Growth Hacking Is Bull, Part 2

“Accounting is a department. Marketing isn’t. Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.”

Fried, Jason, and David Heinemeier. Hansson. Rework. New York: Crown Business, 2010. 193. Print.

Unadulterated Growth Hacking

In response to my article Growth Hacking is Bull, Sean Ellis provided some background on how he came about the term back in 2010.

Anyone claiming to be a growth hacker today must read Sean’s definition of the term because it strips much of the bull away from how the term is abused today. If you understand the message, what he really means by “hire a growth hacker” is that growth should be one of your marketing objectives and someone should be solely assigned to that objective.Internet Marketing

This person can have an engineering background or a sales background or something entirely different; what matters is this person’s sole focus should be on marketing initiatives with direct impact on growth.

Sean’s approach focuses on connecting your target market with your product or service and is very reasonable. More than once, he emphasizes proven, scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways of growing the business.

The Bastardization Of Growth Hacking

It starts with Andrew Chen saying that Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing. While Chen links to Sean’s explanation of growth hacking, his post is rife with false claims.

  • Claim 1: Coding and technical chops are now an essential part of being a marketer. As Sean points out, the goal is growth, and you can achieve it with an engineering background or a sales background.
  • Claim 2: Growth hacker is a replacement for VP of Marketing. Within the scope of marketing, there are several distinct roles to be performed, growth being one of them. A focus on growth shouldn’t come at the expense of other initiatives but should complement other marketing-related responsibilities. The responsibilities of a VP of Marketing are far broader than growth.
  • Claim 3: Marketers are technology neophytes. To suggest that a marketer couldn’t replicate what AirBnB did is just insulting.

Andrew also perpetuates the harmful expectation that exponential growth from zero to tens and hundreds of millions users in a matter of years is the new norm. Examples such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Dropbox are outliers, not the norm. Companies like Zynga and Groupon are cautionary tales in unsustainable growth, not case studies to be emulated.

In his post titled Why The Haters are Wrong About Growth Hacking, Mark Suster agrees with Sean and encourages startups to “think about growth as daily blocking-and-tackling rather than a dark art,” and that “marketing is a long, hard slog of continually investing in repeatable, testable channels.”

But then in his follow up, he all but equates growth hacking with ”‘gray hat’ tactics to acquire customers.” This is in complete opposition to the long, hard slog. He argues that killer products are all well and good but that “you also need to compete to win eyeballs and users playing by the same rules as your fiercest foes.” Some of the tactics he highlights to make his point are: vote reciprocation on social news sites, search engine ranking manipulation, and mobile app rank manipulation.

“Growth hacking” simplification drives adoption to a much broader base. By simplifying you get some people who short-hand and never learn the details and therefore half-ass the implementation. This will fail. But you also vastly expand the universe of those who will discover the topic and want to do a deep dive, learn more and then spread the idea to others. It’s why super smart people shouldn’t hate on the idea of simplifying if it provides a tool for the masses.

In response to my original post, many people pointed at me derisively, saying I was merely arguing semantics. But the fact of the matter is semantics are incredibly important — we’ve already shown how the term “growth hacking” has been bastardized since its inception. Simplification is definitely part of the problem. That people will discover the topic and do a deep dive is a dangerous assumption, especially when combined with “gray hat customer acquisition innovations.”

After reading Mark’s followup, I have to say I agree with David.

The Defense of Growth Hacking

I’ve read almost all the responses and commentary generated by the original article and come to the conclusion that defenders of growth hacking use the following misconceptions to make their point:

  • Myth #1: Traditional marketers have no technical skills, are unaware of analytics and cannot make data-driven decisions that impact product development and growth.
  • Myth #2: Marketers cannot address the needs of startups.
  • Myth #3: Startups need to grow rapidly to succeed.

These myths do nothing more than create a class divide. The terms “traditional” or “classically-trained” are appended to marketers pejoratively to present them as less technically adept and unable to address the needs of small businesses or use agile methodologies.

The idea that marketing is primarily the domain of mature and well-funded businesses goes hand-in-hand with the idea that startups need to grow exponentially. If you’re a startup that needs to grow at a rapid pace or your company will implode, your problem doesn’t start with marketing, it starts with product/market fit and it starts with business model.

Danny had the perfect response to this, noting that a startup doesn’t have to grow fast, it can grow organically. Startups feel pressured to attain hockey-stick growth because they’ve taken investment and feel the noose around their necks. This is a VC problem — not a marketing problem.

Sustainable Businesses Need Not Apply

Why do we need to hack growth? We need to do it because of the startup lie. Just take a moment to look at these numbers from Everpix. The company burned through $2.3 million over two years, couldn’t turn a profit and was out looking for another $5 million. Instead of arguing that the company’s problem was growth, it would be much more productive to focus on the many mistakes the company made along the way.

The startup is a magical place. It’s a place where expenses are someone else’s problem. It’s a place where revenue is never an issue. It’s a place where you can spend other people’s money until you figure out a way to make your own. It’s a place where the laws of business physics don’t apply. The problem with this magical place is it’s a fairy tale.

