The Risks of Growth Hacking and How to Build Authentic Sustainable Growth

It has been a couple years since I wrote the first post on growth hacking.  The term didn’t gain much popularity until Andrew Chen wrote this post back in April of this year.

Online Marketing Redefined

Some people love the term “growth hacker” and some hate it. The term is not important. What is important is that people are tuning into the fact that traditional marketing techniques are often not very effective for driving growth in online businesses.

When I first started advising startups on growth a few years ago, most startup founders asked for help with driving awareness.  I wrote this blog post in response: Awareness Building is a Waste of Startup Resources.

Occasionally I’d connect with the in-house marketing person at a startup and see a plan that looked like a template from a Marketing 101 text book.  That’s not surprising since most marketing job descriptions for startups also looked like they came out of a Marketing 101 text book.

Today people are realizing that the best startups have approached growth in a very different way.  There are now over 450 active openings for growth hackers listed on SimplyHired.com alone. Two years ago, most of these job descriptions would have been for traditional marketers. It’s very exciting to see this revolutionary change in the way online startups think about growth.  And it’s not surprising that more established online businesses are beginning to adopt these approaches as well.

Evolving Definition of Growth Hacker

I recommend that people don’t get caught up on the term “growth hacker” or even a specific definition for it.  Focus instead on the concepts behind it. The fastest growing companies on the Internet have a growth focus rather than a marketing focus.  Try to understand how businesses like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Linkedin, Eventbrite and Groupon are driving growth and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of “growth hacker.”

I also recommend that you Google the term “growth hacker” and read the articles. Not everybody agrees on the exact definition, but most of the articles contain gold. The alternative is to read 1000s of pages in marketing text books, which will give you very few insights about how to drive growth in an online business.

Stay Authentic to Value Delivered

The best growth hackers are constantly testing and tweaking new growth hacks.  During this process it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.  When this happens, growth eventually falls off a cliff.

Sustainable growth programs are built on a core understanding of the value of your solution in the minds of your most passionate customers.  Your drive to develop growth hacks should be based on a burning desire to get this “must have” experience into the hands of more and more of the right customers.  Growth hacks built from this frame of mind are the ones that build large sustainable businesses.

Fully grasping your must have experience isn’t easy.  The presentation below is a step-by-step guide for uncovering your must have experience and calibrating your messaging and flows to that experience.  The process should put you in the right frame of mind to build sustainable growth programs.

Update Oct 2013 – If you want inspiration for developing effective growth hacks and would like to engage with other growth hackers, check out our new project at GrowthHackers.com.

Milestones to Startup Success

Update added to end of post

When your startup accepts outside money (such as venture capital), you are obligated to focus on maximizing long-term shareholder value.  For most startups this is directly based on your ability to grow (customers, revenue and eventually profit).  Most entrepreneurs understand the importance of growth; the common mistake is trying to force growth prematurely.  This is frustrating, expensive and unsustainable – killing many startups with otherwise strong potential.

Most successful entrepreneurs have a good balance of execution intuition and luck.  This was definitely the case at the two startups where I ran marketing from launch through NASDAQ IPO filings.  While we didn’t follow a specific methodology, our CEO was intuitive enough to know the right time to “hit the gas pedal.”  We didn’t accelerate until verifying that the team had created a great product that met real customer needs and we could generate sufficient user revenue to support sustainable customer acquisition programs.  It’s taken years for me to realize that our growth was less a function of clever marketing tactics than beginning with something that customers truly needed.  Some growth would have been automatic; the marketing team simply accelerated this growth.

Several startups later I have a much better understanding of the key milestones needed for a startup to reach its full growth potential.  These are based more on observing universal truths than inventing some type of methodology.  Reaching the full growth potential of your startup requires focus, specifically focusing on what matters when it matters.  In my post on the startup growth pyramid I talk about the high level milestones you must achieve in order to unlock sustainable growth.  This post looks at it on a more granular level with links to several of my previous blog posts and other resources that provide additional details.

Day 1: Validate Need for Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Before any coding begins it is important to validate that the problem/need you are trying to solve actually exists, is worth solving, and the proposed minimum feature set solves it.  This can best be achieved by meeting with the prospects most likely to need your solution.  Steve Blank published a great post on this today.

Eric Ries offers more details on the minimum viable product concept in this post/video.

Where’s the Love?

Vinod Khosla, one of the most successful Silicon Valley VCs in history, once suggested to me that startups should think of their early users as a flock of sheep.  He explained “the flock always finds the best grass.”

For you this means you should start looking for a signal about who loves your product and why as soon as you release your MVP.  Most products have at least a few people that truly consider it a must have.  These people hold the keys to the kingdom.  Learn everything you can about them including their specific use cases and demographic characteristics.  Try to get more of these types of people.

