The 9 Secrets Hackers, Innovators and Icons use to Accelerate Success

Learned from Shane Snow


As they say, records are meant to be broken. But how about completely shattering the world record that was previously set at 33 minutes and 24 seconds, setting the new best time to beat at 6 minutes and 28 seconds?

Sound impossible? This was the feat accomplished by Nathan Parkinson when he beat the world record for completing Mario on the classic Nintendo gaming system in 2007.

I’m not talking about cheating with shortcuts; I’m talking about accelerating success, utilizing lateral thinking and leveraging “Smartcuts.”

Shane Snow distills his growth philosophies down in his book Smartcuts, How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, providing insights into how this is possible. Of course, we all want to accelerate success; however, Shane’s approach is a bit different.

Based out of New York, Shane Snow is a journalist, a web entrepreneur and the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Contently, a tech platform that matches qualified freelance journalists with online media outlets in the rapidly changing world of publishing. He was named Inc Magazine’s Inc. “30 Under 30” in July 2012 and Business Insider’s “Silicon Valley’s 100 Coolest People In Tech” in July 2012.

I want to explore what makes him a thought leader and growth hacker. More importantly, I want to explore how we can take his insights and apply them directly within the context of entrepreneurship and startups.

This post is not meant to replace the book. Rather, it’s meant to summarize key points and augment the wisdom gleamed from Shane, leading to immediate, effective action. In fact, you should go out and buy the book.

Shane Snow has never outright called himself a growth hacker, but not only would I put him on the list, I’d rank him in the top thought leaders in the field right now due to his use of Smartcuts.

Snow defines a shortcut as rapid but short-term gain whereas a Smartcut is sustainable success achieved quickly through smart work, the essence of “growth hacking.” The latter creates value for others while the former cheats others.

What is growth hacking?

Before we dive into why I hold Snow in high esteem, let’s first define the term “Growth Hacker.”

Growth Hackers have ushered in a new era of data and product-driven marketing, distinguishing startups from their counterparts in corporate America, who love Madison Avenue brand advertising.

Growth Hacking is not a Swiss Army Knife for building businesses. It’s not a specific tactic guaranteed to always deliver results. It’s not a magic bullet for all your marketing woes. It’s something much bigger. Growth Hacking is a mindset, an approach, a paradigm; just as Smartcuts principals are a mindset, not a process.

Growth Hackers use the available tools in more progressive and innovative ways to overcome and circumvent the boundaries of what was thought possible, all in the name of growth.

Smartcuts are about doing the same. Let’s explore!

In his book Smartcuts, Snow breaks down 9 separate and distinct methods to accelerate success, each deserving of it’s own chapter. They’re not substitutes for working hard, they’re ways for people to ensure their hard work not in vein. Lateral thinking is not meant to replace hard work, but eliminate unnecessary cycles.

1 ) Hacking the ladder — Becoming a writer for WIRED in 6 months flat

If you want to make it to the top, you have two options — do your work, put in the time and pay your dues or cut your teeth in a similar industry to prove you can make it, then parley that into a different career. Climb to the top of one ladder then jump to a different ladder, one that is slightly better, thus hacking the ladder.

Shane Snow, himself, hacked the ladder when he wanted to start writing for WIRED Magazine. He could have gotten a shitty job as an intern and put his nose to the grindstone until he got noticed and promoted to a permanent position. He could have climbed the corporate ladder one step at a time.

Instead, he asked the right questions to uncover the quickest path to gaining the minimum required credibility that would take him to the next level. He asked himself what sites convey to WIRED that, “This guy has what it takes to write for us.” Then he repeated this process for every site, until he found a site that he could write for immediately. Once he became a “regular contributor” and worked his way back up until he was writing for WIRED. This is what his path looked like:

The Next Web > Gizmodo > Mashable > Fast Company > WIRED

He used the “Frank Sinatra Rule.” Made famous in his timeless song, Frank sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” (“there” is referring to New York, a place that everyone aspires to “make it” in). The cache alone has the ability to give you a reputation.

Total time: 6 months.

Ryan Holiday has a similar approach to quickly getting his stories on big sites like New York Times and Huffington Post, which he calls “trading up the chain.”

