🔥 Hot Take Alert #2: Stop calling it Growth Hacking right now
RIP Growth Hacking (2011 - 2022) h/t David Mausolf
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Welcome to another 🔥 Hot Take Alert where I opine on something that I feel very strongly about. I plan on doing these a few times a month. I don’t expect you to agree with all of them but please keep an open mind. Or don’t. It’s your subscription.
Prior Hot Takes
I found myself perusing the internet the other day (as one does) and came across a post on LinkedIn by a self-proclaimed “Growth Hacker.” Not only was the lengthy post full of short-term, unsustainable tactics but the person had also never worked at a company on actual Growth Strategy. Yet it had tens-of-thousands of views and lots of “Great advice; will be sure to implement!” type comments.
My immediate reaction…
Actually, my reaction was more this…
Growth Hacking is a little bit like an addiction (h/t David Mausolf for this analogy). It feels great the first time you do it. The numbers go up (maybe), the CEO is excited (hopefully), and everyone applauds you as a hero (except maybe your customers).
The problem is you need more and more short-term tactics to get that same effect. And although you feel good at first continuing to chase that feeling only ends in disaster, disappointment, and alienation of your friends and customers (ok, maybe this last part is a stretch, but you get the idea).
There was a brief moment in time when “Growth Hacking” was a helpful descriptor. If anything it was probably in 2010 when Sean Ellis put a name to it. Now don’t get me wrong; I like Sean. I would consider him a professional colleague and we’ve shared ideas over a cup of coffee in the past. I’ve even seen Sean talk about the idea that the definition needs to change or at the very least needs some updating.
Many will say that we’re past the “Growth Hacking” era. That we know true, sustainable Growth requires strategy and a focus on continuous iteration and experimentation. I’d like to think we’re past it, but I still see too much focus on tricks, shortcuts and a drive for short-term results at the expense of long-term learning.
So today I’d like to say RIP Growth Hacking—it’s time for you to go away and never come back.
To understand how we got here it’s important to go back to the beginning…
Somewhere between 2.5 million years ago and 10,000 B.C in the Paleolithic period the first compounding Growth chart from a pitch deck was created on a cave wall.
It started innocently at first—we sharpened sticks to make them pointy, invented fire to cook our meat and stay warm, Dropbox introduced a financial viral loop in the form of a give/get referral program, AirBnB reverse-engineered Craigslist, BranchOut found a way to exploit the “Facebook Meatball” and broke the internet with invitations, FarmVille broke the internet with… um… farms! Around this same time, a few years earlier in fact, Facebook started its Growth team. This would become the foundation for many Growth teams in tech.
People wrote volumes about Growth hacking and everyone wanted it. It was pattern-matching time! Flush with VC money, the belief that money was a renewable resource and an ad-fueled focus on consumers as the product we embarked on a decades-long race to the bottom. This was full of UX dark patterns, short-term exploitative “hacks,” and an utter abandonment of the customer experience.
So it’s no wonder that the term “Growth Hacking” rose to prominence in this period. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the “hacker.” In fact, most of the technology we use today was started by “hackers” tinkering around in their garages. And indeed as you are trying to get to product/market fit it does make sense to tinker, but even then you want to be strategic and focused on your goals.
I asked a series of my colleagues for their thoughts on Growth Hacking and got some really fantastic answers:
From Adam Grenier, former Uber Growth Marketing leader and VP Growth at Lambda School and later Masterclass:
“Remember that episode of saved by the bell when Jessie found her first growth hack...“
And Weston Jossey, founder of Eager Labs and Engineering leader at GoodRx agrees:
“When companies rely on growth hacking, they lose sight of their customers in lieu of short term metric gains. Over time, they erode the fundamentals that made their customers love their product in the first place, creating an unsustainable fly wheel of chasing hacks to hold off decline.”
“Hacks are a dopamine hit. Not a strategy.”
Adam, Weston and David Mausolf came to the same conclusion (albeit in very different ways!). The term “hacking” implies a short-term, customer-antagonizing, rickety and unsustainable set of activities.
“Used sparingly this wouldn’t be problematic, but therein lies the rub. Once you’ve gotten a short term juice in performance you’ve now set the precedent that it’s easy to improve your company or teams performance.
It’s natural for us as human beings to adjust our expectations as we become comfortable with a new lifestyle. Once we drive a Porsche 911, the old Honda Civic no longer looks as fun to drive.”
And from Mark Fiske, Marketing Operating Partner at H.I.G. Capital:
“Growth hacking IS an approach, it just so happens that as an approach is neither a strategy nor sustainable. It might make sense for your pre-seed startup, but one will quickly find that - over time - the cost of developing a new growth hacking tactic to offset the prior now obsolete tactic is far greater than the cost of building true sustainable, repeatable, self-reinforcing Growth strategies.”
You’ll see a some common language used throughout their opinions—unsustainable, repeatable, losing sight of customers, and uncomfortable Saved By The Bell references.
Again, we go to David Mausolf here:
“There’s only two paths that you can take at this point—
1. Continue trying to find short term fixes to improving your performance.
2. Get off the wagon and start building a strategy that methodically requires you to identify and prioritize what to test.”
For solutions we go to Elena Verna, one of the all-time great Growth practitioners and advisors:
“Would you hack your product-market-fit? No. So let's stop pretending the growth model can be hacked.
Anytime you see 'hacking' in the job description for growth, run away!
It means the company doesn't understand what a growth system is and has unrealistic expectations of deliverables.”
Building a Growth System is not the purview of “hackers.” The hacker won’t build a sustainable, repeatable, customer-embracing strategy that eschews caffeine pills (Saved By The Bell again) and focuses instead on achieving growth in an authentic way.
A pursuit of growth-at-all-costs has in turn caused Growth roles to lose some of their luster and shine, play second-fiddle to core product experiences, and be equated with spam (not talking about the food here).
Instead, let's drop the “hacking” terminology. Instead, let’s celebrate frameworks and systems that require product/market fit, quantitative and qualitative data, and a deep understanding of why your customers want to use your products.
As an extra incentive, here’s the Experiment Document Template we used at Patreon for several years. Enjoy!
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Special thanks to Elena, David, Adam, Weston and Mark for their 🔥 quotes!