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An Overview Of Growth Hacking

An Overview of Growth Hacking

The concept of growth hacking is becoming increasingly prevalent. According to Google Trends, searches for the term ‘growth hacking’ have witnessed a constant increase since 2012.

As the number of corporate venture firms have quadrupled between 2012 and 2015 too, the startup craze has spawned a lot of interest in growth hacking tools to achieve business goals.

Building a business with growth in mind is a very different approach from considering a business decision with performance indicators such as revenue in mind. Now seen as the future of companies, growth hacking challenges the ways companies conduct businesses.

As a concept, growth hacking has been around for a long time, albeit in different terms.
In 1996, Hotmail acquired 1 million users in 6 months, and then took this to 12 million in just 17 months all through a simple ‘hack’: An email signature on every email which said “P.S.I love you, get your free email at Hotmail.”

An offline example of growth hacking is numerous McDonalds’s restaurants being situated at interstate highway exits in the 1950s. Rather than waste money on advertising on a large scale, they simply decided to be where customer presence was inevitable.

However, as the term itself has been recently coined, there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the concept. A quick search on Google leads to numerous articles, each with a distinct opinion and take on the topic. This is no surprise- the concept is subject to several interpretations and applications- there is no one way to achieve growth.

What is Growth Hacking?

Sean Ellis, the ‘original growth hacker’ at startups such as Dropbox, and Eventbrite and founder of Qualaroo, coined the term ‘growth hacking’ in 2010. As a consultant for growth acceleration, he moved on from one business to the other only to find it impossible to replace the skillset he brought to firms- the skills needed to provide high user-growth to a startup.

Even though he went through numerous job applications by marketers, he felt pure marketers were hardly suited to a job in rapid scaling of unconventional products such as software services through new distribution channels and techniques.

Marketers were concerned only with traditional metrics such as conversions, acquisition cost and yearly budgets. For a startup, growth is the most important metric as startups that are unable to drive rapid but sustainable user and revenue growth are fast identified as inviable investments that simply fail or fade away. In addition, the budget constraints of a typical start up demand inexpensive, creative and unconventional strategies for customer acquisition. In today’s fast moving world, agility is no longer simply an additional option to be the best, but is the key to basic survival in a disruptive and highly competitive environment. Not only are traditional marketing platforms costly, they are no longer the most effective medium to reach target customers.
In contrast to a marketer, the only thing a growth hacker is required to focus on and be obsessed with is growth. Growth is the only priority, rather than the budget-driven growth provided by marketers.

The need for a growth hacker is entirely due to an increasingly internet-driven world, and the ‘Amazonisation’ of customer purchase journeys. The online interaction with products, and change in consumer behavior provides opportunities for growth at a different scale than before. According to Aaran Ginn, a self-professed growth hacker, the focus is on pushing “one specific metric using methodology that is both scalable and testable”.

Sean Ellis introduced the term ‘growth hacking’ to define a new job description for the skills needed by marketers at startups, distinct from those needed at traditional and established firms. The concept bypasses static and set marketing plans with a dynamic and cross-functional approach to ‘hack’ high business growth.

Sean was looking for a person “whose true north is growth.”

The Bad Reputation

The term “hacking” has traditionally suffered negative connotations; bringing to mind anti-authoritarian, anti-social geniuses who use little known, highly specialized and blatantly unscrupulous means to achieve any variety of goals.

A hacker is definitely an individual more concerned with the end objective rather than the means; following the best, shortest and often disruptive way to achieve a goal rather than any prescribed, traditional or rigid rules and systems. As a result, hacking strategies are often innovative, creative and underused ways of navigating previously uncharted territory.

Growth hacking is also often associated with marketing tactics that are considered unethical, such as adding customers to email lists without user approval.
However, growth hacking does not refer to questionable or “spammy” marketing tactics. The focus of growth hacking is simply growing and retaining an expanding user base through constant innovation. Any broader definition that encompasses shady tactics reflects specifically on a company`s ethical framework rather than the concept and spirit of growth hacking.