How to use it:

What is your end goal (e.g., become a regular contributor for WIRED)? What is the minimum required credibility to get there? Once you get to the ground level, what is the very next step for you to start working you way back up?

2 ) Training with Masters — How to mentor with anyone, anywhere

One of the key tenants of accelerating success is finding a mentor, advice given by many and portrayed as easy. There are two ways to get a mentor- through an organic process where a mentor-mentee relationship naturally evolved or to pay for one. Society has hammered in the idea of a hero’s rise after being mentored from an older, wiser sage, a new market for mentoring programs in the professional business world has spawned. The result is companies like Vistage

Either way, you end up with a mentor!

Hold on, not so fast! Let’s take a closer look.

Studies by Christina M. Underhill have revealed that there’s quite a substantial difference. Those who were mentored in a formal setting tended to achieve “slightly more” in the workplace. On the other hand, “informal mentoring produced a larger and more significant effect on career outcomes than formal mentoring.”

With that said, you can’t force a mentor. However, we would all benefit from having one, so what can we do? Do what Jimmy Fallon did — pick mentors to study from a distance and know every aspect of their lives.

How you can use it:

Who are your favorite thought leaders? Start following them. Know them like the back of your hand. Follow them on social media and read everything they publish After I’ve read a mentor’s book, I watch every interview they’ve given, usually accessible on YouTube. Though the conversation isn’t with me, it’s the closest I’ll get. Once you study them well enough, you’ll subconsciously engrain their way of thinking.

Some of my favorite mentors from a distance are Shane Snow, Dan Kennedy, Tim Ferriss, Noah Kagan and Ryan Holiday.

3) Rapid Feedback — Why failure is not all it’s cracked up to be

As failure is becoming more socially acceptable, people and companies are willing to push the boundaries and take more risks. In fact, I would go as far as to say the stigma has morphed into something people strive for.

Let’s all go out and try crazy, risky things with no regard for failure!

No so fast…

Let’s take a deeper dive into the data and numbers. A group of Harvard researchers did just that in 2008, comparing entrepreneurs who had failed in a previous business and people who had never had any business experience. Surprisingly, people with experience had no advantage.

However, the research shows having one successful venture under your belt will give you a 50% better success rate on your next venture. And now the dilemma arises — how do you succeed without already having succeeded?

It turns out that the distinguishing factor of failure, whether failure will lead to success, is what we attribute the failure to. This fundamental attribution error happens when we put too much weight on internal factors rather than unrelated external forces to account for the outcome of a situation. In other words, we internalize our failures.

Another key factor is when we get the feedback. Often times, you won’t get feedback right away. Long term investments, for example, where it’s high risk and high pressure.

Hiten Shah just gave a mentor talk at Tradecraft. One of the key takeaways was going beyond failing fast, but just as important, failing in as small chunks as possible.

Let’s look at Upworthy, a media site for viral content. With roughly 30 million monthly visitors, which is nothing to scoff at. A key to their success is to split test headlines and photos (immediate feedback) among small groups of viewers (low risk) to find which pulls best. They then push that content to the masses (This is an over-simplified representation of Upworthy’s process, but it will suffice to get the point across.)

How you can use it:

Leave your ego at the door so you can receive sufficient self-esteem to be humble when receiving negative feedback. Understand that it’s not an attack on you.

How can you fail in small chunks? How can you minimize the pressure and stakes when you fail? How can you set up conditions to get immediate feedback?

4) Platforms — physics guru says high-level math should be left out of schools?

Finding the right platform to exploit different levels of abstraction could be comparable to the difference between driving on a gravel road and a newly paved highway. Hackers are able to find and build layers of abstraction that allow then to do their job more effectively and efficiently.

Isaac Newton recognized the impact that platforms had on him, saying “If I have seen further, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“Ruby on Rails” was developed by David Heinemeier Hansson out of his distain for making repetitive and countless unimportant decisions. It layered on top of Ruby, eliminating much of this repetition, allowing programmers to focus their time and energy on more important and interesting tasks. “You can accelerate your learning if you know how to train properly, but you still don’t need to be that special,” Heinemeier Hansson says.

