What is Growth Hacking? (2021): The Best Strategy to Grow Your Business

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What is Growth Hacking

The popularity of Growth Hacking is increasing rapidly, but what is Growth Hacking?

Many companies lack a clear strategy for achieving growth and don’t know how to manage a (marketing) team in it…

Many marketers and entrepreneurs find Growth Hacking the best way to grow their business

I’m going to explain to you:

  • What Growth Hacking is
  • What the advantages (and disadvantages) of Growth Hacking are
  • And how you can get started with Growth Hacking including examples

Let’s get started.

Origin of Growth Hacking

Sean Ellis was a marketing manager at PayPal in 2011.

He was looking for someone to take over his role but didn’t think the term ‘marketing manager’ accurately described what he did.

So in 2011, Sean put a job posting online looking for a “Growth Hacker”…

In short, he was looking for someone:

Growth Hacking Disciplines 1
Growth Hacking Disciplines

Who is knowledgeable about technology, data, and marketing and has the ability to:

  • Adapt themselves quickly to the latest technological developments.
  • Putting speed before perfection.
  • Be open to other problems and other solutions.
  • Make decisions based on data rather than gut feeling.

What is Growth Hacking nowadays?

“Growth Hacking is a structured way of achieving growth within a company or organization by effectively using data, creativity, and technology.”

Growth Hacking thus originated at PayPal in Silicon Valley but was fairly quickly adopted by start-ups and scale-ups as a way to achieve (massive) growth in alternative ways.

Opposed to traditional marketing, Growth Hackers focus not only on reaching and bringing in new customers but also on improving the product:

The Pirate Funnel AAARRR Framework
The Pirate Funnel (AARRR Framework)

Using the Pirate Funnel Canvas, a Customer Journey can be mapped to determine which part within a company is missing out on growth:

Sounds good. So now let’s look at why you should start Growth Hacking…

Why start with Growth Hacking?

Compared to traditional marketing, Growth Hacking has got a number of advantages:

  • Measurable: everything is set up in a measurable way to measure the effectiveness of experiments.
  • Efficient: small-scale experiments are done to save big costs for relatively little results.
  • Potential: you grow in alternative ways, where there is less competition and customers are often not yet saturated. More chance of a ‘big win’ therefore.

1. Measurable

Results must be traceable.

Growth Hackers conduct experiments whose results can be traced back to the North Star Metric and the One Metric That Matters.

Traditional marketers often struggle with measurability, because there is no metric to hang on the feeling someone gets when a Porsche races over the German Autobahn at 240km/h.

As a Growth Hacker, you make as much use of data as possible to support your decisions, because hard data is difficult to disprove.

Traditional marketers, on the other hand, regularly make decisions based on gut feelings, a market survey or perhaps another report with ‘soft data’.

2. Efficient

Experiment to cut costs.

An objective often comes from a bottleneck where growth is being missed or from a strategic standpoint…

As a Growth Hacker, you will then set up experiments to get closer to your objective.

When evaluating the results an experiment has produced, you can choose 3 possible next steps:

  1. Stop
  2. Adjust
  3. Scaling up

The advantage of working with experiments is that you can test an assumption on a small scale without needing a lot of budget or resources.

In case an experiment shows a bad outcome, you have saved money in 2 ways:

  1. By not immediately releasing the experiment on a large scale and wasting resources unnecessarily.
  2. And suppose that the conversion rate would halve because of the experiment then the small-scale rollout has ensured that the conversion rate has not dropped across a large amount of traffic.

In traditional marketing, you still often see that a concept is thought out that is worked on for a certain period…

It is then launched, but no one can say for sure that the desired result will eventually be delivered.

3. Potential

Higher likelihood of great success.

Traditional marketers often work with channels, such as:

  • TV
  • Radio
  • Social media
  • Billboards

The problem these channels bring is that consumers have often become accustomed to the commercial messaging…

This makes it difficult to stand out. A good example of this is banner blindness; people hardly ever look at the right side of a website these days:

Banner Blindness
Banner Blindness

For years, people on the right side of websites have been bombarded to death with ads.

As a Growth Hacker, you don’t just focus on reaching people, you try to grow a business in whatever way you can.

By using alternative solutions, you have a greater chance of achieving growth, mainly because consumers are not yet used to it.

So a Growth Hack has more potential to bring in a significant result rather than a traditional marketing campaign

Difference from traditional marketing

Overall, these are the main differences between Growth Hacking and traditional marketing:

Growth Hacking vs Traditional Marketing 1
Growth Hacking vs Traditional Marketing

For a full explanation of the differences, check this link.