Fried, Jason, and David Heinemeier. Hansson. Rework. New York: Crown Business, 2010. 55-56. Print.

We should be encouraging entrepreneurs to start businesses not startups. We should be arguing in favor of premium instead of freemium. We should be fighting for monetization from day one. We should come to terms with the harsh reality that instead of good being the enemy of great, sometimes good enough is simply good enough. Above all, we should emphasize proven, scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways of growing the business rather than trying to hack growth.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is an award-winning digital marketing consultant who has been recognized for outstanding achievement executing social media and search engine marketing strategies.

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  • USARugger

    “Growth hackers are 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.” -From the Chen article

    So they’re a hybrid of marketer and coder that apparently does none of the things a coder or software engineer does and instead does stuff that literally every half-decent digital marketer does? Oh, okay.

    Thanks for taking the time to point out the alarmingly blatant logical fallacies in that article, it was a great read.

  • AzzamS

    My MD (marketing director) registered one-name brandable domains for our national company in 1995. As a traditional marketeer he has build the online revenue of multiple sites to over £30M a year.

    Does he use data, econometrics, analytic, goals, funnels, etc. Of course he does and always has. When direct marketing and newspaper marketing was the medium to grow the offline business everything was done via post, fax and recorded in a spreadsheet for reporting, the internet speeded up the process.

    Our board gives us a (monetary) target every year (I am SEO and Social Media guy) and wants to achieve that target, obviously. Now it is our job to squeeze that money out. The obvious thing for us to do is to use our experience in traditional marketing and apply it online and funnel SEO, PPC, email, social media marketing into the sales funnel. As we go along we track, monitor and optimize for better conversion.

    Nothing different going on here folks then the obvious to keep us in a job. Our tradtional boss does not care about the gimmicks, he just wants to give us a £1 and spend it wisely to bring in revenue. Can not blag him and boost about Facebook fans, twitter followers, SEO visitors, etc. He just wants to see the £ note at the end of the month.

  • Miguel Silva Rodrigues

    Good follow up; agreed 100%

  • Samuel Hulick

    I won’t claim to know what Sean Ellis “really” meant by what he said, but I can say that my interpretation is close to yours, yet also its inverse: when you take it to mean “that growth should be one of your marketing objectives,” I think you have it backwards.

    The sustainable growth of highly-engaged users is not “a” marketing objective, it is the primary objective of the entire company. A thriving, robust, and growing user base is THE determining factor of a healthy startup. For growth to be relegated to merely one of many “marketing initiatives” is, I think, selling it quite short.

    The primary voices promoting the idea behind growth hacking aren’t doing so to put rigorous, results-oriented marketers out to pasture. It’s the opposite – they want the *entire company* to absorb their thinking.

    People who have been practicing this for years have a significant opportunity to elevate their influence and educate those eager to learn. I wish that opportunity was met with enthusiasm rather than isolationism; those who go the latter route are shorting everyone, especially themselves.

  • seanellis

    Overall, the article does a good job of representing my view, but I definitely agree with the extension that you added Samuel.

  • seanellis

    Thanks Muhammad for writing a follow up post clarifying some of the differences in opinion about what a growth hacker actually is. I think we probably agree on a lot of things and that the major difference in our opinion is about the need for a “new” term in the first place.

    When I came up with the term I felt that “marketing” amazingly had a branding issue. At the time I was in Silicon Valley and it definitely had a branding issue there. Over time I found myself increasingly agreeing with the criticism of marketing by the engineering led Silicon Valley ecosystem. There were/are countless articles and presentations on why “marketing” was bad for startups. I heard Om Malik say this in a presentation, heard Vinod Khosla hint at it to a startup I was advising and we’ve all seen Fred Wilson’s recent article (though he’s in NY).

    I believe the issue was because most marketers were trying to exclude the rest of the organization by confusing them with jargon and acronyms. These are also the same people that often celebrate marketing creativity for creativity’s sake. But there was another group of “marketers” that were more purist in their focus on growth and seemed to work better alongside engineers. These were the people that startups really needed. They couldn’t afford the other group of marketers. I wanted to distance myself from the first group and ally myself with the second. I also wanted to identify and help recruit people from the second group into startups where I had equity. So I met with a couple of like minded friends and re-segmented marketing with a new term. One of the friends doubted we could coin a term and make it stick. I disagreed.

    So the “class divide” you mention in the article was definitely my intention. Your not the type of marketer that I was trying to distance myself from though.

  • moovd

    Growth hacking is a part of marketing. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it. You need someone with a marketing hat on. You need a coder. If the marketer can code they can growth hack. If the coder can figure out marketing they can growth hack. Growth hacking is six word simple. Leverage your product to market itself.

  • Kain Tietzel

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Growth Hackers aren’t rock stars – we’re just musicians using data and intelligence to make music more compelling and more accessible.


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