wizard costume
Growth hacking doesn't involve wizards, magic beans or any other sure-fire way to growth. You get out what you put in PHOTO: Chase Elliott Clark

When growth hacking first emerged, some thought it would remain the domain of Silicon Valley insiders.  

Instead, it blew up when the runaway success of early growth hacking advocates like Facebook became clear. But another part of what propelled the trend was how it encompassed so much of what the tech industry embraces — or perhaps romanticizes — about hacker culture, disruptive innovation and its own ethos of hold-no-paradigm-dear.

That quality as a shibboleth of Silicon Valley is probably why growth hacking has spawned an abundance of myths, too. Some of those myths have fertilized the objections of haters and misinformed observers-slash-pundits, leading to critiques of growth hacking that can be wildly off base, mainly because they’re founded on misapprehensions, not reality.

Unchecked myths and quasi-truths can distort perceptions. So a powerful and utterly proven methodology like growth hacking gets reduced, in the minds of some, to being just another vacuous buzzword.

Growth Hacking: Myths vs. Facts

That’s why some serious myth debunking is in order. To define what growth hacking is versus what it most definitely isn’t, let’s bust some of those myths and lay out the facts.

Myth: Growth hacking is just another word for 'marketing'

Fact: It’s about growth through product engagement, not marketing

Growth hacking certainly addresses marketing goals (among others), but it’s not driven by marketing strategy — and it isn’t straightjacketed by marketing tactics. Growth hackers are involved in anything and everything that touches a product, from design to engineering to user feedback. That’s because true, sustainable growth has to be built on a data-driven strategy that puts product and user experiences first.

Sure, marketers and growth hacker overlap on many goals. And they’re both focused on metrics and hitting KPIs. 

Growth hackers, however, drive growth through user-focused design, refinement of product experiences, exploiting growth surfaces and other means that drive true growth. It’s about product engagement and virality from users, not classically (some might say rigidly) defined inbound or outbound messaging.

Myth: Growth hackers are 'just' DIY coders by another name

Fact: Growth hackers understand code, but also do much more

Sean Ellis coined the term “growth hacker” to reflect what he considered “an attitude of scrappiness” where the prototypical example “‘hacks’ are a way to move metrics.”

That means constant, rapid-fire experimentation and fine-tuning to quickly achieve results. Understanding the possibilities and limitations of code is important, but growth hackers aren’t developers who do marketing. Indeed, growth hackers can apply the approach to non-software products. 

What matters is a willingness to experiment and move quickly, combined with a devotion to analytics and measurement. Engineers and developers often possess these  latter traits, of course, but so do others.

A truly effective growth hacker has a cross-functional role where s/he is tight with the marketing team and the sales team and the engineering team and the product management team, and even the logistics and distribution teams. That ability to cross boundaries and push for creative, measurable ways to accomplish growth — wherever there is potential — is growth hacking’s defining attribute.

Myth: Growth hacking is only for startups

Fact: It’s viable and vital for any company, in any sector

Grow or die. That’s about as axiomatic as you can get when you’re talking about business, any business. So why would growth hacking be just the province of startups, or tech firms?

Many of the companies that have dedicated growth teams — like Facebook, Pinterest or Airbnb — are way past the startup stage, but they continue to invest heavily in growth teams. In another industry entirely, meal kit startups like Blue Apron and HelloFresh have driven growth by building subscription-based businesses that rely on data to gain insights about their customers that open up new opportunities, like expansion into offering wine clubs

That’s more than just a logical extension of their core business: it’s a growth surface that’s been ratified by customer analytics.

Blue Apron, for instance, isn’t interested in simply delivering a meal kit, but in providing an entire customer experience, right down to recipe cards that include social media calls-to-action so the home chef can share his or her creations on the sizable follower communities the brand has taken pains to build on Instagram and Facebook.

Growth hacking is about having an attitude, not just a specific technical discipline. There’s no limit on where it can be applied, so long as you’re following the proven tenets of growth hacking.

Myth: Growth hacking is the secret to craztastical growth

Fact: It’s not magic

Some evangelists of growth hacking have made it sound like it’ll deliver incredible, inevitable and delirious growth. Coincidentally, some of them are shilling books and training programs, and make it sound as though there’s an arcane secret sauce they’ll help you bottle that’ll summon up meteoric results.

Let’s disabuse that notion right now: There’s absolutely no wizardry involved, no Dumbledore of growth hacking who’ll wave a wand and buck up your bottom line.

Growth hacking is based on applying a mindset that’s focused on inventive ways to drive growth through incessant, deliberate and scrupulously scientific methods of testing and refinement. Not by using magic beans or silver bullets.

On the contrary, growth hacking often involves anything but a quick fix. Growth hackers drill down past current assumptions and shopworn data to look for growth surfaces or fresh options that can, yes, deliver potentially outstanding results. That may involve making substantial changes to existing products or processes, changes that aren’t simple or instantaneous. And sometimes success is a matter of stringing together a series of modest improvements, not making Godzilla-scale breakthroughs.

In other words, you’ll get out what you put in, and what you need to invest is commitment, sweat equity and discipline. Done right, it’ll pay off, but the “done right” is what’s key to success. Which leads us to our next misapprehension ....

Myth: I can simply hire a team of growth hackers

Fact: It’s an attitude and a culture, not just individuals

If you’re hoping to spend your way to a turnkey growth program, be forewarned: there’s no chance of success unless the philosophy and methodologies of growth hacking become an endemic value that pervades your enterprise.

That’s true of any type of organizational “change agent.” You’ve got to kick organizational inertia to the curb if you’re going to make innovation take root.

Growth is, by its nature, a cross-functional pursuit, and not the exclusive responsibility of any single team or department. It’s a many-headed beast to wrangle, and getting that done demands alignment from everyone behind the same goals and metrics. If you want to adopt growth hacking’s investigational, data-driven approach, then best practices, expectations and benchmarks need to be set and accepted by everyone, so everyone is working in unison. 

Acting alone, or as an outlier within a culture that hasn’t embraced growth hacking, even a consummate growth hacker won’t be able to drive results. They need to part of a team and company culture that are totally sworn to achieving growth through experimentation and innovation.