confident when in reality, these skills were less relevant for the specific role I was applying to. At the end of the day, I wasn’t making much overall progress by focusing on these less pertinent qualifications.
Rather than acquiring all the additional skill sets, spend that time instead on solidifying the most important skills to get ahead in the job process.
8. Be a human.
When applying to professional roles, we tend to unconsciously conform to the average. Even when I help edit friends’ resumes and cover letters now, the vibrant person I know becomes so formally stiff. It’s interesting to note because when we try to fit in this general mold, we become like everyone else, hence the resume black hole effect. Personality matters. That’s why companies emphasize culture so much, because it’s easier to teach someone skills than teach them behavior. And it’s why the famous airport test exists, where interviewers ask themselves: “At the end of the day, can I see myself enjoying spending time with this person if we were stuck at the airport together?” When applying, think about whether you’re portraying yourself as someone who’s enjoyable to work with or someone who’s monotonous.
Birds of a feather flock together, so if a person already working at the company or friend of a friend introduces you to someone, there’s an implied vouch that you’d be a great person to work with (skills and personality-wise). This is why referrals have a greater weight compared to online applications. I strongly recommend reaching out to people at the companies you want to work at and hear their stories. If there’s a good fit, then it’s a great situation for both sides: you get to know a person better and learn helpful information, and in turn, the team gets to reduce costs and fill positions faster with this referral.
10. Pre-interview projects.
As for interviews, pre-interview projects are mini-projects that you create to demonstrate that you can do the job even before they ask you to. This shows initiative and creativity – and a chance to show that you can learn, even if you don’t exactly fit the qualifications at that time. Some examples include: for a business development role, getting customers to sign up for a service before you interview; similarly for growth marketing, you can design and run a customer acquisition experiment, or pinpoint pains during the conversion funnel and brainstorm ways to overcome it. You can find more examples here and how others have gotten jobs at companies like Dropbox using this strategy. Since the amount of work this takes is not scalable over the long run, I would recommend this only when there’s an overlap of an area you want to get better at and an area that your favorite companies are looking for, so that there’s a win-win involved.
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If you thought these tips were helpful, feel free to email me at to get the first chapter of my book on how to get a job in Silicon Valley as a nontechnical professional. It includes tactical advice like these as well as more in-depth action items and stories from employees of how they made it without a coding background at top tech companies like Airbnb and Google.