Let’s take a look at another example, one that more people can relate to — school.

Freeman Dyson, an English-born American known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering, argues that kids don’t need to be taught high-level math in school. Dyson reasoned that all kids have the perfect platform at their fingertips for doing math — a calculator. When they correctly learn how to use a calculator, they are able to have a better understanding of math.

How to use it:

Forget about rote memorization. Save your energy for the things that excite you and give you the power to make a real difference. The key is to maintain critical thinking while piggybacking off the work of others and finding the platforms that will make your job easier.

What repetitive tasks are you expending exorbitant time and/or energy on? What tools can you use to eliminate those tasks, thereby, freeing you to focus in more productive and meaningful work?

5) Waves — How to beat the 10,000 hour rule

In chess, grandmasters have an incredible advantage over even great players who have played for half a decade. This is due to the fact that the grandmasters have encountered so many different moves, sequences and scenarios, they subconsciously recognize patterns they’ve already experienced.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way for us to gain pattern recognition faster than logging 10,000 hours before mastery?

You may be in luck. Research on behavior and decision-making reveals that we may be able to do just as well by intentionally studying patterns, counteracting lack of experience. This is how smaller, more agile companies can come in and take down the Goliaths of the market. These Goliaths are often so focused on the traditional way of running business that they fail to notice new trends in the market.

In the business world, being the first to market gave a company “first mover advantage,” allowing the company more time to ride the wave and amass customers, acquire resources and build brand recognition.

By now, I hope you know to question this conventional wisdom. Recent research tells us that, “Pioneers often miss the best opportunities, which are obscured by technological and market uncertainties.” Other studies reveal that 47% of first movers fail. The ideal position to be in is the fast follower — the companies that catch the second wave and take over the reigns from the first mover. They only have an 8% failure rate. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all fast followers.

How you can use this:

You can’t rely on experience alone. Be a student of your industry. Constantly read articles, blogs and journals to keep a finger on the pulse.

What are the best news sources for credible information in your industry that you can start reading right now?

6) Superconnectors — Leverage that lets you reach the masses

Which is better — individually calling up 1,000 people or broadcasting a single message out to 1,000 people at once? Obviously the latter. This is what Shane Snow is talking about when he uses the term Superconnectors. He writes, “The act of making mass connections by tapping into hubs with many spokes.”

Initially popularized in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the terms Connectors refers to people who have a broad group of friends and are able to influence them. Superconnectors are a subset of Connectors that takes this idea one step further. The Connector uses his/her influence to introduce you to the social circle, giving you the ability to now influence many individuals at once. Superconnectors can also be companies like Apple, media outlets like the “New York Times” or even products, like the TV and radio.

However, you need to be careful; there are givers and there are takers. True Superconnectors are givers — always generous, advocating in the interest of others, mentoring, sharing credit or making connections, even when they’re at the top.

A great example of this application given in Smartcuts comes from Jack Canfield when he marketed and published Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul. He Superconnected into networks by partnering with a national pet food supply chain and offered a 50% off coupon for his book to anyone who bought a 50 pound bag of dog food. This was a win-win.

How you can use this:

Harness the power of Superconnects by first focusing on giving. Serendipity has a way of giving back, and Superconnectors are more generous to those who give rather than take.

Who do you know that is tapped into a network that would be valuable to you or your business? What can you offer them?

7) Momentum — The “overnight success” myth revealed

Moonwalking (I literally mean walking on the moon) may be one of the coolest things ever. But, if you look at all of the American space heroes, many have fallen into quiet (and some not so quiet) lives of desperation. In the same vein, often when people win the lottery, they are worse off than before.

For an explanation, let’s take a look at Newton’s first law of motion: An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force.

Momentum is the principal behind the highly sought after, but much elusive, state of viral media. Let’s take a look at an example to better understand the key concepts at play.

In 2009, beauty blogger Michelle Phan saw two waves coming in the market — Lady Gaga and self-publishing home videos. She caught the surf at the right time by patching together a video of how to mimic the iconic look of the pop superstar in her most recent music video, “Bad Romance”. Her “overnight success” landed her as the official video make-up artist Lancôme. L’Oreal launched a product line by Michelle, and she also started her own subscription service for beauty products.

