So, You Want to Hire a Growth Hacker?

Every startup wants a growth hacker—even if nobody’s really certain of what they actually do. (There are exceptions; those startups have product scientists.) It’s not just startups that want them. I’ve had conversations with public companies, non-profits—organizations of all sizes that have been interested in hiring someone to help with growth.

(If you’re totally lost at this point and have no idea why a growth hacker might be a good thing, I suggest you read Josh Elman’s excellent piece, What is Growth Hacking, really?)

If you’re thinking about hiring someone to work on growing your user numbers or engagement, there are some specific qualities that you should look for.

1. Data curiosity

Here’s my rough definition of what it means to be data curious:

Data Curious is my shorthand for someone who has an intrinsic need to understand a single data point. She understands that a number on its own very rarely tells the full story. Rather than simply being skeptical, the Data Curious person looks for more information and context. That helps her to understand, and increase her trust in, that number.

The Data Curious not only ensure that the numbers are good ones, they understand how to prioritize them. Today’s software companies have an overabundance of data. A good growth hacker filters all that available data to focus on a handful of meaningful metrics.

2. User empathy

Growth hacking is fundamentally about users. To have any hope of growing a user base, you have to be able to think like your users. Of course, this means playing with, and learning from, “big” data. But small data is great too: in-person user tests (during which you sit down with someone and watch him use your product) are an excellent way to gain real insight into how users interact with what you’re building.

I once spent hours staring at funnel data, wondering why there’s such a big drop-off at a certain step. Even though I’d run through the funnel myself countless times, I couldn’t make sense of it. It took ten minutes with a user (an ad on Craigslist and $30 for his time) to realize that on low-resolution screens the primary action button was basically hidden.

If your wannabe growth hacker has never run an in-person user test, they’re not the real deal.

3. Creative problem solver

I realize that this sounds as if it’s straight from a consulting firm recruitment poster, but it’s important. Today’s growth hacker is blessed with far more data than they can ever hope to use. What sets a great one apart from the rest is (1) how they wrangle that data into a good, testable, hypothesis; (2) how they validate that hypothesis with a test that doesn’t take weeks of development time.

Successful tactics in hypothesis design and testing tend to both be highly product specific and also have relatively short life-cycles. Copying an idea that worked for someone else six months ago (which you just read about on Quora) will probably fail.

4. Org savvy

It can be hard to find a growth hacker a home in a traditional org structure: “Should she be in Marketing, or Product? Maybe Ops for now as that’s where we do all the reporting.”

I don’t believe that there’s a perfect answer to this question (though “Ops” is probably a bad answer). In most companies a new function will be pigeonholed somewhere on an organizational chart, so a growth hacker needs to understand, and be sensitive to, where they fit in and how they can still be effective across the organization.

5. Fearless

Products are built based on assumptions…until a growth hacker arrives. Those assumptions might be about user behavior (“users are looking for a better way to post their photos!”) or a particular data point (“the video on our homepage increases signups!”).

Every company I’ve ever known has so-called “institutional knowledge” that is frequently inaccurate and sometimes just plain false. To be clear—the falsehood isn’t malicious: Someone just happened to mention something years ago about reading a report that said that videos on homepages increase signups. Today, it’s a given that the 5MB animation increases your signup rate by at least 20%, even if nobody has actually tested it lately.

A good growth hacker seeks to validate assumptions. But for every attempt to validate, there’s the possibility of invalidating a long-held assumption too. When this happens (“actually a homepage without a video actually converts much better”) it can be hard to explain to new colleagues.

Once you’ve hired your growth hacker, be careful of shooting the messenger. Before you hire them, make sure they’re fearless enough to be a great messenger.

A company that leverages its usage data better than its competitors has a big advantage. One of the best ways to to do this is to have a great growth hacker on the team. But be prepared for uncomfortable truths and challenges to some long-held assumptions and processes. Both the growth hacker and the organization will need time to adapt to the new role.

Daryl Koopersmith, Evan Solomon and Josh Elman provided feedback and ideas for this post.