Growth hacking isn't new

The phrase has been around for a decade or so. And its execution falls to marketing people in small companies who are expected to wear a million hats. Andrew Chen, who apparently popularized the phrase, describes these people as “...a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of 'How do I get customers for my product?' and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph."

I’ve come across these people, they’re a wiz at lead-gen and user-growth, can do basic coding themselves, or dive into large datasets using SQL. But this is not sustainable and it’s definitely not healthy. For the ‘growth hacker’ or the company. Here’s why:

Hacking growth means finding tactical shortcuts and putting together low-cost activities that have the potential for a high return. Place enough of these bets and hopefully one of them will pay off. But what happens when none of your bets pay off? (Which happens often in young startups). You’re left without a foundation to build on and you’re stretched so thin that when your SaaS does get some traction, you can’t measure or figure out what experiment really moved the needle, in order for you to scale it, then you go back to placing lots of new bets.

Growth hacking is not a strategy

It’s throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

After working in fast-growth startups, mainly in B2B SaaS, I’ve seen more tactics and strategies that haven’t worked than ones that have; otherwise, I’d have made my millions by now. What I’ve seen is that a tactics-first mentality when it comes to sales, growth, and marketing as a whole simply doesn’t work.

So here’s what I propose instead of ‘growth hacking’.

Build your core foundation

This is the step that’s usually overlooked, and it’s what fundamentally bothers me about ‘growth hacking’. For acquisition and growth tactics to yield results and to have a chance to scale in the future, you need to do your research and understand your target audience: segment it and find your low-hanging fruits. Develop your overarching messaging and create segment-specific messaging. Produce content and copy that really speaks to these segments. Build out your organic channels, from search to social, to branding and PR.

Only after you’ve ticked these boxes should you start layering different tactics. This enables you to figure which ones are working for you and which you can scale, so you end up with an actual strategy.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” - Sun Tzu

Experiment. Measure. Iterate.

Now that you’ve set up your core foundation and start to see a strategy emerging, you should start to conduct laser-focused experiments using different channels and tactics from paid events to product development, in order to gain rapid growth. By honing in on these tactics, you can be fairly accurate in your measurement and analysis. This allows you to see clearly where you’re moving the needle and where you’re gaining traction (or not), so then you can roll out an adjusted, improved experiment.

I guess it’s this second part they call ‘growth hacking’, but it’s not hacking at all. It’s growth that’s built on a scalable foundation. It’s possible to have a growth mindset and look for optimizations, do A/B testing on messaging, gamifying your product, or create viral content, but you do this after you’ve built your core foundation (or at least alongside it). After all, every experiment needs a control.

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