Who is Growth Hacking For?

Corporates, start-ups, and everything in between…

It doesn’t matter.

Growth Hacking can be applied by any company that wants to grow. However, it is important to note that if you don’t have a Product-Market Fit there is little point in starting with Growth Hacking.

Eric Ries, author of the famous book the Lean Startup states that the number one reason start-ups fail is that they are trying to sell a product that no one is waiting for:

Even for companies that have been running well for decades, it’s important to keep checking for a Product-Market Fit

After all, it wasn’t the bookstores that chose to go out of business when Amazon & Bol.com came around the corner.

“Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster” – David Ogilvy

Embarking on marketing without a Product-Market Fit often just means throwing money away.

Growth Hacking mindset

Growth Hackers generally have several beliefs in their way of working…

Ward van Gasteren has written an excellent article about the Growth Hacking Mindset.

I have added a few components that I am convinced contribute positively to the Growth Hacking process:

1. Speed is better than perfection

Striving for perfection takes time and is often unnecessary.

Small mistakes have little or no effect on the final result of an experiment. For that reason it is not useful to perfect such an experiment, because you want to validate your assumption as quickly as possible.

In many cases, the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) applies:

80% of the output comes from 20% of the input.

If an experiment is going to be scaled up, it may pay to add more perfection. In many cases, this will also be necessary to be in line with the brand.

By rolling out experiments faster you will have netted more experiments at the end of the week. That results automatically in more successful experiments at the end.

By not fully perfecting experiments you also end up saving costs on failed experiments.

2. Be open to other problems and solutions

According to Steve Blank, founder of the Customer Development Process, in start-ups where the product doesn’t sell, the first thing that gets blamed is the marketing department…

This is because management assumes that the positioning of the product must not have gone well.

If the blame does not lie with the marketing department, it is passed on to the sales department and then to the product development department.

As a Growth Hacker you look at the problem differently

Disappointing sales results can be due to not reaching enough people with marketing, but it can also be due to customers not making repeat purchases often enough or referring friends to your company often enough.

3. Be data-driven and challenge assumptions

Growth Hackers believe in data.

Data can be used to validate assumptions and make informed decisions.

In addition, nowadays it is not rocket science to calculate how much you pay for a customer in a certain channel.

4. Respect marketing

Marketing has strengths, don’t forget that…

Data doesn’t have all the answers.

In fact, people make decisions based on emotion, and that’s something traditional marketers generally understand better.

To create real change, it takes a good mix of rational and emotional levers.

5. Strive for high digital intelligence

Innovation of channels and technologies is happening at an unprecedented rate:

Viral Channel Effectiveness
Viral Channel Effectiveness

The marketing landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented, how well are you able to adapt yourself quickly?

To quickly adopt a new tool, channel, or technique, it is important to have a high digital intelligence.

6. Bypass the silos

Innovation can come from any part within the company…

So from a support employee, but also from a software engineer.

Everyone has ideas, but if certain departments are fixated within their ideology, a culture can emerge where politics prevails and where people are afraid to share their ideas.

Growth Hacking works best in an open culture where people aren’t afraid to have ideas and where they don’t have to be afraid to make mistakes.

Growth Hacking Examples

I’ve listed some of the most well-known Growth Hacking examples for you:

1. Hotmail

Everyone knows Hotmail.com these days, but back in 1996 that wasn’t the case…

At the time, Hotmail.com was faced with the challenge of attracting more users without a huge marketing budget.

The result of a brainstorming session was to add one line to the end of every email:

“PS I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.”

If people clicked on this they were directed to a registration page. The result was that Hotmail.com went from 20,000 to 12,000,000 users and was acquired by Microsoft.

Hotmail.com Growth Hack
Hotmail.com Growth Hack

2. Gmail

When Gmail was launched, Google decided to implement an invite-only system…

The invite-only system was based on a simple concept, namely FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). If you have a product that people like then exclusivity can work very well.

It even became so popular that people started selling their Gmail invites on eBay.

Google later applied the invite-only principle more often to projects like Google+, but this didn’t work nearly as well.

3. Airbnb

Before AirBnB was big, many landlords used Craigslist to promote their living spaces.

