Be Nice To Your Growth Hacker

Sean Ellis, an early marketer at Dropbox and the author of many growth ideas that have become standard among startups, coined the term “growth hacker” almost three years ago. I remember it quickly becoming common parlance around San Francisco. At the time, he said:

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.

So, you hired the person that “every startup wants even though nobody knows what they actually do,” as Pete says. Do you know what they do? Pete’s post is a great look at what kinds of people make good growth hackers. I want to start by talking about a couple things that didn’t just happen when you hired a growth hacker.

1. Assured, sudden growth

Bummer, yea? Despite being in the guy’s title, it’s disappointment right off the bat. I don’t want to speak for any particular job, especially the ones I don’t do, but there are some people you can hire that will immediately put out the fires for which you brought them on board. Growth hackers tend to be slower going.

There’s a lot of institutional knowledge they don’t have about how the product works, what users do, what channels convert, what users hate, and so on. It’s likely (though not certain, especially at early stages) that the obvious and easy tactics for growth have already been explored and along the way the team has learned some things. Your new growth hacker doesn’t know any of this stuff. His specialty is using information more effectively, not having more-inspired ideas. A good growth hacker’s first step is almost always going to be learning.

2. Reassurance

There’s a lot of institutional “knowledge” that your new growth hacker is going to encounter. It’s likely (almost certain, especially after early stages) that there are dozens of “facts” floating around your company that are inaccurate, misleading, or unqualified. Your growth hacker’s job is to validate or invalidate these ideas using evidence and data; unattended to, they’re poisonous. They block good ideas, propagate bad ideas, and muddy discussion about important questions like, “Should we try this?”

In every company I’ve worked with or talked to — every. single. one. — there have turned out to be “facts” that everyone in the company “knew” that were flat-out wrong. Your growth hacker’s most valuable contribution in his first few months will be asking, “How do you know?” This question is best taken at face value; it’s not disrespectful or argumentative, just an honest attempt to learn.

But there’s hope

It’s all sounding a bit grim so far, and you’d be forgiven for wondering what you just got yourself into. “Growth hackers,” the term, is about three years old. The “industry” is about as mature as bitcoins, but without the stable, predictable growth.

Your growth hacker, like a new diet or gym routine, might cause a bit of chaos before you can start reaping the rewards. Let’s assume that goes according to plan and it’s time to move onto the making things better part. What can you expect?

1. Creativity

Successful growth tactics have ever shorter half-lives. Have you just been reading about the awesome demographic targeting you can do with Facebook ads? Congratulations, you’re probably two years late (unless you’re buying mobile app installs, in which case you might be right on time, but that’s another post). It’s the nature of the industry that success is fleeting and competition is strong. You know that Series A crunch? This is the crunch part.

Your growth hacker ought to be the most outside-the-box thinker in your company, or close to it. One of my favorite quotes is from Dieter Rams, an industrial designer responsible for a lot of the cool things that Braun made when Braun was still cool.

Question everything generally thought to be obvious.

That should be your growth hacker, in spades. If he’s doing the same things all your friends have been suggesting for years, alarms should be going off.

2. Growth

The first contribution your growth hacker will make to actual growth is helping you identify it.

One of the chest-thumpingly proud statements you’ll hear almost every startup make these days is something to the effect of this:

We collect way more data than other companies!

Big data, as it’s become affectionately known. Unfortunately the problem with most data isn’t that there’s not enough of it; it's that it’s misleading, inaccurate, unimportant, or all three. Your growth hacker's job is to find the signal and eliminate the noise.

Adding more unique metrics almost always adds confusion faster than it adds information. Given enough unique metrics, a very dangerous thing happens — your data starts letting you tell almost any story that you want. In doing so, you’ll produce something that looks kind of like growth but isn’t quite it. Your growth hacker is responsible for setting that compass so that everyone knows when to cheer (this is actually really important) and everyone knows when to stop pounding away at a strategy that feels nice but is ultimately missing the point.

Be nice to your growth hacker: He’s stuck with a confusing-but-popular job title.

Some organizations are better fit for a growth hacker than others. Culturally, everyone should be aware of their own biases and open to fact-based (but respectful) disagreement. Organizationally, product development should be iterative and questions should be answered by controlled experiments. In a startups, I think growth is everyone’s job.

Your growth hacker should spread the idea of growth throughout the company. Growth should become the measuring stick for most, if not all success.

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