Growth Hacking Is A Hack... Here's Why

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Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist where “hack” is an insult for someone who produces low-quality work, but I just don’t trust it as a verb for anything other than actual computer hacking. (Spoiler alert: those “life hacks” are just advice, “political hack” is a pejorative and you do not want your electrician to do a “hack job.”)

So I have concerns that the brogrammer-beloved buzzword “growth hacking” is mostly being used to pull a fast one.

The term itself was coined in 2010 by Sean Ellis, a California marketer who helped Eventbrite and Dropbox become online behemoths. In the now-famous blog post where he used the term 18 times, Ellis wrote: “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Over the past decade, Ellis has turned his turn-of-phrase into a profitable business--he wrote the book Hacking Growth and is pretty much the Chief Evangelist of GrowthHackers.com, “the world’s largest community of growth professionals.”  

But as his concept has metastasized, it’s also grown a lot of critics.

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To a certain degree, it’s just vague startup jargon (like ‘disrupt’) that’s only superficially meaningful but sounds cool when pitching to investors. Ultimately growth hacks are just rebranded marketing techniques and growth hacker as a job title is no less silly than code ninja or digital guru.

Obviously, growing your business is good but many are realizing that growth being the only metric that matters can be a problem when it comes to turning profit. That’s the primary complaint of The Drum’s marketing columnist Samuel Scott in his contemptuous article: ‘Growth hacking’ is a long con that will only lose you millions.”

Scott lays out the difference between growing users and revenue and growing actual profit, using examples of companies like FitBit, which opened at $20 a share at its 2015 IPO but was trading at just over $5 two years later while reporting $277 million in losses. It’s since gone up to…$5.72. Or GoPro, which was initially offered at $24 a share in 2014 and fell to $4.88 by 2017 after losing $183 million and is currently at $6.56.

He considers growth hacking a con job “that benefits VCs who invest other people's money in tech startups, convince the world that rapid growth without profits is a good thing, promote their companies that show that result, get rich at IPOs, and leave post-IPO investors holding the bag.”

Scott, who warns these growth-at-all-costs companies are the first to fall in recessions, argues against favouring instant-gratification growth metrics over long-term brand-building and profitability. He suggests instead that marketing should be split between the two goals or you risk bankruptcy if a funding round falls through.

“Celebrating growing revenue while ignoring increasing net losses,” he writes, “is as ludicrous as getting a $1m loan from the bank and then proclaiming that you are rich.”

The Intercom’s former senior director of, yes, growth, Ben McRedmond--he’s currently CEO of  Consider--had a similar take on the subject. In “Growth Hacking is Bullshit. Here's Why [and what to do instead],” he dubs the whole thing a “get rich quick scheme.”

A hack, if you will.

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“Growth Hacking is the continual promise of silver bullets,” he writes. “But, growth doesn’t come from silver bullets, growth comes from winning a thousand tiny battles...Real growth needs a whole load of lead bullets. Real growth originates from the very first line of code, from a great product, and from the work of an entire team.”

Look, growth is good, and finding smarter ways to grow your business is also good. When Ellis’ old company Dropbox gave out free storage space for referrals, that was a smart “hack,” if you want to call it that. (Of course, you could also call it referral marketing.)

But it only worked because Dropbox’s product filled a need for people to share files that were too big to email. Same with YouTube’s embed code which Pressfarm dubbed “the growth hack of the century.” But it wasn’t a hack, it was a product feature that solved the growing problem of people having to manage their own video players.

Back when PVs were revenue generators, people also “hacked” growth by creating clickbait articles and infinite photo galleries but if the content was crap, the growth didn’t stick. Content, A/B testing, share-based bonuses, and other experiments that bring people to your product are all important marketing techniques.

But they all pale next to the need for a good product, and the need for that product to generate profit. That, after all, is the real true north.