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Re-thinking growth, the growth team and much more..📈

Updated: Jan 30

Welcome back to my weekly newsletter. This is going to be a series of articles covering how we came up with the idea of Calm Sleep, scaled to over a million users in less than a year, and all that with less than $1,000 worth of total investment. 🌱

I’m Akshay Pruthi, an entrepreneur who loves to build products from the ground up. Over the past 6 years, I’ve built multiple products from scratch and scaled them to millions of users. This is my attempt to share our most important lessons from building one of those apps - Alora (Android) and Alora (iOS)  🤗

Every week I will publish an article about a different challenge we faced while building Calm Sleep.

What is in this week’s read

  1. Re-thinking growth. 🚀

  2. How to set up an initial growth team? ✨

Disclaimer: I may have scaled products to millions of users but have never scaled teams beyond a size of 10. So the views in this article about how I think of growth are purely personal based on the limited knowledge that I have. :)


At Calm Sleep, from the last few months, I have been trying to play the role of a product manager, a CEO and a growth person. I enjoy making products and so naturally I was giving more time to building things around the product. But as the CEO, there was this one thought that always ran parallely - ‘What do I do to grow the application?’

2 days back, I took a call that I will shift the entire team’s 80% effort to growth.

How to think of growth? 🚀

To understand why I took that call, let’s first understand what does growth really mean?

Growth is a tool to continuously increase the metrics or the KPIs.

Now this could be users, subscriptions, conversions or any other type of metric. Prior to making this decision, this is how I thought about growth:

  1. What organic channels seem to be working for us? In the past, ASO has proved to be the best organic channel for us. So, I was constantly hitting my head with how do I go back to increasing my conversions with respect to ASO

  2. Run ads: A lot of my competitors run ads. But the key difference is that I am bootstrapping this company. Which means the unit economics need to make sense for me. When I did some maths, I realised I would be net negative on every user I acquire from ads. Conclusion: Don’t spend on ads.

  3. Social media marketing: I thought about hiring an intern, creating pages across all social media platforms. I thought I will create some brand visibility that will help me get some organic growth. Started. Then I realised, it’s a long shot to pull this off as I had no idea what I am optimising for.

Some fundamental shifts that happened in the last few days:

  • Growth is not an individual play but a multiplayer play. This means, if you have one person in charge of growth - it’s doomed. Why? Because:

  1. When I was wearing the hat of a growth person, I was always limited to assessing what might work and what might not. As I was always calculative & too afraid of experimenting, I experienced loss in creativity.

  2. When you start listing the growth ideas, you realise that there are some dependencies on tech or design or content which again limits you from tapping into your full potential.

  • Every growth hack has fatigue attached to it. This means, you have to continue innovating TILL THE END OF TIME. Essentially, it is the growth mindset.

  1. For instance, a referral strategy with free giveaways to both the parties. Back in time, this used to be a great way to get more users to your platform. Think Ola, Uber. I know you are lying if you say that you haven’t forced your friend to download the app only to get X amount off or your next ride free.

In the last few years, because of the explosion of products and services, it doesn’t sound that exciting any more to almost anyone. I will discuss how we are thinking differently around this below.

  • Arbitrage is created when you think out of the box.

  1. Imagine, you have 3 big competitors. Like in our case, there is Headspace, Calm, Loona. All of them are heavily funded and bidding on the top-ranking keywords. This means, money won’t help you win the market. You need to think of out of the box that will help you stay ahead of the game.

To make all the above happen, you need a dedicated & proficient team who can help you with the right sources needed to get those out game-changing ideas. This brings me to a bigger question.

B) How and when should one form a growth team?

I love how Andrew Chen puts this:

When my growth curve flattened at Calm Sleep, my natural instinct was:

  • Ask my users what they want.

  • Launch that feature.

With this strategy, I used to see roughly 2-3% growth in numbers. But at the scale where I am, this stood for nothing. Glad I did my research and found growth first needs to be instilled into the DNA of the team. Which essentially means, the person who is deep into user feedback, product features, etc. will never be able to justify the amount of effort and time needed to think of growth ideas. Exactly what happened to me!

Further to what Andrew said, how the Growth Process should be set:

For this to be implemented within the organisation, I believe it’s crucial to set up a growth team.

At Calm Sleep, here’s what I did:

  1. Growth Brainstorm Ritual:

I mentioned in one of my early articles that I am fond of rituals. I believe rituals put discipline around what you wish to achieve in a consistent manner. After having a quick discussion with the team, I set up a weekly 7-8 PM growth hacking brainstorm session.

  1. Launch 1 growth hack a week:

I forced myself to come up with smaller ideas that could be quickly implemented. Earlier, I was being super calculative in terms of what can work and what can’t. I ditched that approach & questioned the fundamentals. I asked myself how I did I build any product feature?

I realised, I always tried to keep the scope of a new feature minimal so that my engineering effort is minimal. I decided to do the same here. 1 idea a week would mean we will be forced to launch something that is quick, easy to experiment. Then as we move on to week 2, idea 2 and ahead, I knew that the compounding effect will do the trick.

  1. Set up a growth team:

Fundamentally, for me to do any digital experiment, I would need a growth engineer, a growth designer and a growth data guy. I have started looking to fill these positions. If you are keen to work with us, feel free to write to me :)

If you wish to read in detail about setting up a growth team, I would highly recommend reading: How to build a growth team by Andrew Chen

C) How did we think of some growth ideas at Calm Sleep?

Currently, I have divided growth into two parts:

a. Inside product: This means the growth ideas that we will implement inside the product for it to naturally grow.

For example: A referral program.

Like I mentioned earlier, a free giveaway to both the parties in a referral program is somewhat standard these days. Here’s how I think about what goes into a user's brain when s/he sees an opportunity to refer a product:

  • Emotional: If I share it with X person, they will love it!

Example of emotional delta: Design a referral to work just for the loved ones. Family, kids, close friends. For example, you refer a Netflix subscription to a friend or family because it encourages the emotional feeling of watching something together with your loved ones.

  • Transactional: What will I get if I share this with X person?

Example of transactional delta: Design a referral which offers continuous rewards for lifetime. For instance, a financial app giving 10% of your friend’s earnings. This would ensure that you are incentivised to explain the utility of the app to your friends in a way where they understand and use it. And you enjoy the benefits for a lifetime.

It’s important to capture either of the feelings very strongly. This means that you would need to create significant deltas in either of the above emotions.

Other examples of inside product growth idea:

  • Feature led growth: Unlock a feature after sharing this with X friends.

At Calm Sleep, I happen to launch a lot of polls to understand the pulse of the users around a specific feature I plan to launch. If I see a strong inclination to use the feature, I convert it into a Unlocking feature. Unlock a feature after sharing this with X friends. Just like how I did when I launched the journal feature. More here

b. Outside product: This means that the to-be-implemented growth ideas will be outside the scope of product for it to naturally grow. In our first brainstorming session, we came up with a few below-stated strategies. These ideas have nothing to do with any engineering effort inside the product but can be executed independently.

Imagine, in one hour, if we were able to come up with these basic ideas, what can a team accomplish if they practice this every week? That’s the power of rituals.

I can go on and on about this topic but I think it’s good to reflect on the above. If you are still keen to learn about growth dynamics, give this a read. Racecar Growth Framework

Until next time, keep calm :)

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