What is Growth Hacking? – Part 1 of The Growth Hacker’s Playbook


It wasn’t until fairly recently that people started referring to what I do as “hacking”, of the growth kind. The term “Growth Hacking” has become more and more popular in the last year and I’ve wondered to myself, do other people have any real idea what hacking or growth hacking really mean? Do they have a clear understanding of the concepts and what they stand for? Is there a definition of the craft clear enough that someone could explain it to their mother, hell, to their grandmother?

I searched. I found a lot of really long, convoluted explanations of what growth hacking is, but not a one explained it clearly and concisely.

After several years of being a digital marketer and “growth hacker”, I’ve developed a playbook for myself that I continually update and reference when coming up with new “hacks”. I’d love to share that with you, and I will. But, first I think it’s worthwhile to lay some simple groundwork explaining what a growth hacker is, when it’s most valuable to have one on your team, and how to set up your company for successful growth hacks. I’ll cover all this, along with my current playbook in three blog posts starting with this one.


What is Hacking?

What do you think of when you hear the work “hacker”? For a long time the word “hacker” had one and only one association in my mind, people doing illegal stuff with computers. I had the stereotypic vision that hackers looked like this


Companies like Facebook and constant hackathons more generally popularized the word “hacker” in a good sense. In Facebook’s case their love of the word and the positive message it can represent kind of smack you in the face if you’ve ever been to their Palo Alto headquarters.


Based on my experience and research, here’s my take on “hacking” and all of its popular manifestations…

Hacking in its purest sense, whether legal or illegal, is just modifying a system to accomplish a goal. (click to tweet this)

Let that sink in for a second. It’s a definition that seems so simple and straightforward, yet amazingly fitting.

Our friends dressed in leather jackets and goofy looking clothes, they were modifying computer systems to accomplish a goal. Their goal may have been illegal, but it was a goal nonetheless.

Growth hackers modify systems to accomplish goals as well. The system we try to modify is the most complex one on the planet, your brain. Growth hackers want to influence your inclination to click on a button, or emotionally connect with a product, to accomplish the goal of you engaging with or buying that product.


With the negative view of the hacker behind you, you can see how a growth hacker isn’t necessarily a leather clad cyber criminal. In fact, a growth hacker is more like David Hasselhoff. You gotta love the Hoff!

Stay with me here…


The Hoff is NOT doing anything illegal, and he’s the embodiment of a growth hacker.

He can run on the beach, swim as fast as a dolphin, wrestle a shark, hold his breath for 10 minutes (even spanning a commercial break), drive a speedboat, drive a semi, disarm a bomb, the list could go on and on. The guy could do it all!

Growth hackers are just like the Hoff. We’ve got a wide range of skills that enable us to do seemingly impossible things.


Growth Hacking is More a PERSON than a THING

Are there processes that a person can follow to try and growth hack for a company? Yes, absolutely. Are there frameworks that someone can reference to try and grow revenue or a user base? Yes, absolutely.

If you want to grow your company you can read blog posts and “how-to” guides till your eyes bleed, but it won’t help.

That’s because growth hacking isn’t just a thing. It’s not a golf club, or a new SaaS product; it’s not something you can just buy. Growth hacking is more a PERSON than a thing.

Growth hacking is about the person developing and executing the growth strategy. It’s about a frame of mind and a set of personality traits.

So, what does a growth hacker look like you ask?

Growth hackers have a love of Data.
Growth hackers have a deep understanding of Analytics.
Growth hackers are intellectually Curious.
Growth hackers are contextually Creative.

Being contextually creative is one quality that hits home hard for me, and I’m guessing it does for you too. A lot of people can say they love data, can say they are analytical, and who isn’t a little curious… but creative, now that’s a scary word for a lot of people.

I come from a family of artists; my grandma was a wonderful artist, as was my mom, and it’s engrained in me somewhere too. I remember being a kid and loving to draw. Most of my “art” was drawing new weapons and vehicles for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but hey, it was my creative outlet. It was such a wonderful feeling, sitting at a table with some blank pieces of paper and a box of crayons, and getting lost in my imagination for hours.

But, somewhere along the way I lost it. I don’t know what happened or why, but at some point I stopped drawing, I stopped being “creative”, and until a few years ago I really thought of myself as a non-creative person. I avoided uncomfortable creative situations like the plague.

David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, has a theory about creativity that seems to relate directly to my experience. Kelley believes that people often have a less than ideal experience with creativity when they are a child, and they “opt-out” of thinking of themselves as creative from that point forward. In a TED talk he speaks of being in a class as a child when one of his classmates, Brian, made a horse out of clay. Another classmate turned to Brian and said “that looks nothing like a horse!”, so Brian proceeded to ball up the clay, put it away, and Kelley doesn’t remember Brian doing any more creative projects after that.

He goes on to suggest, “when that opting out of creativity happens in childhood, it moves in and becomes more ingrained by the time you get to adult life.”

In his TED talk, Kelley says that “fear of judgment underlies people’s aversion to creativity,” and I think he’s right. When I started working on startups several years ago, something wonderful happened. I found a world where crazy ideas and mistakes were not only welcome, but encouraged. I was able to rebuild what Kelley calls my “creative confidence”.

I didn’t feel judged, I had no fear of embarrassment, and the ideas started pouring out. What made it even more amazing was seeing my ideas trigger something in someone else, having that person build on my ideas to create something that was even more amazing.

What’s important to note here is that being creative, or thinking of yourself as creative, needs to happen in the right context. If you have a perception that “creative” people are those that dream up amazing visual art but you don’t have that skill, you will never think of yourself as creative.

