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What is a growth hacker?

Profile photo of Johanna Seton

Starting a business is one thing, but growing it on a tight marketing budget can be rather challenging for anyone. That’s why we’ve seen the growth of yet another new job category called “growth hacking”. Born in Silicon Valley and fuelled by the explosion of the internet, it is fast moving from a buzzword to the mainstream, even though it was only given a name in 2010.

Growth hacking is widely used by employees working for start-ups and has helped some of the world’s fastest growing companies – names like Facebook, Twitter or Airbnb – get their first million users. You can look at growth hacking from different perspectives.

If you come to it from a product development point of view, your team’s focus will constantly be on re-examining the way in which the product is built. Rather than just delivering a product with a full set of features and then systematically rolling out different feature and benefit improvements, growth hacking switches your attention to getting users onto your product and building it according to what they need. 

When you are looking at it from a marketing position, it is really about finding the fire hose that will unlock future growth. How do you quickly test channels or messages to gain insights that will help you to learn and iterate?

A lot of clever marketing people say that if you get your marketing mix and messaging right and you know your audience, you will get better results than just throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks. They are right, but the latter isn’t what growth hacking is about.

Growth hacking is not an ad hoc activity or what you do if you don’t have a strategy. In fact, it can’t exist without a strategy. Instead, it’s a way of trying to get there quicker.

It is based on insights – that is, finding something that indicates a pattern of behaviour that you want to replicate and then working out how to amplify that. In practice, and particularly in marketing, that has been done forever. We are now just badging it differently and applying it to many more industries.

Growth hacking as a concept is also less about the individual and more about removing the barriers to growth. I have seen growth hacking work at its finest in a truly cross-functional team. That’s because a growth hacker is only going to be as good as the environment in which you put him or her.

For example, in marketing, no matter how good you are at building awareness and positioning, online and direct marketing requires new data and technological capabilities. So you will introduce data to make better decisions. But even then, your marketing can only ever be as good as your product is, so you have to introduce a good product. You can’t build product without engineers, so you have to put them on the same team. Now you have a cohesive unit that has been infused with product, data, marketing and engineering, who are all focused on the same goal.

At its core, the growth hacking team’s sole focus will be on moving a single metric and being able to analyse and break down a problem space. Measuring the team’s success is easy. Did it move that one metric it was focusing on? That’s the most transparent KPI ever. What’s important, though, is that the team is given the right metric to work with, so that it is optimising for something that really moves a business needle.

I don’t believe that a growth hacker has to be a particular type of person or have a specified background. It is more of a mindset. Concepts like the Lean Start Up and principles of MVP (Minimum Viable Product) have a distinct crossover. The challenge faced by growth hackers is basically this: How do I get this idea based on this insight out to market quickly? If that idea fails, they will try another one and then another one, and then another one. But each time, they will learn something new and they will keep developing that insight until they solve the problem.

However, growth hackers do need to be comfortable with failure. It is said that 19 out of 20 ideas will fail, so they will need to be resilient and learn from that to quickly get to the one idea that will work. 

In Australia, growth hackers are becoming more common, but sometimes they operate under a different name. Their business cards will generally have a different title, but they will still operate under the same principles. And these days, there are plenty of places where would-be growth hackers can go to develop their skills and expertise. There are also a couple of great websites, such as growthhackers.com, where they can find shared industry information.