Why I Hate Hacking Growth

With your Product, Hacking is Negative, so why is it a positive in Growth/Distribution/Marketing/Sales?

Last week I got an email from a friend of mine asking if I’d talk to a college friend of his moving to the area. This friend isn’t in the startup scene, but he loves Product Hunt and reading TechCrunch. Which is to say he knows the words but doesn’t always know what people “in the game” think of him.

“So what’s this guy focus on,” I asked him.

“I mean he’s good at lots of stuff. Marketing, sales. I’d say he’s really looking for a growth hacker role.”

I paused. Ugh. The glorified growth hacker. As soon as he said the word, I knew there was nothing I could do with this person.

Anyone who wants to be a growth hacker probably isn’t and never will be one. And frankly why are we glorifying hacking growth?

Glorifying the Hack

The origin story of growth hacking is admittedly pretty neat. It’s basically the “how we used data-driven testing of marketing tactics to win.” And with a success story like Airbnb ‘hacking’ Craigslist to become a $30 billion company, it’s hard not to find the term compelling.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the concepts behind growth hacking are solid — using data-driven feedback loops to find marketing advantages — is the short-hand I use to think about it. But it feels like we’ve jumped the shark here. Today there is a cottage industry of folks helping you be or find that epic growth hacker. The number of Facebook Ads and eBooks that filter their way to me is almost absurd. But here’s the funny part for me?

Why do we talk about ‘hacking’ in ‘meh’ way today when building product but such a positive, aspirational way in building growth?

We can start with the fact that marketers are using the term — and it’s sexier than calling yourself a marketer. It’s almost amazing that this role/approach doesn’t even include the job being done (to market). Why is that? For one thing, this term let’s people doing marketing use a phrase typically reserved for the cool jocks of startups — the developers. For another thing, it sounds like you outsmarted someone in some magical way to unlock growth. And lastly, it mashes up two of the words that people love in the startup game. My theory is this is one of those words that “sexifies” the unsexy. And it’s become something that essentially removes the word “marketer” from the role itself.

But do we really want marketing to be hacked?

Of course! We want to unlock sales in a way that is simple to explain just like the simplicity of Airbnb ‘hacking’ Craigslist. It’s easy and simple and shareable at a cocktail party.

But the reality was Airbnb’s ‘hack’ was really quite involved and elegant. This involved a sophisticated marketing effort. It wasn’t some fly by night approach. Instead for this tactic to work, it needed a holistic look at how to pull it off. So I’d argue this was far from a hack — it was more like a marketing campaign that just happened to use a different channel. Someone pretty smart and savvy had to architect something quite elegant (Craigslist as a channel is easy to screw up).

Calling that a hack undervalues the marketing campaign they were able to pull off. And as a result hacking becomes a good thing in the confines of marketing… yes it’s cute and novel to say in a tongue and cheek way. But now suddenly we are encouraging founders and startups to hire a growth hacker. And we’ve already learned out lesson once that people building products don’t want a hacker to build it — “hacking your product together” — has become known as a recipe for a product built by some people you found on Odesk, right?

In today’s world of technology product building we hire product managers to help us *not* hack our products. They are thoughtful, they use design thinking, they write PRDs and they ensure that it’s done from the lens of the customer. That’s what we admire in product people: someone who doesn’t hack the product together.

And yet here we are glorifying the hacker in the sales/marketing lens. Honestly, I want to hire a marketing person that is creative and builds a scalable marketing campaign regardless of how he or she does it.

Architecting Growth Like Products

One of my lessons at my last company was you architect a marketing/sales engine just like a product. The challenge most startup founders who are more ‘product orientated’ face when thinking about sales/marketing/distribution is they treat selling as a linear function. You decide you want to advertise on Facebook, so you throw up some ads. Then you get frustrated because you get traffic but it isn’t converting on your home page. So then you say, “shoot, we need landing pages.” You go out and sign up for unbounce and build landing pages. And then you realize you are getting people to your page but they aren’t sticking. So you decide to start getting email addresses so you can re-market to them… and on and on.

The problem is we’ve approached our growth strategies much like hacking a product in a weekend: we attack the problem linearly. Instead what we learned is that a successful approach is to reframe marketing/sales like you were building a product. That means you apply the same discipline there as you do when you set a plan to launch a new feature or ship a new version. For us, we stepped back and “architected” our overall “product.” What language are we building in? What’s our system architecture? Who is designing the front end? Back end? Have we researched the best payments APIs? Swap out those words with sales/marketing terms and you’ve got it. Great product people architect the product first — then they build it.

And that’s when marketing stops being hacked, and starts being architected like a product.

Of course there are amazing marketers out there and there has been a movement to celebrate and champion the role of marketing as an art form. To me one of the biggest things that has yet to gain the same notoriety outside of marketing circles as growth hacking is the concept of the Marketing Stack. It’s a fairly simple concept — laying out all of the tools you use in your marketing/sales funnel in a way that looks holistically at your distribution approach. But the reality is it forces you to think about growth like we think about product. You architect it rather than hack it.

I want to hire Growth Architects

I want to champion the creation of the Growth Architect. I get it, it doesn’t sound sexy to be a marketer right now — and some of that is because the voodoo around being a digital marketer. So instead, I’d like to hear and now create the phrase “Growth Architect.”

Who is the growth architect? This is the product manager of growth — the person who looks at the whole system, the person who gets customer feedback, the person who plays traffic cop across the stakeholders, and the person who ultimately ensures we ship on time. It’s the person who knows that acquisition without activation is worthless. The person who knows you need to build a growth system rather than hunting for a singular hack. This is the person who builds an epic marketing stack and is constantly testing which tools and integrations make the process better and more effective — using data as the guide.

In many ways, we’ve moved away from the glorification of the ‘hacker’ in product development because we couldn’t rely on the output. And frankly the hacking came back to bite us in the ass. Today the single role founders are asking me about more than anything is the ‘VP of Product.’ To me that says something about what happens next for our growth hackers. I think relying on the hack has made people vulnerable to the bigger risk of architecting a system that can drive repeatable growth.

Let’s build a competency around the growth architect and know that steady growth requires a holistic look at growth. Who’s with me?

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