I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — we are NOT growth hackers. The phrase itself drives me nuts because I think it spreads misconceptions about what it really takes to create something out of nothing. That being said, there is one thing that I can’t deny; the theory, the very premise behind growth hacking, has merit. As marketers, we can all learn something from the origins of growth hacking.

What is growth hacking?

Growth hacking is a huge buzzword right now and many professionals have proudly added this designation to their title. Traditionally, the word “hacker” has been used to describe someone who can access just about anything on the internet. We often perceive this an unethical or even illegal activity. But in this case, that’s not what it means.

The term hacker is really meant to describe someone who can use their own skills to access something online — there aren’t any rules on how to achieve this — the only rule is that they get the job done. So a growth hacker can be described as someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get into the system and facilitate growth.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Growth hackers have certain skill sets and attributes. They have accomplished the unthinkable — after all, you’re not an actual growth hacker until you’ve brought someone from zero to hero. Many people believe that growth hacking is a function of the marketing department on a tight budget, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Real growth hacking means you’ve gotten a million users without spending money on marketing.

A growth hacker is someone whose goal is to dramatically increase users of a specific product. Marketing doesn’t really have anything to do with the general idea of growth hacking, but because growth crosses all functions and departments, it may wind up being a small piece of the puzzle. Creating something that truly has the grit to go viral takes input from every department. This can include, and is not limited to, marketing, HR, operations, finance, and product development.

Think about Airbnb, Facebook, Dropbox and PayPal. Those companies flew to stardom, and it wasn’t because their startup phases were funded with millions in marketing dollars. The one thing they all have in common? They all started with creating a real solution to a real problem.

Identifying and solving a real problem

This is the area where I really want to focus on, because I think it’s what represents the very basis of growth hacking, and this system is what all business owners and marketers should strive to follow.

If you want your business to succeed, you need to:

  • Identify a problem


  • Create a solution


  • Solidify your product-market fit


That’s the simplified version of course, but you get the idea. Notice a problem, create a solution, and then find your target audience and figure out how your product serves them. This means doing the work to gain a clear, deep understanding of how your product serves that particular market. You understand who the market is and why they need your product. You can easily articulate the value proposition and customers can easily explain to you why they want what you have. This is not as easy as it sounds but it’s the foundation for all successful startups, and ironically, the theory behind growth hacking.

Start asking questions before you’re creating a product or solidifying your service offering. Get out and talk to people — figure out what their problems are and come up with a way you can help them. Once you have an idea, you need to keep talking to people and getting feedback in order to really refine your idea and solution offering. Once you’ve outlined a product or service you know people need, then you go get customers! (You make sure people are willing to pay for it first.) Only then do you attempt to blow up the internet and invest money into finalizing your product or service. This is where the misconception of growth hacking comes in, but we need to remember that the crucial steps mentioned above have been taken long before any product or service becomes well-known.

The trickiest part of this process is most often becoming clear on your product-market fit.

Tips to achieve clarity on your product-market fit:

– Learn what the needs of your customers are. Understand what they need now, but also try to figure out what they will need in the future. This is hard, but necessary if you truly want to understand the deep, honest problems your customers are dealing with. You can do this through speaking directly with them, connecting with a mentor, and getting involved with the industry and community.
– Define your value proposition. Figure out what the main problem is you can solve for your customers and make that the focus. Don’t try to be everything to everyone, but really get clear on that one big thing. Focus on the benefit to your customer and not the features of your product. The benefits must be aligned with solving their problem.
– Create your brand story and use it to build credibility. Why are you doing this? How did you get to this point? All that stuff matters and will give people a reason to trust you. Chances are, you developed this product because you were experiencing the exact same problems they are currently dealing with.

Once you have your product or service figured out, the main goal is to create a machine that is scalable, predictable, and repeatable. You can only achieve this by testing and experimenting — your business is completely unique so what works for other companies probably won’t work for you.

They key takeaway here is that while I don’t agree with the practice of growth hacking in the name of building a sustainable and profitable brand, I absolutely agree with the best practices that most growth hackers have adopted. It’s the stuff that goes on quietly behind the scenes that we should all be paying attention to and trying to emulate as we build our own brands and businesses.