A good place to start collecting this information is the survey I’ve made freely available on Survey.io (a KISSmetrics product).    You can read more about this product/market fit survey in this blog post.

If you’re lucky you’ll be able to use this early signal to find the product/market fit.

Expose the Core Gratifying Experience

The majority of our project focus at 12in6 recently has been helping startups find their core user perceived value and exposing it in messaging optimized for response.  Your objective should be to remove complexity from the initial user experience and messaging in order to highlight this core user perceived value.  Often this means burying or even completely eliminating features that don’t relate to this gratifying experience.

Metrics

Metrics don’t matter until you achieve product/market fit – then they are critical to your success.  Dave McClure has a great video on startup metrics that matter (relevant part is at about minute 2:20).

Most of the tools out there provide way too many irrelevant metrics and miss the essential few.  Both Dave McClure and I are advising KISSmetrics on a solution to this problem.

Start Charging

Another key step before growing your business is to implement a business model.  The ideal timing for implementing your business model is discussed in this blog post .

I’ve often heard the argument that startups are focused on user growth and prefer to delay revenue in the short term.  I believe the fastest way to grow is with a business model and explain why in this blog post.

Extreme Customer Support

Now that you have a business model in place, your first marketing expense should be to expand the customer support team.  Anyone that cares enough about your solution to contact customer support is a great source of insight about your target market.  Also, customer support will uncover issues that will help you grow faster without spending.  And fixing these issues will make it much easier to grow when you do start spending.

If your customer support team is overwhelmed now, I don’t recommend trying to grow until you address the issues driving most support calls. Once you’ve addressed these issues you’ll have fewer barriers to adoption and will be able to grow without overwhelming customer support.

This will enable customer support to go above and beyond expectations, which is an important way to drive customer loyalty and enhance word of mouth.  This approach pays more dividends today than ever before – as I explain in this post on Social Media.

Update: See comments for additional thoughts on extreme customer support.

Brand Experience Over Brand Awareness

Back in the “Dotcom Bubble” days billions were wasted on brand awareness campaigns for startups.  Today most entrepreneurs understand that brand awareness campaigns are a waste of money for startups.

Instead, it’s much cheaper and more effective for startups to focus on creating a fantastic brand experience.  While startups often realize the importance of brand experience, they focus on it too early, fine tuning things that customers don’t care about.  Instead, wait until you understand why certain customers love your product; then obsess over every element of this customer experience.

Apple is probably the best tech company out there on coordinating a perfect brand experience for its target users. I cover more on brand experience in this blog post.

Driving Growth

Once you’ve achieved all of the previous milestones, then you can focus on driving growth.  CEOs must take an active role in driving customer growth whether or not they have an interest in marketing. Nearly all of the risk and upside in a startup is in your ability to gain customer traction and then drive scalable customer growth. The CEO should not abdicate this responsibility to the marketer.

It’s important to stay aggressive and take all slack out of the market (make it completely uninteresting to pursue the market for any other competitor).  Your early advantage is the ability to iterate on the customer feedback loop and leverage strong customer loyalty to drive word of mouth.

While ROI lets you know if a user acquisition channel is sustainable, the key focus should be on exposing lots of the right people to your fantastic product experience.  It’s much easier to get passionate and creative about this than purely thinking about things from an ROI perspective. Of course positive ROI is essential for any customer acquisition program to remain in the mix.

When it’s time to hire a marketing leader to partner with the CEO, this post explains my recommendations for an ideal startup marketing leader.  The most effective startup marketers are relentless about experimenting with channels until finding things that work.

Start by building out free channels such as listing in directories and basic SEO.   When you begin building paid channels, extra effort should be put into channels that show strong potential for scale.

Unfortunately you can’t count on effective online tactics working forever.  I’ve seen many hot online marketing tactics lose their effectiveness over time.  This is because online tracking makes it easier for marketers to quickly figure out what actually works.  As a result we start piling into the most effective tactics.   Eventually online tactics get saturated, as explained in this post.

Business building

Fast growing businesses are difficult to manage.  This is the point where you should bring in some experienced operations people if they aren’t already on the team.

It Won’t be Easy

Finally, the top three risks to growing via these milestones are:

  1. You lose patience and decide that one or more of the milestones really aren’t that important.
  2. VCs and/or board of directors lose patience because you did not achieve conceptual agreement on this approach from beginning.
  3. You delude yourself into believing that for “our type of business” customers really don’t need to consider our product a “must have”.  For us, “nice to have” is good enough.

Building a successful business is hard.  Hopefully this milestone driven approach to growing your startup will make it a bit easier.

Update: It’s hard to write a blog post on “milestones to startup success” that covers every type of startup.  Some startup types may need to reverse the order of some of these milestones.  For example, with marketplaces (EBay, social networks, eduFire, dating sites, etc.) user gratification increases with more users so there is a bit of chicken and egg here…  Ad supported sites also benefit from early scale. Many of the articles linked to from this blog post also cover exceptions such as when a startup should start charging (it’s different for enterprise targeted startups).

