What is a “growth hacker”? And is growth hacking bullshit?

You’ve probably heard the term “growth hacker” and “growth hacking” thrown around among startups. Have you wondered what exactly a growth hacker is, and how growth hacking differs from regular marketing? You’re not the only one.

First: who invented the term growth hacker?

Here’s the guy to credit (or blame) for enriching our vocabulary with it:

I guess the need for a term like ‘growth hacking’ stems from the emphasis that ‘Lean Startup’ puts on the importance of growth as a metric for startups.

Paul Graham even says that growth is what outright defines startups: the fact that it is built for fast, scalable growth is what makes a startup radically different from other types of businesses, he says.

Here are some definitions of the inventors or early adopters of the term, so you can make up your own mind whether ‘growth hacking’ is a job description for the next ages, ur mostly short lived buzz.

And, not trivially, it can help you decide whether to use it in your Twitter bio. Because yes, it’s funny to laugh at those social media consultants calling themselves ‘maven’ or ‘evangelist’, but how much ridicule will be heaped on you in two years time if you still have ‘growth hacker’ in your Twitter bio?

Let’s try to find out.

Sean Ellis: “A person whose true north is growth”

Sean Ellis, who is credited with being the first to blog about growth hacking, says about growth hackers:

“A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.  Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.  Is positioning important?  Only if a case can be made that it is important for driving sustainable growth (FWIW, a case can generally be made).”

Unfortunately, this is pretty useless as a definition because it’s circular. You’re a growth hacker if you care about growth. Worse: if growth is what defines startups, then arguably anybody remotely connected to startups would be a “growth hacker”.

Andrew Chen: “the Growth Hacker is the new VP of marketing”

Here’s what Andrew Chen says about growth hacking:

“Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.

On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.”

Key points here seem to be coding, an appetite for quantitative analytics and virality.

This is actually tangible. A growth hacker is an engineer/coder with a bit of a competitive personality who wandered into marketing and found out he likes driving conversion.

On the other hand, it’s also very limiting. You can only be a growth hacker if you can code? It comes close to saying that coders are superior marketeeers. If this definition fits, then growth hacking might be a glorious but short lived profession.

Gilles Babinet of Captain Dash has a plausible vision of the future of marketing where marketeers become more technically adept, but also, where quantitative measurements becomes a lot more intuitive. His idea is to make marketing analytics “as easy as a Zynga game”.

Add real time to that too. SAP just rolled out an upgrade for its Business Suite that makes it possible to see realtime marketing, sales and customer analytics data. As Cafer Tosun told us – it’s the difference between running a company (as in: planning stuff and letting go) and steering it (as in: using realtime feedback to make adjustments)

And lastly, Chen mentions virality, which is a very elusive concept. If anyone can tell us how to predict virality or ‘make’ something viral – as opposed to trying your damnedest and hoping for the best, please do.

Patrick Vlaskovics: “You’re WRONG!”

Anyway, useful though that definition by Andrew Chen may be, it’s also dead WRONG. It’s not us who say that, it’s “growth hacking” early bird, Patrick Vlaskovics (he’s the “@pv” mentioned in that tweet at the top).

Coding, he says, has nothing to do with growth hacking.

“Contra Andrew Chen, growth hacking has absolutely nothing to do with if one is able to code or unable to code.”

Okay, but then what is it? Well, growth hackers are people who come in after the early startup days of pure chaos, when you found product-market fit and will then find better ways to grow, according to Vlaskovics. He is very adament about that: no growth hacking before market fit.

“So, all you startups crying for a Growth Hacker to join your startup pre-Product-Market Fit to effectively “rescue’ you; you simply don’t get it.  And no true Growth Hacker will join you.

I’m not sold on this definition. It seems like a hasty conclusion that you can’t “growth hack” before product-market fit. Who says you can’t growth hack your way into a great product-market fit? It makes no sense. Why would growth hackers only swoop in after you found market fit for your product? They would be very stupid and miss out on a lot of options, I should think.

More problematically, Vlaskovics says that you can only call yourself a growth hacker after the fact. The treshold seems to be: did you add “millions of users”? So it’s not exactly a process or a marketing approach, it’s an honorific title:

A Growth Hacker, like a “visionary”, is only anointed with the sacred oil of growth hacking ex post facto. Once, you have delivered huge and exponential growth in users/leads/sales, you are a Growth Hacker.

Or is it? Because Vlaskovics invents a new category: the Growth Rookie. Before achieving Growth Hacker status, you are a Growth Rookie. There is nothing wrong with this, he says. Hmmm.

 Aaron Ginn: “A testable and scalable methodology”

Okay. So how about this definition from Aaron Ginn, who worked at Lockheed Martin as an innovation consultant, and recently unsuccessfully tried to growth hack Mitt Romney into the Oval Office:

growth hacker (noun) – one who’s passion and focus is growth through use of a testable and scalable methodology.

A growth hacker works within the parameters of a scalable and repeatable method for growth, driven by product and inspired by data. A growth hacker lives at the intersection of data, product, and marketing.

Again, it’s about analytics (data), but also: product makes its entrance here. Here, you see a growth hacker as someone who’s practically a liaison between the product team and a marketing team. Someone who will tinker with either the product or the marketing, or anything else, and will keep a score on these tests.

In a TechCrunch post, Ginn specifies that growth hackers perform tests to move the needle on “specific (predefined) metrics”.

I think this comes the closes to a useful definition: a “growth hacker” might be someone who is capable of shortening the build-measure-learn cycle. Thanks to his skills, he or she is able to tweak the product or the marketing approach, or both, and can quickly test the tweaks and come up with new tests.

Being able to code would be useful, but not necessary as long as the growth hacker can understand the technical dimensions of the product and how they can be adapted to fit the market better. Solid knowledge of how to benchmark and test iterations do require a fondness for spreadsheets that might be lacking in traditional marketeers who might be more into creativity and advertising.

On Quora, Ginn adds this: the growth hacker is someone who enjoys pushing the limits. For instance, the limits on what the ToS of another online service allows. A growth hacker, he says, is someone who enjoys pushing the limits. He quotes Dan Martell: “Terms of service are secondary to growth hackers”.

Airbnb, for instance, famously found a way to quickly and automatically list their offerings on Craigslist, which has tens of millions of users.

It was certainly a great way to grow a rapid userbase, but probably not entirely what Craigslist had in mind when it thought of users for the service. So be careful and remember what happened to those boys at Pealk when they were a little bit too forward with the LinkedIn ToS.

Tell us your thoughts in the comments about growth hacking – any substance to it, or mostly buzz?

Photo: Hacker Kevin Mitnick’s business card, ranh, Flickr

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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