If that’s you, please remember that creativity has no contextual definition.

No one is saying creating art is creative but thinking of a new marketing campaign is not. Within the right context we all have the power to be creative.

So we now have this profile of a growth hacker: data driven, analytical, creative and curious. But that’s just scratching the surface of what a growth hacker is. These qualities are what I call “execution enablers”. They allow a person to execute on great growth hacks.

Equally important are what I call “insight enablers”. There are more human skills like being personable and empathetic. They are the skills that allow a successful growth hacker to understand a customer’s motivations, talk to customers, and then figure out how to fulfill their needs.



The Growth Hacker Knowledge Graph

Growth hacking is not your grandpa’s marketing! There are no marketing teams, no strategic brand plans, and no creative briefs. A lot of the time growth hacking is a one-man show, or if you’re lucky, a small team.

This is what I call the growth hacker’s knowledge graph.

growth hackers knowledge graph

The vertical line is a traditional marketer, meaning a marketer who has a singular very specific skill set. This could be someone who is specifically a brand manager, a copywriter, a search engine optimizer (SEO), or an email marketer.

As growth hackers, having traditional marketing knowledge in just one area won’t cut it. Because of the environments we typically operate in, growth hackers usually need broad knowledge of marketing, product management and engineering.

The “T” in the graphic above is what I’d consider the first step to becoming a growth hacker. The flat top on the “T” represents a broad knowledge of many tactics and strategies across marketing, product management and engineering. This can and should be a wide mix of things; think email, blogging, analytics, optimization, PPC, social media, business development, HTML. The vertical part of the T signifies a deep skill set or expertise in one area.

Now take the horizontal skill set in the “T” and start pulling more things into the center. Deepen your skills in more areas and you start to get a “V”. You start to build more valuable skills in a number of areas and become an amazingly valuable and dangerous asset to any company. This is by no means easy to do, but can be accomplished with time and experience.

Take this one step further and as you develop more and more areas of true expertise your “V” skill set starts to look more and more like a “U”. To make an analogy to startups and investing, a person like this is the equivalent of an Instagram, a WhatsApp, an Uber. They are the unicorn of growth hackers. There are some out there, and I’m envious of their ability to ideate and execute. These unicorns to me are people like Sean Ellis, Neil Patel and Andy Johns.


What is Growth Hacking?

Since we now have a new definition of what “hacking” is, and we have a profile of what a growth hacker looks like, let’s define what growth hacking is…

Growth Hacking is the process of using psychology, engineering and testing to drive repeatable, measurable results. (click to tweet this)

I don’t want to over-complicate this definition with a bunch of explanation. I could go on and on about why each of psychology, engineering and testing are included in that definition but I think that would only dilute the clarity and succinctness of it.

For clarity’s sake, in short, psychology signifies the marketing and product management components of growth hacking; the requirement to listen to customers, their problems and their feelings, and to create products and experiences for them, thus manipulating the system that is their current behavior, all the while testing and improving on what you’ve created for them. Engineering does not mean coding everything yourself (if you can that’s great), it just signifies a required understanding of technical products and development technologies enough to guide and influence product development itself.

I’m a visual person, so I tried to think of the right way to visualize growth hacking and what a growth hacker is… This is about the best representation I can think of, a freakin cat with a golden handgun riding a fire-breathing unicorn!



When is a Growth Hacker Most Valuable?

The popularity of growth hacking has every Tom, Dick and Sally thinking their business needs to be doing it. They are gravely mistaken.

So that begs the question, when should my company be growth hacking? When is a growth hacker most valuable?

You’re company shouldn’t even be thinking about laser focusing on growth until you’re 100% positive that you’ve found product-market fit. If your customers don’t even want your product yet, it’s going to be really hard to grow.

product-market fit

Now you say to yourself, ok, so I shouldn’t try growth hacking or hire a growth hacker until I reach product-market fit. Noted. But wait, how do I know if I’ve reached product-market fit?!

Well I’m glad you asked!!!

Sean Ellis, the man who coined the term ‘growth hacker’, the guy behind the explosive growth at Dropbox, Xobni, Eventbrite, and Qualaroo to name a few, has a crystal clear way to determine if you’ve reached product-market fit: “If at least 40% of your customers wouldn’t be very disappointed without your product, you haven’t reached product-market fit.”

As you test your company for product-market fit, try using the simple survey Sean uses with his own companies. You can find Sean’s simple description of product-market fit on his website and the survey he uses right here.

Before you reach product-market fit it’s really about testing to find out where the fit is by doing more customer development and product iterations. Trying to growth hack a product no one wants would be like trying to run across a frozen lake. You use a ton of energy, get nowhere and all you have to show for it is a bruised ego, a twisted ankle and some frostbite.


What does this mean for You?

With so many convoluted discussions of growth hacking out there on the web, hopefully mine provides a unique point of view that is both clear and concise. Whether you are a growth hacker, a digital marketer, a designer, a startup founder, a large company executive, or you just like reading random people’s blogs, my goal is to make you smarter about what growth hacking is so you can make better decisions for yourself and your company.

So what next?

With a simple definition of what growth hacking is, and a clear profile of what a growth hacker looks like, we’ll move on to dive a bit deeper into analytics and how you can set up your company for growth hacking success. Stay tuned.



Image credits: 1) Hackers Movie, 2) Wall Street Journal, 3) This is Noel Philips, 5) PandoraBoxx


One Response to What is Growth Hacking? – Part 1 of The Growth Hacker’s Playbook

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