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HERstory: Hila Qu

VP, Retention & Experiments, Acorns

Hila Qu is VP, Retention & Experiments at Acorns, a leading micro-investing app in the USA. Previously, she was the Product Manager, Growth at GrowthHackers, the premium growth hacking community. She’s also a book author, blogger, speaker, and a mom of two boys. Every day—and some nights, too—she lives in the world of growth, retention, analytics, and products.

How did you break into leadership?

In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to grow and take on more responsibility, but I wasn’t intentionally trying to break into leadership.

My career progressed naturally when I did the following 3 things:

  1. Explored different things to find what I am truly passionate about—and never settled before finding that
  2. Strived to be the best at what I love and obsessed over making an impact
  3. Advocated for resources and attracted people to make an even bigger impact, which eventually guided me to a leadership role

Early in my career, I tried different things: analytics, digital marketing, and product management. To be honest, I am a very curious person—always wanting to learn new things. You could also say that I’m a little bit picky, because I wanted to find something that I would really enjoy doing for a long time.

After a few years, I finally found it while working at GrowthHackers: growth, or so-called ‘growth hacking’, which is driving growth through full-funnel experiments.

I quickly realized this new discipline was perfect for me. My unique background allowed me to identify opportunities across the entire user journey through analytics, then design scientific experiments in both the in-product user experience and external marketing channels to generate a measurable and sustainable impact.

Because I had so much fun doing growth, I thought about it all the time and read a lot on product design and user psychology.

When I started at Acorns, I was able to quickly drive some pretty awesome results through experiments. As the organization saw the impact, I was able to get more resources, which helped me demonstrate an even bigger impact. A year later, I was promoted to Vice President of Retention and Experiments and made responsible for leading a cross-functional team consisting of engineers, designers, and marketers.

How did you adapt as a new manager?

It is very different being an individual contributor versus being a manager. Despite being a very effective individual contributor, I struggled a lot when I became a new manager.

The first mistake I made was trying to finish everything on the list. I work fast, so I am always able to get a lot done. But, as a manager, I needed to manage my team’s time to accommodate both inbound requests and proactive initiatives with the goal of maximized business impact.

After experiencing this struggle, I picked up one of my favorite books again: The One Thing. The author argues that, no matter how grand your goal is, your success lies in narrowing down to the ONE thing you should be focused on in this moment. Once that ONE thing is resolved, everything else will become easier.

So, every Friday, I ended my week by identifying the ONE thing I had to finish the next week. And, each day, I ended my day by identifying the ONE thing I had to finish the next day. And, I asked my team to do the same thing. The difference was dramatic.

The other mistake I made was not pointing out where my team could improve. I consider myself a nice person, and I typically appreciate others’ strengths and show empathy when others make mistakes. But it didn’t take me long to realize that by doing that I was not helping my team grow. As a result, I adopted the principle Kim Scott shared in Radical Candor: “Personally care, directly challenge”. That became central to my management style.   

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

Not much, other than perhaps being more patient and enjoying it more while doing it.

I’ve earned both my master’s degree in biology and my MBA, traveled from China to the USA, worked in both big companies and small startups, and changed functions several times. During some of these experiences, it really seemed to be a waste of time. But when I connect all the dots, I can see how these experiences have all helped shaped who I am.

What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?

When I joined my current company, there was no practice of data-driven A/B testing and experiments.

As the first “growth” hire, I came with a first-90-days plan: a plan to establish a growth experimentation process and demonstrate results within my first 90 days.

And I did just that. I tripled the new user adoption rate of a key feature and significantly improved user retention within my first 90 days on the job.

More importantly, I helped promote a culture of growth and experiments. Other team members saw the benefits and began adopting the same processes in their work. I couldn’t be more proud of that!

Check out this post I wrote about my first-90-days plan.

Share something interesting or valuable with the community.

The other day I stumbled upon something really interesting: According to a scientific research study from 2014, across multiple countries, women consistently have better grades in school and are naturally better leaders due to their strong communication and people skills. So, why is there a gender gap in so many professional areas?

According to Susan Pinker, an author and psychologist, the fact that the female advantage at school doesn’t translate to work is not entirely due to bias, inequalities, and discrimination. It’s partly due to the different career and lifestyle preferences women choose to develop.

“Studies show that, among other differences, educated women’s career trajectories often have a different shape—based on their wider interests and a common desire to have flexible or part-time work when their families are young—and an accelerated pace later on. And women’s careers tend to persist longer than men’s do. After all, women live 5 to 8 years longer, and their careers tend to have more variety over their lifespans.”

The essence of this, ladies, is that we are as good as our male counterparts, but it is possible that our inner goal is not just to maximize our career success, but to live a fulfilling, connected, and happy life. With every choice, there is a cost—so go with what your hearts tell you to do.


Thanks to Jes Kirkwood who conducted this interview in April 2018.

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