Defining A Growth Hacker: Building Growth Into Your Team

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 fourth post of the series. The previous posts are as follows: common characteristics here, growth hacking’s impact on marketing here, and impact on product here.

Paul Graham reminded the startup community that it is in the business of growth. “A startup is a company designed to grow fast,” Graham writes.

Though growing a business is a universal desire, implementing growth is unique to the product, the market, and the company. Nabeel Hyatt, venture partner at Spark Capital, said that there is no single way to grow a company. Execution is a startup’s fingerprint: distinctive and hard to replicate.

A growth hacker’s role is not static but constantly adapting to the organization’s needs. Building growth into a team starts with adopting a culture of growth, recruiting the right team, and implementing with the right corporate mindset.

Adopting a culture of growth

Valuing “growth” is more than just filling a position. It operates like a fundamental value or a “creed” that the rest of the organization uses to prioritize decisions. “Growth is not just the concept of ‘how do I market this?’. Rather, it is a company belief and value,” said Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics.

From day one, company culture is being fastened and formed. Inserting growth creed at a later point in time requires more energy and time to implement, which slows down learning. “At the founder level, a growth hacker designs product around inherent distribution and sets a data-driven culture,” said Matt Humphrey, co-founder of Homerun. “This is probably the most important phase of a company.”

Adopting a growth creed at any point in time requires trust in the process and continuous internal advocacy. When it comes to growth, results require patience. The founder is the best person to integrate the creed into the organization, allocate resources and establish the organization’s vision on growth.

“Growth has to be part of the culture from day one,” said Jim Young, co-founder of HotorNot and Perceptual Networks. “It is much harder to staple on a growth team when there is an entrenched development process that is not as metrics oriented or fast-paced. A growth hacker works best as a founder, since they will be able to establish the culture for growth from the very beginning.”

Recruiting the right team: a growth hacker

Implementing growth depends on the company’s maturity and resource accessibility. For an early stage company, a growth hacker is typically a strong generalist with a good product intuition due to the need to fill multiple roles.

“At first, a company needs to have a good product intuition with clever hooks,” said Mike Greenfield, co-founder of Circle of Moms and 500 Startups Growth Hacker-in-Residence. “Later on, the quantitative part of growth starts to matter.”

With a small data set and highly variable user behavior, a growth hacker in the early stage is hustling every channel. Jesse Farmer, co-founder of Everlane, said that scalable growth in the early stage is a challenge: “Early on it’s distribution über alles and getting to the first few thousand users. Sometimes that’s hard to do through pure engineering due to the lack of scale. Growth hackers try to bootstrap through other avenues, such as press and inbound marketing.”

In this stage, having coding skills as a growth hacker pays off in a steeper learning curve and faster iterations. “It is always better to be an engineer whether you are in product, a CEO, in marketing or in data. Engineering is a multiplier effect in speed,” Farmer said.

But this confluence of skills is rare. “Earlier on, it is best to have those coding skillsets,” Shah said. “But those people are unicorns. Most good growth people are great marketers and product people. Being a coder is not necessary to be a good growth hacker.”

Though a growth mindset should be adopted into the culture from day one and baked into the product, growth hacking is primarily a post product-market fit enterprise. Growth is an optimization problem. “Most of the tools of trade don’t apply until after product-market fit and initial traction,” Hyatt said. “Most great growth hacks are optimization problems.”

Recruiting the right team: growth teams

As a product surpasses early adopters, growth compounds in complexity and difficulty. “The first stage of growth usually involves scrappy techniques to raise a round and prove the idea,” Humphrey said. “The next phase gets more complicated with monetization and user accounting. This is when a startup sets itself out from the pack as a rocket-ship.”

Growing beyond early adopters presents a new set of growth challenges that requires specialization and more minds on the task of growth. A single, generalist growth hacker can be ineffective as a product gains mass adoption. Andy Johns, growth product manager at Quora, said, “You need to build a team focused on growth, not just an individual,” said Johns.
A growth team is different from a growth hacker in that it’s the specialization of a growth hacker’s role. “Different stages of company growth requires different types of growth teams,” Shah said. “Growth hacking is not the same thing as a growth team. A growth hacker is a generalist who can attack several channels effectively. Growth teams are a group of specialized growth hackers.”

Though a growth team retains most of the mantra of a growth hacker, growing into a larger team naturally reduces agility and some of the hacker (“black hat”) nature. “Comparing a growth teams to a growth hacker is like comparing marital arts to mixed martial arts. Both are fighters but on the ground, in a growth at all costs environment, you need a mixed martial artist,” Farmer said.


Implementing growth touches every part of a company. Growth hackers and growth teams do not isolate themselves. Growth is a systematic endeavor. “Growth is the confluence of hiring, organization building, analytics, data science, design, engineering, Internet marketing, and a trained mentality,” Johns said.

Growth hackers and growth teams work very closely in a product role across an organization to make an impact as quickly as possible. “The role of the product manager and growth hacker is starting to collide,” Danielle Morrill, CEO of Referly said. “Traditionally the product manager has been the gatekeeper of what gets built next, but the growth hacker looks at daily metrics and wants to move a lot faster.”

A creative yet systematic view of the product helps foresee how small changes can have a big impact. “Growth hacking is about levers, not guessing,” Shah said. “If you make one tweak, you should know or estimate the impact it will make in your product, directly and indirectly.”

Implementing growth is not always bright and sunny optimism because failure is essential element of growth. “You don’t need to fall in love with your first idea. This is an objective science. You are either right or wrong,“ Hyatt said. Growth is a learning process. Trust in the growth team is fundamental to success because not every concept works.

There are several misunderstandings around growth. The buzz on “growth hacking” has intimated the misconception of simple overnight successes and a “LEGO” conceptualization of conquering growth challenges. “Growth is not sexy,” Johns said. Implementing growth is not easy. It requires continuous and proactive advocacy without realizing gains until a later date. Growth hackers are validated on a post-hoc basis.

However, when a growth hacker does get it right, they are right in a big way.

In my next post, I will discuss common myths and misconceptions about a growth hacker.

Aaron is currently a growth hacker in U.S. presidential politics and leads the growth committee for the Growth Hacker’s Conference. You can follow him on Twitter and his blog.