What You Don’t Understand About Growth Hacking

Posted by Madeline Reddington /April 30, 2015 / Advisors, Entrepreneurial Advice, FounderTalk, Hot Topics

Morgan BrownThis week’s featured advisor is growth and marketing executive Morgan Brown. He’s the co-founder of Full Stack Marketing, at, part of the growthhackers.com team and VP Marketing for Inman News. He talks candidly about “growth-hacking” the term and myths that surround it. 

There are a lot of people out there calling themselves “growth hackers” who don’t really know what it means. What’s your take on that issue?

I think it’s a problem, though not uncommon for any buzzword really. Any time there’s a buzzword that gets hot, you have lots of people jumping on the bandwagon and being opportunistic about it to try to differentiate themselves, like with social media and further back with SEO. On the other hand some feel like it resonates with how they think about their jobs.

There’s also a lot of confusion about what growth hacking is. Some people will just slap that label onto just about anything. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about growth hacking is that it’s about cheap and easy ways to get more users. That’s wrong. Tweet this

Some people would call Rap Genius’ affiliate link spam growth hacking—I think that’s just sloppy SEO tricks. Growth comes from building a sustainable product, driving up retention rates, keeping users happy, and helping satisfied users bring in new users.

growthhackingfeatureHow do you define growth hacking?

Growth hacking is experiment-driven growth that focuses on levers deeper within the product. Growth teams typically do things more at a product level (like virality, user-get-user), things that marketing teams typically don’t have control of or access to. If you look at Facebook’s growth team, for example, they’re the ones who built the translation engine, which was a huge part of their growth. That’s not something the marketing team is going to do, be allowed to do, or probably think to do. So that’s how I see growth hacking as different from traditional marketing. Growth hacking engages a lot of levers for growth—like optimization, product features, user behavior, behavioral economics—outside the traditional application of marketing.

When is the right time to bring a growth hacker onto the team?

First, growth doesn’t happen because of one lone growth hacker. They’re not out there riding unicorns and sprinkling pixie dust. Anyone who thinks they can grow just because they bring in a growth hacker is sorely misguided; growth has to be an organizational imperative across the board—from the CEO or founder all the way down. 

If you’re going to hire a growth lead or a growth hacker, that’s great, but they have to be plugged into a team—and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a singularly dedicated team; lots of people have growth teams distributed across an organization. You’ll have someone from engineering, someone from product, someone from marketing, and more, coming together to prioritize initiatives that create growth. The mindset of bringing in one person to just fix everything and make growth happen is unrealistic.


companies fail for two reasons: they try to grow too fast before they’re ready or they don’t grow once they are.   Tweet this 

It’s kind of a delicate balance to figure out the right time to try to scale growth. I think Sean Ellis has done a good job of articulating that with the startup pyramid where first your want to find product market fit, then you want to improve your chances for success by optimizing your user acquisition and all those funnels. Once you’ve done those two things then it’s time to scale up growth. Companies tend to live in two worlds, where one is channel discovery—finding what marketing channels and growth levels are going to matter for your business and move the needle—and once you find those then you go into optimization and scale mode and really double-down on which of those are working best.

Growthhackers.com has become a go-to place for news on this topic. What’s been most surprising about work on that?

The most exciting is that it’s been adopted and people seem to really like it and it’s become a valuable part of their day to day experience. Primarily because there aren’t a lot of resources out there for people to learn growth, read the latest and talk about it. And like I was mentioning earlier,

growth isn’t done alone at a company; it’s a team sport. Tweet this

So having a community where people can share idea, ask questions and talk about different strategies and tactics has been really beneficial for everyone. Sean [Ellis] and I always learn a ton every day from the community, and people that are part of it say the same. So that’s been the most exciting thing.

The most surprising (and delightful) thing is that by applying what we’ve learned and worked on, we’ve been able to scale up Growthhackers itself. We’ve been using this experimental concept of high tempo testing—which is kind of like the no-huddle offense in football—to drive growth over the last few months. We’re iterating through a faster growth cycle.

We recently had a conversation on FD:Discuss about whether or not companies that experience an insane shot of viral growth are ever really able to use that for success—like Yo!, Foursquare, Chat Roulette, Ello and recently Meerkat. What’s your take on that?

I would say they can, as long as it’s sustainable growth. Anything can be instrumented to go really viral, especially if it’s designed that way, particularly if it gets a lot of PR buzz. But take some of the biggest companies have grown off of viral loops, like Dropbox and LinkedIn. The difference is the underlying product core value. Dropbox has a viral loop but also a really solid core value people understand and need. Dropbox would be really valuable even without the virality in it. LinkedIn—incredible virality, incredible utility as a professional social network. Something like Chatroulette, Branchout, Vidi, they have the virality part but they don’t have the underlying core product value. Without that, virality basically goes away because people ultimate realize that after the initial excitement, there isn’t any payoff.

If you’re a founder who’s experiencing viral growth, that’s great. But you want to make sure the people coming into your product really understand the core value, that you do a really good job of user onboarding, activating them, and really making sure that the virality isn’t just driven by buzz—there’s sustainable product value underneath it.

What are the 3 pieces of advice you’d give to entrepreneurs about growth (doesn’t have to be growth hacking)?

  1. Growth is a team sport—it’s not just one person, it has to be an organizational priority.
  2. Run experiments to see what works—Growth at it’s most basic is really about experiments. The more experiments you can run, the more you can learn, and the more you can grow. The faster you can iterate through those experiments (like high tempo testing), the more you can grow.
  3. Sustainable growth only occurs with a must-have product. Make sure your product is something that people love. There’s a great post out there about how people have to fire something before they use your product. If you look at the home screen on your phone, all those apps have incredibly high net promoter scores and incredible retention rates. And our days are jam-packed. If you have an app that’s going to take share away from one of those apps or some precious time in our day, it has to be damn good. If it’s not you should put all your attention  into making it something people really want. Otherwise it’ll just be a footnote.

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