Intro to Growth Hacking

Before you read any further, let me stop you now.

If you are familiar with growth hacking, you won’t likely learn anything from this post. I’ve chosen to write this “intro to” article on the subject because I want this site to be useful to all types of readers regardless of their experience and background. In a way you could say that I want my sales oriented mother, my programmer brother and my political sister to all be able to follow this blog without wondering what language I’m speaking.

Having that said, let’s get down to it.


Ryan Holiday, VP of Marketing at American Apparel, defines a growth hacker as such:

A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like “branding” and “mind share,” growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth-and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.

The term “Growth Hacker” was coined by Sean Ellis (Dropbox, Qualaroo, LogMeIn) in 2010 because there lacked a specific title for this type of job position. Growth hackers are often product managers or marketers with a technical background. Alternatively, they can be programmers with a great understanding of marketing and product management but it is the skill set and mostly the frame of mind that it is important here (product, marketing, technical).

Growth hackers have emerged from the startup culture where you have to do more with less. Startups lack an advertising budget so they need to leverage every user and tool available to drive traffic to their sites and to ultimately convert those visitors into active users.

Growth hackers need to measure everything and leave nothing to guesswork or gut feeling as is often the case in traditional marketing. Through their metrics, they continuously optimize their strategies to achieve better results.

Ok ok, I can already hear you: “Alex… get to the point! You’re still too vague.”

hotmail-growth-hackingLet me give you a few examples of growth hacking that will allow you to better understand how you can achieve so much with so little.

Growth Hacking Examples

One of the most used growth hack examples comes from Hotmail. Sold to Microsoft for $400 million after only 30 months in business, they had reached 10 million users in this short span of time. They did not gain this traction from advertising in magazines or on billboards but rather took the advice of Tim Draper, the famous venture capitalist. To sum things up, he suggested that they add this to the bottom of every email being sent: “P.S.: I love you. Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” Genius! Every user was advertising their free email service.

facebook-growth-hackingFacebook became a giant by building growth mechanisms directly into their product. In order for the site to be useful, you need to find your friends when you sign-up. Facebook encourages you to import your address book to find them quickly and then encourages you to invite all those that aren’t members to also join. It’s perfect because they already have your entire address book and an invite is just a click away. This is the most obvious example I can give you of growth hacking but keep in mind that Facebook has employed countless growth hacks of the sort since the beginning.

dropbox-growth-hackingIn the beginning, Dropbox wasted money on advertisements that weren’t profitable until one day they developed a kick-ass referral system. You got 2 gigs of free storage when you created an account but they gave you tons of additional free storage every time you got a friend to use their product. Over the years, they have launched plenty of great growth strategies (e.g. the Space Race) that have brought them to where they are today.

These three examples are quite different from one another however a couple of quotes from Aaron Ginn will sum up the common ground nicely.

Growth hacking is more of a mind-set than a tool kit.

The end goal of every growth hacker is to build a self-perpetuating marketing machine that reaches millions by itself.

Lastly, unlike a marketer, a growth hacker doesn’t settle for the product he is mandated to promote but rather he is involved in the product development process. The goal is to achieve the perfect product-market fit by measuring and iterating (over and over) because in the end, would you promote a mediocre product to a friend? By having the growth hackers involved, you get a ripe product with growth mechanisms built-in… bringing you one step closer to that perpetual growth we all dream about.


If you’re interested in learning more about the mind-set of growth hackers stay tuned for future posts… but I also suggest reading Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday. It’s only 40 pages and skips the technical mumbo-jumbo so it’s an excellent starting point for marketers.


Keeping in mind that the goal of this post was to offer a birds eye view of the subject, what would you add to help inquisitive readers better understand growth hacking?