Defining A Growth Hacker: Debunking The 6 Most Common Myths About Growth Hacking

In this series titled “Defining a growth hacker,” I explore the meaning and practical application of growth hacking through a number of interviews with prominent growth hackers. This is the fifth and final post in the series. The previous posts are as follows: common characteristics among growth hackers here, growth hacking’s impact on marketing here and product here, and how to build a growth into a team here.

With any buzz, popular sentiment can become detached from reality. Thought leaders in a burgeoning space can be blown up with grand expectations that can embellish the truth that lies underneath the surface.

Today, growth has become a regular topic of conversation in Silicon Valley. More and more startups are looking to hire growth hackers or to develop their own growth strategies. However, there are a handful of myths about the purpose and function of growth hacking itself that have gained traction. In this article, I will explore six of the more common myths ones that serve to misconstrue growth hacking methods and goals and set false expectations.

Myth No. 1: Growth Hacking Is A Cheat Sheet Of Secrets On Growth

Reality: The “secret” is the mindset, not the toolset.

Growth hackers are often viewed as the key part of a secret recipe to create a rocketship startup. Growth is frequently viewed as something like a book of “secrets” on how to find and leverage channels. These “secrets” are locked away in the mind of a growth hacker, but this myth masks growth as magical dust over hard work and prioritization.

“Often, my suggestions are like basic product marketing because it’s never about a particular trick,” said Jesse Farmer of DevBootcamp.

The magic of a growth hacker is not a mysterious power but rather a mindset that focuses on what most startups deprioritize: distribution. When a growth hacker lends advice, it will most likely jog your memory of features left on the product backburner. With an endless list of possible product roadmaps, growth features tend to be forgotten and under-optimized until it matters most.

Dave McClure, founder of 500 startups, said that most startup founders focus heavily on product but most of a startup’s risk lies in distribution.

Myth No. 2: A Growth Hacker Is A Quick Fix For A Company’s Problems

Reality: Growth hacking is not done overnight and cannot solve systemic product issues. 

Growth does not happen overnight. It is iterative. Viral-type growth is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. It cannot be applied from company to company as an add-on. “Not everything can be made viral,” said Michael Birch, co-founder of Bebo. “A great deal of perseverance is required. There are a huge number of failed experiments before success. There is a fine line between failure and success.”

There are different types of growth — small wins and big wins. Growth hackers look beyond the obvious optimizations into deep product assumptions and usage for a feature that will be a game changer. This means that growth cannot be something that is tacked on easily, especially when understanding the importance of user retention to growth.

“If you are trying to hire a growth hacker, don’t hire one that only does A/B testing and focuses on the local maxima,” said Nabeel Hyatt, venture partner at Spark Capital. “Find a growth hacker that can ask the deeper questions and find the long-run sustainable growth path for your product.”

Answering these deeper product questions steepens the learning curve through a relentless focus on moving metrics and fast iterations. Tactically, a good growth strategy is found through testing, not reading a book.

“It is like investing in the stock market. If there were some formula for success, those that knew the formula wouldn’t talk about it,” said Ivan Kirigin, who worked on growth at Dropbox. “I think all these strategies are about creating a process to learn as much as you can as fast as possible which makes winning far more likely.”

Myth No. 3: Growth Hacking Is A New Thing

Reality: Growth hacking is not an entirely new thing.

Hi5, Slide, Bebo, Facebook, and LinkedIn were some of the first teams to have a strong emphasis on user growth and engagement, long before the phrase “growth hacking” was coined.

“Definitely not a new thing; it’s just a new title,” said Birch. “We have a name for it now, but it has been happening for a while,” added Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics.

While the pursuit of viral growth has been a focus since the dawn of the web, Birch said that the best product teams have always focused on growth, especially since the Facebook platform was announced in 2008.

Myth No. 4: Growth Hacking Is Marketing

Reality: Growth hacking has marketing goals but different tactics.

Growth comes from a well-executed and data-driven product strategy, not a marketing strategy. Greg Tseng, co-founder of Tagged, said that growth hackers should be involved in anything that touches product — from design to engineering.

Both marketers and growth hackers have common goals; they work closely together on a daily basis to push metrics in different ways. However, growth hackers are looking for growth through product utilization and product iterations instead of a marketers’ outbound- and inbound-based strategies.

“Some people think growth hacking is the same as marketing optimization; they are quite different,” said Spark Capital’s Hyatt. “If I’m given 1,000 visitors and I’m trying to convert as many as possible to customers, that’s lead gen optimization. If I’m tuning the product to convert 1,000 visitors into 10,000 customers, that’s growth. Growth hacking is a new name for the latter camp; the first camp is inbound marketing. Growth usually does not come from bounces off a landing page but in product engagement and virality.”

Myth No. 5: A Growth Hacker Is A Coder

Reality: Some growth hackers are coders but many are not.

The use of the word “hacker” suggests that coding ability is a requirement to be a growth hacker. But Sean Ellis, founder and CEO of Qualaroo, coined the phrase “growth hacker” with a different intention in mind. “I used the word ‘hacker’ to be an attitude of scrappiness rather than being a coder. In other words, a growth hacker ‘hacks’ a way to move metrics,” said Ellis.

A growth strategy will succeed if it finds an unseen advantage in distribution. Finding this advantage comes from rapid testing. “The ‘hacker’ part of growth hacking is communicating you need to be a constant hustler and get things done quickly, not being a coder,” said Blake Commagere, founder of MediaSpike.

It is not a coincidence that there are several growth hackers that have engineering backgrounds, such as Jesse Farmer, Matt Humphrey, Dan Martell, Jim Young, and Mike Greenfield. This correlation is due to the need to apply engineering-like precision to marketing for growth.

“The use of the word ‘hacking’ relates to the question ‘how can we solve the problem differently,’” said Danielle Morrill, co-founder and CEO of Referly. “Hacking is creative disruption. Growth hackers do tend to be engineers as it gives them the ability to apply rigor to marketing, but it is not necessary.”

Myth No. 6: A Growth Hacker Is Just An Individual

Reality: Growth is not about one person.

Growth comes in different flavors depending on the stage of the company, such as a co-founder to a growth team at a late-stage company. “A growth hacker is not a lone ranger but should be apart of a greater team,” said KISSmetrics’ Shah. “Companies should look to build a growth team rather than just an individual; however, different company stages require different types of growth teams.”

Growth is holistic and cross-functional, because long-term growth hardly ever resides in one part of a company. Growth is complex and often involves several tests before a winner is found. Without aligning the company around a set of metrics to push, a growth strategy will be hampered by conflicting team priorities and goals.

Adopting a culture of growth will challenge the way a product is traditionally made and prioritized. It is not an easy task because growth typically changes a company’s culture and what it considers important.

If this series has inspired you to hire a growth hacker or learn to be one, the one key takeaway is to do something, learn from it, and leave your ego at the door. Growth hackers may come in different flavors, but they all learned the same way. They went out, tried something, found product-market fit, and optimized the hell out of it.

Aaron Ginn is currently Head of Growth at StumbleUpon and former growth hacker for Mitt Romney. You can read more on growth on his blog.