David Arnoux: Customer centricity through experimentation

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As the co-founder of Growth Tribe, a leading european digital training company, David Arnoux is a true lifelong learner. We sat down with him to talk about the all-important ‘growth mindset’, from how it impacts customer centricity to what it means for company culture. Get ready to be inspired!

COULD YOU TELL US WHAT YOU’RE MOST EXCITED ABOUT IN BUSINESS? 

There’s a lot to be excited about! I think NFTs are the future of marketing, the future of community building, and the future of business models. I am super excited about community building through blockchain and through Web 3. I really believe this is the future. 

More generally, I’m always excited about skills building, knowledge, and knowledge building. Specifically, becoming a better generalist. I really believe generalists thrive in a specialised world, so it’s just about accumulating new knowledge on a regular basis, whether that’s from a technological side, biological side, business side – that’s what gets me excited. 

IN 2016 “GROWTH HACKING” WAS STILL AN UPCOMING TREND. HOW DID YOU DECIDE, ‘THIS IS WHAT I REALLY NEED TO WORK ON’ AND START THE GROWTH TRIBE ACADEMY? 

Back in 2016, there were three important reasons. The first was the market validation I gained from starting a small Growth Hackers meet-up group in Amsterdam. It was just a meet-up, not paid, but I saw the retention level was really high in the interest for it. The first time we did it, we already had 120 people who joined the first conference. I had already been obsessed with growth and knowledge-building for basically twenty years, and was drawn to the idea of having a multi-disciplinary approach with a bit of coding, a bit of marketing, a bit of data analytics, a bit of behavioural psychology. So, the interest in the group was clear market validation for me. 

The second reason was that there was a clear need in the market for more data-driven, more experiment-driven, and more incremental and risk-taking marketing. We saw a big need among startups and scale-ups for good talent with this mindset. 

The third reason was that I’ve always been obsessed with talent and education. My co-founder Peter and I both have this obsession. We live in a knowledge economy and we believe that the greatest investment is knowledge. Investing in knowledge means economic growth, which means geopolitical growth, which is good for Europe! Usually when GDP goes up you have reductions in social inequality, so that was something behind this for us. 

WITHIN SIX YEARS YOU RAISED THREE ROUNDS OF INVESTMENT AND SCALED VERY QUICKLY. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES? 

Business planning and effective forecasting of new business models was a definite challenge. We add a lot of new products regularly, and it’s hard to forecast everything, so it’s hard to manage your costs and your revenue forecast. Sometimes we overshoot and so our costs don’t ramp up fast enough, or sometimes we undershoot, and our costs are too high. 

Secondly, just managing uncertainty like anyone else. For the first three or four years we were getting everything right because the market context hadn’t changed, but since COVID hit it’s been a lot of adaptation, a lot of transformation, a lot of transition. Thankfully, we created a culture that was really about experimentation and managing uncertainty, but of course it is rough on everyone to have to make major changes every six months whenever the market context changes. That’s probably been the hardest thing, just trying to continuously be anti-fragile. 

MANY COMPANIES, NO MATTER THE SIZE, STRUGGLE WITH ALIGNMENT BETWEEN DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS. HOW HAVE YOU APPROACHED THIS? 

To me, culture is very much linked to organisational design. So, we’ve made sure to have an organisational structure without too many silos and with clear communication and clear transparency. We haven’t gone too hierarchical, and we have a lot of autonomous alignments so I think our values have helped us in that regard. 

Usually where people, teams, companies, departments fail is on the communication side – they forget to communicate the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. I would say organisational design and clear communication are most important, as are hiring and having the right values. You’ve got to believe in the purpose of the company, to be able to sustain change. If you don’t know why you wake up every morning, what’s the point? 

AN INTERNAL LACK OF ‘WHY’ AND ‘HOW’ OFTEN TRICKLES DOWN TO THE CLIENTS. KEEPING CUSTOMER CENTRICITY IN MIND, WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT, AND HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE IT? 

