The Ethics Of Growth Hacking

Throwing away your integrity isn’t worth a few extra clicks.


Growth Hacking is all the rage in the Valley. It’s a new name for an old story, a plucky young company doing everything in its power to grow as quickly as possible, however possible. Reddit’s cofounders kickstarted their communities by making fake accounts to make the website seem larger than it was. Hotmail appended “PS: I Love You. Get Your Free Email At Hotmail” to the end of every email sent from the service. In a competitive marketplace where many startups sink, they do everything in their power to get as many clicks as possible.

And that is great. A lot of these companies have great products, and getting them in front of customers is a good thing.

When Uber started they offered free rides to attendees of tech conferences. Those rides cost Uber cents on the dollar, but were highly effective in spreading their brand when the company was tiny. This is an example of a great hack. It’s cheap and effective, and no one gets hurt (other than the taxi industry). On the other hand, Uber’s plan to get its employees to mass purchase Lyfts and then cancel them was equally cheap, and may have been effective, but it hurt their opponents business and wasted it’s employees time and money. It’s fighting dirty. Growth hacks should be about going the extra mile, not pushing your competitors back a mile.

LinkedIn mines its customers email accounts (without asking) so that they can send out unsolicited emails inviting them to join the site. The hack probably works, but that doesn't mean it’s OK.

When they first started, Airbnb used Craigslist to find listings for houses that were up for rent, and messaged them to ask if they wanted to list them on Airbnb instead. Now Airbnb is worth ~$13 billion dollars.

Twitter noticed that they had a massive portion of their users sign up, tweet a few times, then leave, never to return. They drastically overhauled the onboarding process for the site so that you begin the site already following people who might be interesting for you. Their retention rates skyrocketed overnight.

Hell, when I sent drafts of this article out for proof-reading, Medium made my friends create accounts before they could read it.

As startup founders, we should be trying to compete by offering a better product than our competitors, not by wasting the time and money of it’s employees or spamming the accounts of everyone our users know.

This post was mostly made after I saw what I consider to be a pretty unethical growth hack. Henry Boldizsar, creator of HackerBracket.com, a website that allows hackers to post whatever project they are working on, posted on his Facebook page, and it eventually found it’s way to the “Hackathon Hackers” Facebook page* (which has ~8200 members) that HackerBracket.com had been acquired by Ocean.Ink. This was quite exciting, until I had a look at Ocean and realised that it had the exact same design as HackerBracket, and that comments on the Facebook status announcing the acquisition asking if Henry was involved with Ocean were being deleted. I made a post asking what was going on on the Hackathon Hackers group. It later came out that Henry had posted a few days ago that he was working on it.

HackerBracket.com — The Acquired Website
Ocean.Ink — The Acquiring Website

Henry sent me a message asking me to edit my Facebook post. I assumed that he was asking me to say that he had apologized. The next message was a request to add a link to Ocean. I responded that I was going to do my best to get this to the first page of a search for his name if he didn’t apologize.

He laughed it off and said it was a joke. He still has not apologized. If you go to his Facebook page, it still contains the typical “Thanks for the amazing journey, watch out for bigger, better things!” post that every founder writes when their startup is acquired.

And the worst part is that the hack fucking worked. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I made this post, I started a thread 200+ comments long, and I directed an untold number of clicks towards his site. Ocean probably got more hits today than it has since it’s launch.

This is not okay.

Hurting other businesses and wasting the time of their employees is not okay.

Lying about your business, especially to your friends and family, is not okay.

Spend your time with your head down contacting as many people who might want to use your app, or who can tell people about your app. Work hard, work smart, but most of all be ethical while you do it.

To Users: Don’t accept this. If a site does something you think is unethical, don’t use it. Find an alternative who won’t. Tell your friends about it.

To Growth Hackers: Be ethical. I know it makes you less effective at your job. I know that your job is hard and that using these tactics is easy, but ask yourself if the small in users boost now is worth the loss of reputation later.

To Managers, CEOs and Cofounders: Good will towards your company is worth more than a extra few users. Make something people love so that the message they spread is how great your company is, not how it violated their privacy

*After discussion, this may have been me. Henry and I are friends on Facebook, and it’s possible I mistook his personal status update for a post on the Hackathon Hackers page after I saw familiar names commenting on it.

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