AirBnB recognized that their most potential customers were therefore on Craigslist, to get these people from Craigslist to AirBnB they made an unauthorized integration with Craigslist to email all landlords via a bot that they would get better value on AirBnB:

In addition to automatically emailing landlords on Craigslist, AirBnB has also employed another Growth Hack

Namely, letting photographers take pictures of spaces rented out on AirBnB.

That worked quite well:

4. PayPal

The way PayPal has grown is quite expensive, but effective…

PayPal gave $20 to each user who referred someone and $20 to the referred user. This resulted in 7-10% daily growth in users.

In addition to paying for new users, PayPal also had an additional Growth Hack, which was to use bots to show interest in certain eBay ads…

After the bots showed interest in the ad, they dropped out because the seller did not accept payments via PayPal.

Subsequently, sellers started complaining to eBay that they could not accept payments via PayPal so eBay then implemented PayPal as a payment method.

5. Dropbox

In the beginning, Dropbox paid between $233 – $388 for a new customer, Dropbox’s product cost $99. Obviously, that’s not profitable…

So they had to start paying less for a new customer, but how do you do that?

They started encouraging their existing users to refer friends in exchange for extra storage. For every friend referred, they got an extra 500mb of storage for free.

Why are these the best known examples

The above examples are typical Growth Hacks…

Make one small adjustment to the product and your business explodes.

They are exceptional cases, but they have helped make companies great that are impossible not to imagine in today’s world.

Despite the fact that Growth Hacks are often associated with the above examples, there are a whole bunch of other Growth Hacks you can apply, but they are less sexy.

For example, consider the video from Dollar Shave Club which is more like an eye-catching marketing campaign:

How to start with Growth Hacking?

  1. Start by putting together your team

    Identify the people you need for your Growth Team and find them together. Andrew Chen has written an article on building a Growth Team.

  2. Set up the North Star Metric

    Using Google or my blog, you can create a North Star Metric that everyone can focus on.

  3. Fill in the Pirate Funnel Canvas

    Try to ensure qualitative data and fill out the Pirate Funnel Canvas, map out your entire customer journey. In addition, it is good to fill out the Pirate Funnel Canvas for different segments and channels as well.

  4. Identify your bottleneck

    Understand in which part of the Pirate Funnel Canvas your business is losing most of it’s growth and find the underlying problem for this.

  5. Define your One Metric That Matters

    Establish the One Metric That Matters that the team can focus on for 2-6 months.

  6. Set up and run experiments

    Brainstorm experiments, prioritize them and implement them. Use the G.R.O.W.S. Process and various tools available to manage this.

  7. Scale up, adjust or stop experiments

    Evaluate the results of the experiments and decide whether to scale them up, modify them, or discontinue them.

  8. Start over…

    Evaluate where you stand with Ward van Gasteren’s Growth Maturity Model and improve your Growth Hacking process.

How do you become a Growth Hacker?

According to Growth Tribe, there are a number of skills you need to have to become a T-Shaped Marketer aka Growth Hacker…

T Shaped Marketer
T Shaped Marketer

You don’t have to have all the skills, because again, 80% of the results come from 20% of the knowledge (Pareto Principle)

To improve your skillset, it is important to ask yourself two things:

  1. Where do your interests lie?
  2. And what are you good at?

A Growth Hacking team often contains 4 different disciplines:

Growth Hacker Team Disciplines 1
Growth Hacker Team Disciplines

Check with yourself within which of these disciplines you would best fit and try to immerse yourself in them.

It’s your turn…

If all goes well, you now know what Growth Hacking is…

I’m curious.

Are you going to use Growth Hacking or what are you doing to achieve growth for your business?

Let me know in a comment below.

P.S. if you would like additional help let me know at [email protected]

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Growth Hacking?

Growth Hacking is a structural process for growing a business in any way. Small-scale and measurable experiments are set up that can be scaled up after successful results or stopped/adjusted after disappointing results.

What are Growth Hacking examples?

PayPal, Gmail, Hotmail, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Dollar Shave Club are well-known examples of companies that have been able to experience tremendous growth with the help of small Growth Hacks.

What is the meaning of Growth Hacking?

Growth Hacking is a structured way to achieve growth within a company or organization by effectively using data, creativity, and technology.


What is the Growth Hacking funnel?

The Growth Hacking Funnel is often referred to as the Pirate Funnel or AARRR Framework. This funnel maps all parts of the Customer Journey so you can effectively determine in which part of the Customer Journey you are missing growth.

Gust de Backer
Gust de Backer

I try to help business surpass their growth ceiling with my content.

Sounds interesting?

Let’s connect on LinkedIn!

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