Defining A Growth Hacker: Three Common Characteristics

In this series titled “Defining a growth hacker”, I will be exploring the meaning and practical application of growth hacking through a number of interviews with prominent growth hackers. This is the first post the series and will outline the common characteristics of a growth hacker.

Growth hackers are making their mark in technology. Job postings are popping up all over the web looking for a growth hacker. Companies at all stages are itching to find these professors of growth and often recruiting as aggressively as UX and CS candidates. Sean Ellis was right when he first coined the title growth hacker in 2010 when he wrote, “Where are all of the growth hackers?” The demand for growth hackers became widespread when Andrew Chen wrote “How to be a growth hacker” that went viral.

Despite the buzz and increasing commercialization, most companies are unaware of the true meaning of growth hacking other than the simplistic acknowledgement that “they grow stuff” or “get users”. Unlike most professions in technology, a growth hacker isn’t a set of skills or a stock of knowledge. Dan Martell, founder of Clarity, says, “Growth hacking is a mindset more than a toolset.” It is a set of disciplines learned through doing and out of necessity. Growth hackers have a common attitude, internal investigation process, and mentality unique among technologists and marketers. This mindset of data, creativity, and curiosity allows a growth hacker to accomplish the feet of growing a user base into the millions.


Growth hackers have a passion for tracking and moving a metric. Without metrics or data, a growth hacker can feel out of place and uncomfortably exposed. This strong bias towards data drives a growth hacker away from vanity metrics towards metrics that will make or break the business. Data and metrics are paramount to the scientific way a growth hacker discovers a path to growth. Rather than looking at metrics as strictly a reporting mechanism or data as a way to geek out, growth hackers view both as inspiration for a better product through a process of theorizing and testing. This scientific approach to growth is called engineering distribution by Jesse Farmer, co-founder of Everlane. “The best growth hackers take a rigorous, empirical approach to growth and distribution,” says Jesse. A growth hacker’s focus is to attain growth through moving specific metrics with iterations. These metrics can be anything from a sign up conversion rate to a viral coefficient. Data inspires new product and actionable segmentation.


Michael Birch, one of the first growth hackers and co-founder of Bebo, says, “growth hacking is both an art and a science.” While driven by data and moving metrics, growth hackers are also creative problem solvers. A growth hacker has a vibrant mental dexterity to think of new ways to acquire and loop in users. Growth hackers do not stop at data but build into new and unknown frontiers to find growth. Greg Tseng, co-founder of Tagged, says data and creativity of a growth hacker go hand-in-hand, “Are you good with both sides of the brain? If you are only creative, you’ll never know how good your ideas are. If you only have an analytical mindset, then you’ll know precisely how bad your ideas are!”

This creative and analytical mashup is the defining characteristic of growth hackers. “The creative folks intuitively design what’s best for the user, while data folks provide great insights. The true unicorns are those who can go end-to-end designing, building, measuring, analyzing, and iterating with a combination of user intuition and deep analytics,” says Matt Humphrey, co-founder of HomeRun. Growth hackers operate across disciplines and functions, involved with UI/UX to metric decisions. The combination of both a creative and analytical mindset allows a growth hacker to have a cohesive and systematic picture of product.


A growth hacker has a fascination at why visitors choose to be users and engage and why some products fall flat on their face. With today’s distracted users, growth hackers are habitually exploring to find new ways to push metrics up and to the right. “Growth hacking has a subtle message of ’what have you done for me today?’. You never stop as a growth hacker. Facebook still has a growth team and they have a billion users”, says Blake Commagere founder MediaSpike and a pioneer of social games. Growth hackers are constantly curious and have an insatiable desire to learn. They look deeply into user behavior and explore the edges of behavioral economics. Jesse Farmer says, “Good growth hackers have a deep understanding and curiosity of the how internet works. A good growth hacker will read Nudge and Predictably Irrationality and see possible growth hacks.” This curiosity leads to a grasp of product and user experience way beyond the surface. A growth hacker does not so much care that growth occurs but desires to understand the user mindset and product flow to replicate the method over and over. Growth hackers are just “geeks who are human”, says Jim Young, co-founder of Hot or Not and founder of Perceptual Networks.

Growth hackers are a rare breed and a highly unlikely mashup of data, creativity, and curiosity. As it is a fairly newly defined field, some would argue that today there only a few hundred growth hackers in Silicon Valley. Although a small number now, there is no glass ceiling and the door is open for all. “I hope when people read this article, they will want to learn our methods and want to become a growth hacker. Come one, come all!” says Danielle Morrill, co-founder of and former growth hacker at Twillio.

Most growth hackers say they learned out of necessity from starting a company with a zero marketing budget. The next post in this series will explore the practical applications of growth hacking and how marketing is reinventing itself.

A special thanks to Jared Kopf, Matt Humphrey, Jesse Farmer, Danielle Morrill, and Zak Holdsworth for helping me structure, interview, and form this series.