The rise of the growth hacker

Growth hacking can seem like something of an arcane art to the uninitiated but there are few tools that are more valuable to the modern marketer

The rise of the growth hacker

In the world of digital startups, growth hacking is a topic that’s polarised entrepreneurs ever since 2010 when Sean Ellis, then a marketing consultant at Dropbox, coined the term while hiring his own replacement. Frustrated by the number of traditional marketing applicants, Ellis specified he needed someone who could drive real, tangible growth and wrote a now famous blog post about it: Find a Growth Hacker for your Startup. “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth,” said Ellis. “Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Growth hacking has become a much broader term that reaches beyond the bounds of just marketing. A growth hacker is someone who spans both marketing and product; someone who is utterly obsessive about metrics and is always testing tools and tactics to drive customer acquisition. Growth hackers remain firmly focused on the funnel of their business and use lean methodology to learn through a series of high-velocity and low-cost tests, rather than more traditional and expensive marketing techniques. 

There are a number of common myths about the unethical tactics growth hackers sometimes employ to drive growth and encourage virality. The most famous of all high-profile growth hacking examples is Airbnb, which enabled new Airbnb users to automatically post their vacant rooms on Craigslist. Airbnb reverse engineered the posting process on Craigslist to drive huge, immediate awareness and viral growth through an entirely separate platform. Overnight, Airbnb became the champion of the growth hacking movement.

I’m often asked what the future of growth hacking is and it strikes me that the recent trend towards smaller, leaner and more rapidly iterating teams offers a glimpse of how even large corporations can find success through growth hacking. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, once famously said that “if you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large” and I tend to agree. Books like The Lean Startup provide a great framework for product- and service-driven companies of all sizes and can teach you how to put principles such as rapid product iteration at the heart of your business operations.

But who knows what lies ahead for the growth hacking movement? As a marketer and entrepreneur with almost 20 years’ experience, it’s great to see the traditional barriers between marketing and development crumble, giving birth to a new generation of data- and product-driven growth hackers. 

One thing I know for sure is that growth hacking is still an industry very much in its infancy and that, as our lives intertwine increasingly with the digital world, the role of the growth hacker will become an increasingly prominent and valuable one. I’m fascinated to see what prominent growth hackers will look for when they eventually hire their own replacements. But that’s a whole other story. 

Edward Relf
Edward Relf

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