Is growth hacking bullshit?

There’s a kind of irony to the term hacking. It tends to be used by hacks of a different kind. Business gurus with questionable credentials are all over the internet telling you how to 10x your subscribers and “supercharge your startup with this one simple growth trick!”. Is there any validity to hacking?

You’ve probably trawled through hundreds of how-tos in your entrepreneurial career. How to brand your business, how to boost your revenue, how to build a following.

You might even have found some how-tos written with valuable advice and genuine intent. 

But in the sad dystopian world of search engines, providing valuable content is not the easiest way for how-to writers to rank high, collect click revenue, and sell courses. The easiest way – or at least one of them – is to use the word “hack” somewhere in the title. 

What exactly is growth hacking?

Hacking originally meant using elite (and often questionably legal) skill to infiltrate a digital system. It now means finding quick and dirty, effort-saving, corner-cutting ways to complete a task. 

“Growth hacking” is something of a clichéd catchall for the cross-disciplinary tactics companies can use to promote growth. It was coined in 2010 by the guy who grew Dropbox’s user numbers by 3900% in a year (more on that later) and incorporates notions of digital, email, and social media marketing, SEO, web design, product management, and sales. 

The original concept was to rapid cycle through surface-level ideas, accelerating what worked and abandoning what didn’t. One example might be taking the red button concept from the complex field of colour theory and hoping it boosts conversions by 34% like it did for that one UX designer 11 years ago

The term is particularly prevalent in the startup space because it’s all about rapid growth. It also caters to the tight budgets of young companies because it doesn’t require in depth research or resources. 

But it’s more of a philosophy than a specific method or set of methods. It’s the relentless, Zuckerberg-esque pursuit of growth at all costs.

Outside of exceptional cases, there are no silver bullet solutions. Everything takes work. Growth doesn’t suddenly materialise, it comes from tiny wins across the holistic picture of your company. It starts with the very first line of code, relies on a great product, and is carried on the individually excellent work of everyone on your team.

Is growth hacking ever good?

As we’re playing devil’s advocate here, let’s give an honorable mention to some of the “growth hacks” you might encounter in Google-searched how-to guides that aren’t a total waste of your time:

  • Having an intelligently designed, highly functional sales funnel. 
  • Using CTA buttons around your site.
  • Implementing referral frameworks with small rewards.  

There’s no doubt that ‘hack’ has become a grating, omnipresent buzzword that’s over-deployed to get clicks. But that doesn’t mean actual marketing tools described as hacks are worthless. 

The past decade has also seen a rise in ‘hackathons’ – company-wide events where employees down tools for a few days in order to power-brainstorm. They tend to be very loosely structured, with the focus on groupwork and creativity. Facebook, Capital One, and Hasbro all hold them. The hugely popular Discover Weekly feature is a product of a Spotify ‘hack week’.  

The extremely agile and fast-paced nature of these events promote a valuable form of hacking.  But how do you figure out what’s bullshit and what’s gold?

Goals

Growth is great. But what are you growing towards, and why? Before you start digging around in some LinkedIn guru’s box of tricks, define as specifically as possible what you want to achieve and how it will drive profit. And base it all on… 

Data

There’s zero point setting up a referral scheme if your product isn’t something people refer (looking at you, relentless PayPal invitations to refer a friend for $10. Who refers their friends to PayPal? And who still doesn’t have PayPal?!). There’s also little point multiplying your Instagram followers or going viral on TikTok if social media isn’t a strong profit driver for your product. Start by looking at what’s worked so far. 

Dropbox’s referral scheme is probably the most successful, most famous, and the best example of this point. They pogo’d their numbers from 100k in 2008 to 4 million in 2009 by offering 16GB of free space to users who invited their friends. 

This worked because a) the space they offered on the free account was just limited enough to be annoying, b) the product was widely used in business environments that presented a wide network of colleagues and partners to share the service with, and c) because organic referrals were already Dropbox’s biggest onboarding method

Dropbox didn’t hack a random growth strategy that just happened to work. They just paid more attention to what was already working.  

Sustainability

Let’s say you perform a magic growth hack trick and 100,000 new subscribers jump out of a hat. How are you going to fulfil those orders? Do you have enough stock? Storage? Staff? Can you finance your expanding operations? Will you fall into decimating debt if you can’t? 

Better than growth for growth’s sake is a projection of a very specific and measurable goal, and working slowly towards it while scaling along the way. 

So is growth hacking bullshit?

Growth hacking is a mindset. It’s also a process of rapid experimentation across the whole sales funnel. It’s A/B testing, iterating and learning from data, and continually improving the customer journey.

Sound familiar? 

Growth hacking as we know it is just marketing. Yes, it’s been co-opted by less-than-scrupulous bloggers and gurus who want to make a quick buck off your clicks. But it’s okay to devote some of your time and energy to a focused improvement of growth.

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