Growth Hacking: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

December 6, 2013

3:09 pm

As 2013 nears its end, I find myself reflecting upon the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past year.

2013 saw many notable IPOs, crowdfunding for startups appears to finally have become a reality, and my startup Speek is still here(!) fixing the conference call and continuing to grow, grow, grow. This is the good.

The bad? The perceived “Series A Crunch” (real or not, this is bad, because even the perception has negative consequences), the passing of many notable technology luminaries who will be sorely missed, and the fact that there were people fighting over whether Google Glass should be allowed in restaurants (really?).

However, the ugliest of the ugly of 2013 has to be the cementing of the terms “growth hacking” and “growth hacker” into our collective vernacular.

This is the most objectionable term—equal parts obtuse and obnoxious—since the inexorable and unforgivable rise of “Web 2.0.” There’s a Wikipedia entry for “growth hacking” because of course there is, in which the term is defined as follows:

Growth hacking is a marketing technique developed by technology startups which uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure. It can be seen as part of the online marketing ecosystem, as in many cases Growth Hackers are simply good at using techniques such as search engine optimization, web site analytics, content marketing and A/B testing which are already mainstream. Growth hackers focus on low-cost and innovative alternatives to traditional marketing, i.e., utilizing social media and viral marketing instead of buying advertising through more traditional media such as radionewspaper, and television. Growth hacking is particularly important for startups, as it allows for a “lean” launch that focuses on “growth first, budgets second.

Seriously? This makes me want to punch baby seals. I liked it better when we simply said we were “growing” or “distributing our product” or “finding scalable channels for customer acquisition.” What was wrong with that? Why did we have to go and make it a “thing” with job titles and annoying catch-phrases?

I can’t tell which is worse—the 20 million or so Google results for the term “growth hacking,” the 5 millionish job results for the title “growth hacker,” or the “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” 2013 Christmas Photo (which, okay, does not share a direct correlation with growth hacking but both are so phenomenally crappy that I can only assume there is some deep, underlying connection).

In all seriousness people: this is why we can’t have nice things.

If you are running a startup and doing actual marketing—which means you are, in a very Darwinian manner, trying (and often failing) at several potentially low-cost/high-yield customer acquisition channels until you find the ones that are financially scalable and operationally repeatable—then you are doing exactly what you should be doing, and there is already a name for it: customer acquisition.

Yes, customer acquisition is different for startups than it is for more traditional businesses. From birth, startups are structured to grow exponentially in a way unimaginable to similarly sized brick-and-mortars. But do we really need to set this apart as “growth hacking?” No! Why the hell do we have to throw “hacking” into this? Because it involves computers? The Internet? When you pay for stuff online, do you call it “pay hacking?” When you type an email, are you “write hacking?” Growing a company is growing a company. Doing it well isn’t “hacking,” it’s the whole point of doing it in the first place. Why not just prepend “Ninja” or “Guru” or “Rock Star” to the “Growth Hacker” title and combine all of my pet peeves from the past several years into one supremely annoying job description?

Oh, and one more thing: the mythical “Growth Hacker” you’re looking for DOES NOT EXIST. Good luck finding that purple unicorn who codes and understands SEO and paid advertising and content strategy and customer acquisition and design and user experience and A/B testing and analytics and social media AND buys hipster glasses from Warby Parker to wear with his/her Jeggings.

In reality, what you are going to need is a few smart people with a blend of skills who make up your “growth team.” At Speek this includes me, my co-founder, our analytics guy (who also understands SEO and paid advertising), our marketing/communications girl, and a bunch of JIRA tickets for our dev team prioritized against other stories in each sprint. This team is not dedicated solely to growth per se, although most of us do spend the majority of our time focused on it. And what “non-growth” activities this team does tackle are things like tracking and reporting analytics across our product and business; blocking and tackling content for our blog, email newsletters and social media channels; and other things that indirectly tie to growth.

We call all this stuff by different names: “doing our jobs,” “my life’s mission,” “Tuesday,” “growing a big ass business”… but we don’t call it “growth hacking.” And nobody here would refer to themselves as a rock star or a ninja, either.

Well, except for Ishikawa Kitaro-san, but he is not officially on the books, does not officially exist, and may or may not be behind you right now. Also, just FYI, the phrase “growth hacking” is known to give him a real itchy shuriken finger.

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Danny Boice is the CTO of Speek - a 500 Startups-funded startup that lets users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs. A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90′s. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice.

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