The Startup Pyramid

Every six months I rethink the optimal startup go to market approach based on new insights gained at recent startups. Lately I’ve been using a pyramid to represent the process I’m using. Startups require a solid foundation of product/market fit before progressing up the pyramid and scaling the business.

 

Achieving Product/Market Fit

Product/market fit has always been a fairly abstract concept making it difficult to know when you have actually achieved it. Yet many entrepreneurs have highlighted the importance of creating a product that resonates with the target market:

  • Paul Graham: The mantra at Paul’s successful startup incubator YCombinator is “make things people want.”
  • Steve Blank: In Steve’s book Four Steps to the Epiphany he writes: “Customer Validation proves that you have found a set of customers and a market who react positively to the product: By relieving those customers of some of their money.”
  • Marc Andreesen: A couple years ago Marc wrote the following on his blog: “…the life of any startup can be divided into two parts – before product/market fit and after product/market fit.”  He goes on to write: “When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit.  Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital — whatever is required.”

I’ve tried to make the concept less abstract by offering a specific metric for determining product/market fit. I ask existing users of a product how they would feel if they could no longer use the product. In my experience, achieving product/market fit requires at least 40% of users saying they would be “very disappointed” without your product. Admittedly this threshold is a bit arbitrary, but I defined it after comparing results across nearly 100 startups. Those that struggle for traction are always under 40%, while most that gain strong traction exceed 40%. Of course progressing beyond “early traction” requires that these users represent a large enough target market to build an interesting business.

You should measure your product/market fit as soon as possible because it will significantly impact how you operate your startup. If you haven’t reached product/market fit yet it is critical to keep your burn low and focus all resources on improving the percentage of users that say they would be very disappointed without your product. Avoid bringing in VPs of Marketing and Sales to try to solve the problem. They will only add to your burn and likely won’t be any better than you at solving the problem. Instead, you (the founders) should engage existing and target users to learn how to make your product a “must have.” Sometimes it is as simple as highlighting a more compelling attribute of your product – but often it requires significant product revisions or possibly even hitting the restart button on your vision.  For more on getting to product/market fit, I recommend reading Marc Andreesen’s full post via archive.org (it has been removed from his blog).

Race up the Pyramid

Once you have achieved product/market fit, it’s time to accelerate through the next steps of the pyramid and then begin scaling your business. Here’s a brief description of what to do at each of the steps before scaling:

  • Promise: Highlight the benefits described by your “must have” users (those that say they would be very disappointed without your product).
  • Economics: Implement the business model that allows you to profitably acquire the most users.
  • Optimize: Streamline a repeatable, scalable customer acquisition process by testing multiple approaches and tracking to improve the right metrics.

Effectively executing these pre-scale steps often improves the conversion rate to transactions by 5X or more. This directly boosts the effectiveness of every future marketing initiative by the same proportion. Just don’t rush into this fine-tuning phase until you have first achieved product/market fit.

I recommend reading this post on Milestones to Startup Success for additional details.

What is a Perfect Startup Launch?

Conventional wisdom says “launch” is a big bang event that happens in a very short period. It includes a press tour, an expensive launch marketing campaign, and if you could shoot balloons out of your homepage, most would think that’s a key element. The hard work is in orchestrating it all, so on the day of launch there is a big party where everyone drinks champagne and congratulates themselves on a job well done. New product launches that follow this conventional wisdom fail more than 80% of the time

I’ve always launched the way it should be done – initially because I was an untrained marketer. A perfect launch lasts several months and is a very iterative, metrics-driven process. It should start with the understanding that all of your assumptions are probably wrong. You don’t know who your most passionate users will be, you have no idea how to position the product and can’t understand what will prevent potentially passionate users from reaching a gratifying experience. I once heard Vinod Khosla describe this period as watching a flock of sheep grazing in an open field. The flock always gravitates towards the best grass. The launch period is about watching the flock to identify this best grass and figuring out how to describe it to drive as many of the right people (or to stick with the metaphor, sheep) toward this grass.

Those that follow the conventional “big bang launch” waste a lot of money incorrectly positioning their products and attracting the wrong types of users.  Executing the launch phase correctly improves results from external customer acquisition intiatives by 200% to 1000% within a few months.  For this reason alone it is better to conserve marketing dollars until after successfully completing the launch phase.  

I’ve recently begun calling 12in6 a “launch accelerator” because the true value we offer is the ability to quickly uncover key information by engaging early users and iterating/improving the complete customer acquisition process based on their feedback and measured results.  The five startups launched with this approach have become leaders in their respective categories (2 filed for IPOs). Luck is only part of the reason.