The Difference Between Growth Hacking and Marketing

Growth hacking is not marketing- if marketing is defined in the most traditional sense.

Businesses have traditionally segregated functions; for example, while a product team used to be interested only in creating a product rather than acquiring customers, the marketers were not involved in the product for the most part, focusing instead on generating leads for the sales team. Now the product team, and marketing and sales are more integrated than ever before, providing key inputs in an interdependent way.

Thus where marketing has a broader focus on moving customers through the sales funnel, growth hacking is hyperfocused on well-defined and achievable goals targeted at a specific outcome.

For example, startup marketing and growth hacking are strongly interlinked and can be working with the same metrics, such as engagement and online conversion. However, the key difference is the scope of the same goals. While marketers would be more interested in deriving overall brand awareness, a growth hacker would simply be focusing on increasing shares on a social platform (by x%).

As Josh Elman of Greylock Partners, who has worked on Twitter, LinkedIn, RealPlayer and Facebook Connect says, “Growth hacking is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.” 

How to Be a Growth Hacker

While Sean Ellis started out as a traditional marketer, growth hackers could just as easily be data analysts, product managers or engineers- the job is more related to a growth-focused mindset than anything else.
As growth hacking commands a median salary of $82,000 a year, impressive in comparison to starting positions in marketing and analytics, students may consider applying to jobs in the field.
If you are aiming to pursue a career in growth hacking, here are some skills to hone on your own time:

Analytical Skills
Analytics are the bread and butter of growth hackers. Everything they do requires analytics. Analytics provide avenues for creative solutions (such as tweaking a feature no one dreamed would not work), and as Neil says, “makes success repeatable”. From Google Analytics, kissmetrics and mixpanel, to digital marketing dashboards such as Adwords, Optimizely and Facebook Ads, start by studying free online resources and courses to quickly upskill in this arena. Besides this, growth hackers need the ability to carry out statistical analysis on large sets of data, so the use of online statistical calculators or A/B significance calculators is a necessity. Students with a minor or major in Economics or Statistics definitely have a head start.

Growth hackers need to constantly think out of the box, especially as they are required to devise new ways of achieving their goals if they come up against roadblocks. They also have to use solutions that have actually never been used or tested, so they need to approach their work with a creative and open-minded outlook. There are numerous ways to be creative, and growth hackers should know at least enough about copywriting and design to be self-sufficient in devising their growth hack. Aim to be well-versed with tools like Buzzsumo, Keyword Planner, and text editors for copywriting, and Adobe Photoshop, UX Pin and InVision for designing.

Optimization-Focused Mindset
A growth hacker has to be exceptionally interested in constant iteration and improvement. Rather than claiming to know what works, growth hackers believe in the proof provided by experiments. The ability to carry out A/B tests can be honed, by learning basic coding languages such as HTML, CSS, Python, Javascript and Ruby. They even like to constantly improve in their own personal endeavours; from posting different creations to see which gets the most likes and engagement, to maximizing storage space on their hard drives. The kindest way to describe growth hackers is to say simply, that they are obsessed.

The Verdict

Growth hackers are unique hybrids with knowledge of many disciplines. As growth hackers are responsible for building virality into a product, extracting and analyzing data and implementing APIs as well as design, growth hacking is actually a highly cross-functional role. Another way to put it is that growth hackers don’t just market a product, they are involved in shaping it as well. An important point of note is that it is not enough to simply have knowledge of these topics; growth hackers must be willing and able to execute, and thus embody a combination of skills in an integrated way. Growth is no longer the domain of any specific function in a business, and few formalized courses include all skills needed. 


A concept put forward by Cal Newport, a computer science professor, the Principle of Serial Excellence can be the key to becoming a successful growth hacker. Rather than doing many things at once, move serially from one skill to another, attempting another only when you have achieved mastery in one. This is what growth hackers do on a daily basis; single-mindedly pursue one goal to achieve success.

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