Growth hacking: a Skyscanner primer
Rebecca Moore on hacking your way through the inflection points holding your business back in 2019
You may have attended or caught up with some uploads from Turing Fest 2018. This post will reiterate some similar ideas from my presentation and corresponding blog Self Disrupt for Growth. However, with this post, I’m going to look more closely at the concept of ‘growth hacking’. How can you use some of these techniques to continuously grow when you have already found some scale? How can you maintain that elusive hockey stick?
What is growth hacking?
Imagine this: you’ve got a great product that has strong word-of-mouth growth. You’ve established your ‘long and hard’ channels like SEO, got all the high-endorphin quick wins and instant gratification from scaling up channels like SEM. You’ve scaled out to most of the markets where Product Market Fit (PMF) is naturally strong and you haven’t needed to tinker too much with your marketing approach to stimulate growth in those new markets. But, what do you do once you’ve done the easy start up stuff?
The truth is the next step isn’t any easier. It’s hard, it’s complex and there aren’t any constants. You start to get into the land of diminishing returns very quickly with the likes of paid marketing, competitors start to weigh in and eat up some of your brand space, and your organisation becomes more siloed and slower.
A few years ago, Skyscanner was in this position. This led us to research deeply into the concept of growth hacking. Growth hacking became a real buzzword around nine to ten years ago, and many of the attributes were very attractive to us as we learned more about it.
According to Sean Ellis a growth hacker is: “A person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinised by its potential impact on scalable growth. Is positioning important? Only if a case can be made that it is important for driving sustainable growth.”
According to Andrew Chen: “Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modelling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a start-up is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.”
Here’s what growth hacking means to me:
“The science of acquiring and retaining as many users or customers as possible while spending* as little as possible.”
*in terms of time, budget, and resources
Why did we need growth hacking?
So now you know the what. What about the why? What led to Skyscanner’s decision to commit to growth hacking?
Like any rapidly scaling business, Skyscanner had growing pains. There is a notion that as you pump more humans, effort, blood, sweat and tears into a business you will get a proportional return in outcomes, company growth and fulfilment. Sadly, this is not so. The truth is, you hit ‘inflection points’ as you grow an organisation: velocity slows, throughput declines, people work crazy hours but can’t get anything done, and then they give up because they can’t get anything done. Morale declines and frustration rears its ugly head.
N.B. If you’d like to read more about how we at Skyscanner recognised these inflection points and completely changed our organisational structure for growth, you can read my post on the subject here.
Here’s what we were seeing at Skyscanner during ‘inflection point’ episodes:
- Functions that should be working together weren’t even talking to each other (e.g. Social and PR)
- We were forcing solutions on all our markets, which we thought was us optimising for global scale.
- We were having limited or no impact at a local level, and local teams were getting quite frustrated or feeling marginalised
- We saw high levels of wasted effort and we weren’t scaling anything
- Morale was low and frustrations were running high
But the biggest indicator and the one to always look out for was this — we just couldn’t get things done. It was taking us months to execute things which previously had taken days or weeks. The organisational growth meant the leadership team were disconnected from the people executing tasks. You need to find a way to foster collaboration and shared ownership within your organisational design, and your culture.
Recognising these inflection points is the first step towards proactively and consciously navigating an organisation through them. At Skyscanner we were able to diagnose the problem, but solving it was another matter entirely. For starters, geography was against us. We had amassed a strong marketing team in Edinburgh. The tech ecosystem there was starting to get going, but it was embryonic, and we didn’t have the likes of LinkedIn, Google, Amazon and Facebook on our doorstep, so we weren’t naturally exposed to new ways of working and disruptive thinking — there wasn’t the cross-pollination of thought that benefits companies in major tech hubs. But rather than try to poach some big name from Silicon Valley, our leadership team encouraged internal learning sessions, discussions, and adopting internet economy ways of working and embedding them into every facet of our organisation. This included the learning and application of growth hacking.
Growth hacking: what did we hope to achieve and how did we set up for it?
We wanted to see all the things the science of growth hacking promised us: we wanted to drive innovation in all our current channels and markets; simultaneously testing and scaling new and emerging markets; to continue to take on new territories; move away from big bang campaigns; grab those cheap and free wins and capitalise on our strong word of mouth; properly build growth into the product. Oh, and do this at scale across 40 markets!
Achieving these aims would be no mean feat. We knew it required not only a change to our structure, but to our entire mindset and approach. Read more detail about our how here, but to summarise:
- We moved to a tribes and squad model.
- We enabled rapid execution with a Lean Startup, scientific and agile approach
- We embedded an experimentation culture, the ability to test, pivot and iterate across the entire marketing mix.
- We created a culture that was fearless in executing and learning through the Growth Mindset.
- We pushed for our teams to be ‘T-Shaped’, ensuring they have the basics and fundamentals across all our channels, but depth of expertise in one or two channels.
- We are goal-focused. Setting a goal and ensuring we have the tribe with the right cross functional experts to work the problem.
What we have achieved so far
Put all this together and what do you get? High performing teams that provide some great output. Some examples below: Our Greek squad realised ferries were a huge missed opportunity in their market. They found a quick way to get this built into their product and were taking bookings within 24 hours; Our Middle East squad, worked with our app developers to roll out our first Arabic app after a great opportunity was spotted in this emerging market. And all our squads looking towards the traveller with user stories and case studies.
Is there value in making this organisational shift and adopting the growth mindset?
Reorganising for a growth mindset is not all innovation and great output. It is complex. There are no constants. But, if you get the right organisational model and mindset you can create the conditions you need for constant evolution. Change is inevitable and necessary when you are scaling an organisation, but whole scale, big bang organisational and cultural changes are short term expensive and have a high emotional price. My advice is not to go into a change naively.
Whenever you have a change you will have a distribution curve something like this:
Get on the ground with your teams and figure out where they are. Some people — the ambassadors will have that joint euphoria “Yes, we are finally making that change.” Pretty soon more ambassadors will catch on and you will have more to share and the quality will start to improve: the supporters will start to catch on. They probably won’t get it right first time, but this is important. Elevate and celebrate the people that try. Publicly celebrate the ones who are leading the change bottom up and get inventive about how you do this. We had fail-forward parties and awards!
There is value in Growth Hacking, but no ‘hacks’ for doing it right at scale
If this post has inspired you, you may be wondering how to begin your own growth hacking journey. To that end I’d suggest getting your teeth into the following resources:
- Growth transition, Tribes and Squads — Skyscanner Growth Blog; medium.com/@Skyscanner
- How an organization scales; “Blitzscaling” series of lectures (Reid Hoffman)
- Scientific approach and cycle times; “Lean Start-up” (Eric Reis)
- Agile in marketing; Agile marketing manifesto
- Improving operational efficiency; “The Goal” (Eliyahu Goldratt)
- Lean and eliminating waste; “The Toyota Way” (Jeffrey Liker)
- Growth mindset; “Mindset” (Carol Dweck)
- Strategy and Alignment; McKinsey 3 Horizons
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About the author: Rebecca Moore
Rebecca Moore is a Director of Growth and EMEA tribe lead at Skyscanner. Previously, Moore implemented and ran Skyscanner’s Growth Tribe in Asia Pacific and lead the programme reorganising Skyscanner from a traditional marketing structure to our current growth model.