Growth Hacking - Is It Actually a Thing?

Growth Hacking - Is It Actually a Thing?

May 2, 2017
Growth Hacking - Is It Actually a Thing?

Every month, somebody is writing a listicle about “10 Ways to Growth Hack!” or “Top 17 Growth Hacks to Inspire You!” or “Do These 82 Things if You Want to Growth Hack!” Seems simple enough—but is it? 

What Makes a Growth Hacker?

Why is everyone talking about growth hacking? It’s one of those “buzzwords” that sounds exciting, and it seems like it’s possible for everyone to participate in. Scouring the Internet for the definition of a growth hacker is a fool’s errand. Everyone has their own opinion, so let’s go to the source. The term comes from a 2010 article written by Sean Ellis, one of the first marketers working for DropBox. It was titled “Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup” and talked about how “finding scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways to grow the business” was paramount to success. So, how does Mr. Ellis describe a growth hacker?

“A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

A growth hacker needs not be a marketer. In fact, it’s disadvantageous for a growth hacker to be stuck in one mindset; better to be cross-curricular, so to speak. An entrepreneurial spirit is key because the path to success here is often unpaved and winding. Growth hackers, says Mr. Ellis, “must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies”.

Fearless curiosity in the market, an unabashed obsession with out-of-the-box thinking, and a relatively rebellious nature will mark a true growth hacker. They must know the product and be keenly aware of what it is customers want, and they will find a way to deliver just that—often in clever, unorthodox ways.

But that creativity needs to be anchored in discipline and analytics, observing and knowing which hacks are working and which hacks aren’t cutting it. “The faster this process can be repeated,” suggests Mr. Ellis, “the more likely they’ll find scalable, repeatable ways to grow business.”

Is this unicorn of an employee even possible to find?

What’s All This About a Pirate?

One of the best approaches to growth hacking—what all growth hackers should keep in mind when thinking about hacks—is to follow the light-hearted “Pirate Metric” acronym, AARRR. This came to the scene of start-ups even before the term “growth hacking” did. Back in 2007, David McClure, known as one of Silicon Valley’s “super angel” investors, presented on the customer lifecycle, breaking it down into this funnel:

Acquisition: Hey! Someone came to our website!

Activation: Wow, someone did something on our website!

Retention: Look! That user is back! And again!

Revenue: Cool, that user gave us their money!

Referral: That user told their friends about us—awesome!


Naturally, fewer and fewer people remain as they go through the motions towards Revenue, but this process is cyclical and should never cease motion. The role of a growth hacker is to ensure that all levels of this funnel are optimally functioning. Did a visitor come to your page only to bounce when something wasn’t working correctly? Has the number of accounts created been decreasing? It’s time for a growth hacker to step in and fix the layout of the site or correct a bug, or, perhaps, go back to the drawing board and find a new way to draw in new visitors.

So… What Do Growth Hackers Actually Do?

If you’re looking for a good growth hacker, it’s likely because your marketing budgets are shrinking and you need to grow—rapidly. While traditional marketing efforts (think newsletters, AdWords, or collaterals) will help you grow over the years, flexibility and innovation will give you the edge over your competitors now.

But if you’re looking for what exactly it is that growth hackers do, keep looking. The skill of the growth hacker is that they concoct a hack that nobody has thought of before—again and again. Because of this, there is no tried-and-true job description for a growth hacker.

There are plenty of examples, though.

Take Airbnb, the now-lauded hub of one-of-a-kind vacation rentals. In its early stages, Airbnb had a solid business model but a formidable competitor—Craigslist, the notoriously sketchy but far more well-known platform for temporary property rentals. Rather than simply increasing marketing efforts, Airbnb found a way to allow their users to post their listings on Craigslist, linking to their (not sketchy) Airbnb profile. There wasn’t an easy way to implement this integration. But, according to, a resource on the subject founded by Mr. Ellis, “because Craigslist saves listing information using a unique URL rather than a cookie, Airbnb was able to build a bot to visit Craigslist, snag a unique URL, input the listing info, and forward the URL to the [Airbnb] user for publishing.”

Or take Etsy, the online marketplace for homemade crafts and goods—the hipster’s eBay. In early 2005, the idea to create a space for crafters to sell their goods emerged after reading forums that had users complaining about the difficulty, uncaring, and high cost of eBay. Riding the rising tide of feminism and anti-consumerism of the early 2000s, which brought about a resurgence of crafting and local art fairs, Etsy was able to fill that niche on the Internet and bring together the small-scale sellers in one unique space. They were priced more attractively than eBay, and their adeptness at embracing a cultural movement has continued to benefit them, even 12 years after the fact.

Is There Anything I, a Mere Human, Can Take Away from This?

Sure thing. If you want to growth hack your way to success, you need to be driven, tireless, and quick. You need to be able to read the social climate to capitalize on what the people want.

But, to be more realistic, there are things you can do when you’re planning to growth hack. For one, you do need to believe you have a good product. Without that baseline, you’re going nowhere fast. For another, you need to know what your customers want and need. How? Scour forums and review sites, stalk your hashtag on Twitter, check out Reddit to see what real people are actually saying about you.

Don’t expect growth hacking to be your savior. Of course, it’s nice to read about how growth hacking brought so many of the companies we know and love out of their startup garages, but these stories are merely meant to inspire, not for imitation. What works for Facebook might not (probably won’t) work for you. So explore, be creative, hold free-for-all workshops.

There are six things your growth hacks should be:

  1. Desirable with enticing copy
  2. Easy to share through in-content triggers
  3. Innovative with unexpected CTA placements
  4. Engaging through gamification value-adds
  5. Compelling with quality text and cool topics
  6. Clearly valuable within the first five seconds

If you can deliver these things at a minimum, your growth hacks are that much closer to successful.

So—do you think it’s possible to be a growth hacker? Has your business attempted anything out-of-the-box and succeeded? Or even failed? Do you think growth hacking is here to stay? Write your comments below. I would love to hear your experiences and opinions.


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