First of all, I believe all functions in the company have a customer-centric role, whether it’s internal or external. It’s not just marketing or sales that determine customer success, and I would argue internal roles are maybe even more important in creating customer-centricity. They are the people who build the products that are actually delivered to the customer in the end, so customer centricity has to involve everyone and be in everything we do. The core purpose behind every company’s vision should be customer-centricity. 

A lot of companies focus on tooling and strategy, but the golden sauce for cultivating customer-centricity is having the right people with the right mindset and capabilities. In ‘fixed-mindset companies’ you see that a small handful of star players are highly valued, but within a growth mindset organisation, you can unlock potential across a wider range of colleagues and employees. There’s also been research by Harvard that has proven that companies who adopt customer-centric growth mindset greatly outperform the S&P 500, whether it’s Lego or Mastercard or Microsoft. So, to me, customer centricity equals that growth mindset throughout the organisation. 

WHERE WOULD YOU START WITHIN AN ORGANISATION TO MAKE IT TRULY CUSTOMER-CENTRIC? 

I follow John Kotter’s 8-step model of change which I think is the most effective method of creating organisational change. The first step is to create a sense of urgency – you will not change behaviours without this. This means questioning ‘why do we need to adopt this customer-centric way of thinking?’ The answer is, well, our competitors are doing it, they’re highly successful, and if we don’t then we might be replaced. Secondly, you need to form a powerful coalition between leadership, which has the vision and authority, and management, which can operationalise and execute on that vision. Thirdly, having a strong vision for the change you want to enact is really important, and fourthly, so is clear communication across all levels. Once you’ve empowered action, the next step is to get some quick wins to showcase to your organisation. If it’s about being more customer-centric, you’ll see wins first in customer-facing roles, and from there you can institutionalise change within the entire organisation. When you make it stick, you make it part of the culture. 

AT GROWTH TRIBE YOU ALSO TALK ABOUT HUMAN CENTRIC DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THIS? 

Every company wants to become more customer-centric, but their budgets tend to go on tooling and consulting firms, and they forget about the people. When it comes to people, you can buy them, or you can build them. Many companies think they will just buy the right talent, but the problem is that we are now at the point where the competition is so big and this is actually harder than ever. 

If you compare tooling, consulting, and marketing budgets to a talent building budget, the talent budget is always much lower. It is because the ROI of training the right capabilities and mindset is always a bit more long term and we have an urgency bias. 

Human-centric digital transformation focuses on humans as the core element of everything. Learning on the job happens all the time accidentally, but that is not the same as deliberate learning. But since we cannot buy the right talent anymore, organisations need to start training the talents they already have! It requires time dedication and it is up to you as an employer to make time and budget for it. A day a month blocked in your calendar can help so that instead of thinking short term, you’re thinking in the long-term ROI and you’re accelerating talent growth in your organisation. 

To manage uncertainty in an ever changing world, there are no greater investments than knowledge and mindset. Investing in leadership programmes, data literacy, UX literacy, customer centricity programmes, you don’t see the ROI next week, or next quarter. It takes about a year for you to start to really see it in a culture and at a speed for your company to evolve. All of this positively translates into customer-centricity. 

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO LEAD A MARKETING TEAM OR BECOME A CMO? 

At Growth Tribe we created what’s called a T-shaped marketer and we update it every year. For 2022 we interviewed around 3000 marketing leaders to make sure we add the most relevant skills. So, the ‘T shape’ should be a foundation for any marketeer. The next step is the data science, mental models for problem solving. 

And when you move to a leadership position you need to focus on financial acumen and financial understanding. When you present something marketing related, you should be able to show what the financial impact is. When you build your financial acumen, you’re building your data driven approach. So, you should be able to identify your customer acquisition costs per channel compared to your customer lifetime value, and how that impacts cost of goods sold as well as the EBITA. Understanding this side of it is key, as everything always comes down to these issues. 

WHAT WOULD BE A GROWTH TRIBE COURSE THAT YOU WOULD SAY ANYBODY SHOULD TRY? 

Our Digital Leadership business course is a no brainer, because we cover all of these important topics, from anti-fragility to growth mindset and change management. We have an on-demand version that’s coming out in March this year and for anyone in the Netherlands, you can get it for free thanks to a subsidy from the government to facilitate learning. 

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