Growth hacking is bullshit

Main illustration: Nate Treme

Step 1: Build a product. Step 2: Release a product. Step 3: Growth Hack your way to success. It all smells too strongly of a “get rich quick” scheme.

“A startup is a company designed to grow fast.”
– Paul Graham

Defining “growth”

Growth is the lifeblood of startups. Growth is what differentiates Snapchat from hipster coffee shops. It’s the difference between revenue-less Instagram and The New York Times. It’s why investors get excited about “Yo” but worry about Apple.

Through a combination of watching Intercom’s double digit month on month growth and more recently through leading Intercom’s Growth team, I’ve come to believe real growth comes from somewhere deeper than Growth Hacking. I’m not even sure if Growth Hacking is a real thing. If it is where are the prominent Growth Hacking successes?

Here’s how we think about growth at Intercom.

Growth hacking vs. micro metrics, micro definitions, micro efforts

“Do I have a good product?” is an impossibly hard question to answer solely with product metrics. Particularly compared to, “How many people clicked sign up?”. How deeply a problem is understood and how concretely it is defined sets an upper bound for the quality of any subsequent solutions.

In Thinking Fast & Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrates that when asked a question you don’t know the answer to, your brain quickly substitutes an easier question, and answers the easier question instead. Too often in addressing growth, actual problems are substituted with easily measurable problems.

At the highest-level, these micro definitions can cause teams to overlook the most fundamental of issues: is your product solving a real problem? The foundation of all growth is product – or put another way, everyone works on growth. The only difference between product teams and  marketing teams at a startup, is one is focussed on long-term growth, and one is focussed on immediately measurable growth.

When a product team releases a new feature, they don’t expect to see overnight impact on signups or revenue. Contrast that to when a marketing team starts a new demand generation campaign – immediate or near-immediate results are expected. The only difference is the period in which results can be measured – both are working on growth.

At a lower-level, the danger of micro definitions is they result in micro efforts. For near-term growth-orientated product teams (often called “growth teams”) and marketing teams, focussing on the immediately measurable should not translate to focussing on the trivial. The size of the changes you’re willing to make, will directly correlate with the size of your returns.

Put another way:

A billion dollar company was never built off better button colors.

Growth hacking dissuades a holistic approach

To avoid the pitfalls of micro metrics it is important to pair every metric with its appropriate counter metric: signups with activations, new paid customers with churn, or new paid customers with total revenue. This achieves two things:

  1. It recognizes that your product is a system of metrics, highlighting that focus on any metric in isolation is incorrect.
  2. By recognizing and forcing focus on the system, it encourages a more holistic approach to growth.

Encouraging a holistic approach will naturally move you away from the trivial button colors and headline tweaking. Here are some specific questions we’ve asked ourselves recently, that have helped us focus on the bigger picture and solving core problems related to growth:

  1. Are you describing your product in the same language and terms that prospective customers are using to articulate their problems? If questions are where answers fit, this is critical to prospective customers finding a place for your product in their head.
  2. When did you last signup for your product? Does anyone in your company own the signup flows? You’ll likely be embarrassed by the assumptions you made early-on, and quite possibly no one has worked on signup since.
  3. How do you teach customers about your product? Are you helping them towards success in solving their problems? Or are you merely describing the mechanics of your product? (“The message button is over there, good luck!”).

Growth hacking implies silver bullets. Real growth is product.

Great marketers and great product people could probably spend a lifetime on this list, and solving the problems that arise with lots of iterations, lots of small wins. This isn’t Growth Hacking – this is product marketing, product design and product engineering.

Growth Hacking is the continual promise of silver bullets: red buttons increase signups 80%, headlines with font sizes of “33px” increase revenue 30%, cutting prices decreases churn 27%.

But, growth doesn’t come from silver bullets, growth comes from winning a thousand tiny battles: 0.5% here, 1% there. 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.

It’s important. Don’t hack it.