The fact is success isn’t a straight line, and the “overnight success” phenomenon is a complete myth. The media manipulates and dramatizes these instant successes, leading us to believe all we have to do is create on viral video, the public will finally see how awesome we are and Google will buy your company. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here are the details behind Michelle Phan’s “overnight success.” Around 2004, she started a modest blog teaching her friends how to paint while working odd jobs to make ends meet. Unexpectedly, her mom was given a few thousand dollars, which she used to send Michelle to Ringling College of Art and Design. In 2007, she started recording video tutorials, accruing half a dozen in total. Then in 2008, she recorded 54 videos and slowly started to build a humble following. In 2009, after she leveraged the momentum from her current fans, she found a loophole in the YouTube homepage algorithm and exploited it to get her DIY Bad Romance makeup video on for two extra days.

Phan’s “overnight success” was years in the making where she poured blood, sweat and tears into her endeavor before she began to see it pay off. She used her momentum from her early blogs.

How you can use this:

Take your small wins and keep moving. Once you get to the top, use your momentum to keep moving by jumping laterally to the next ladder. You don’t necessarily need something bigger and better to be happy. The key is to keep moving.

How can you keep your momentum moving forward after a small win and parley up to bigger and more progressive success?

8) Simplicity — The Steve Jobs innovation secret

The essence of a startup is creating something from nothing with many constraints. But out of constraints come the most creative and innovative solutions to problems that the world has ever seen.

Steve Jobs revolutionized the MP3 player by removing all the buttons except one and adding the intuitive scroll wheel when he created the iPod. He did it again in the mobile phone industry by removing all buttons except one dynamic home button when he created the iPhone. And in Steve Jobs’ fashion, he doubled Apple’s mouse market when he removed all buttons (actually, the entire mouse is a button) and added a smart multi-touch surface.

The key: simplicity.

But Jobs doesn’t stop there. Furthermore, the only thing you’ll find in his closet is black turtlenecks and Levi’s 501 jeans. By not having to think about what he wears in the morning, his patience and creativity are not exhausted. He can save the more important decisions for what really matters, thereby avoiding decision fatigue (check out the Tim Ferriss podcast episode 44.). No wonder he referred to simplicity as the ultimate sophistication.

In a world where people think more is better, it’s often by cutting the excess noise, losing the distractions and trimming extra bells and whistles that we ship amazing things.

How to use this:

Think small and think simple. What are some of the small decisions in your life that are taking up too much time, energy and creativity everyday? What are the extra features that your business or product offers that you could cut out without detracting from your value proposition?

9) 10X Thinking — Outperforming the S&P 500

It’s hard to be in San Francisco or the Silicon Valley and talk with entrepreneurs without having Elon Musk’s name pop up. Having already built and sold companies, Musk embodies the courage of a lion and the confidence of a Spartan warrior. But what really positions him in the top echelon of entrepreneurs is his ability to think and dream big.

It’s not about asking, “How can I do this a little better?” It’s about asking, “How can I do something no one has ever thought of before?” Going for 10X rather than 10% is not 100 times harder; therefore, you already have a better return on your investment. This shift in thinking forces you to look at a situation with a radically different perspective and break some basic assumptions along the way. 10% improvement depends on working harder; whereas, 10X improvement depends on working smarter. Elon Musk calls “this getting to first principals”.

In fact, 10% thinking can decrease performance. The N-Effect tells us that there’s more competition at this level, which leads to a diminishing belief in winning, finally resulting in less effort.

Jim Stengel and Millward Brown may have come upon the most interesting findings that could help you continuously take action and stay competitive. After milling through a decade’s worth of data, they found, “Brands with lofty purposes beyond making profits wildly outperformed the S&P 500.”

How to use this:

How can you approach problems differently to reinvent your industry? How can you step aside and take a completely different perspective on a problem or challenge?

Why are you in business? How is your product or company leaving the world a better place than how you found it?

I hope this had been a useful overview of Shane Snow’s 9 underlying principals to shorten your path to success, leverage your assets and soar above your competition.

How can you use these principals to accelerate your success?

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.