Anatomy of a Growth Hacker

More often than not, whenever you start reading about Growth Hacking, instead of learning what it is, we end up reading about “How to do it”.  Maybe it’s just me, but I have a problem with that way of looking at things.  See, if you want to learn how to follow the crowd, then fine, go ahead and read all the how-to guides out there, but if you really want to learn how to do something on your own, it’s much wiser to learn what it is first, don’t  you think?

Although I do think it is important to know how; I always like to start with the basics and work up from there.  Beyond the great amount of tips, tricks, and tools you can use, it is important to learn the thought process and philosophy needed for anyone to consider himself a growth hacker.

Anatomy can be defined as “a separating or dividing into parts for detailed examination”.  That is precisely what I intend to do here in order for all of us to fully understand what the fuzz is all about.

Skipping this important step, will eventually leave you with a great problem:  What happens when you don’t find any more tricks others have used to test on your own?  Will you have what it takes to find the answers yourself?

If you just go about growth hacking by installing tools you are told to install and doing what others have done, you are really just randomly playing with numbers.  Of course, you will sound like a growth hacker when you repeat what you read, but are you really a growth hacker?  The answer is simple:  NO.

A growth hacker is not a follower.  Quite the contrary, by definition a real growth hacker is an innovator. Someone capable of looking at a situation from a completely different angle than everyone else.

It is important to know exactly what something (or someone) is to actually become that.  Let’s look at this one step at a time…

Growth Hacking

What is Growth Hacking?

Ok, first things first.  Exactly what is growth hacking? Yes, we can’t really claim to be something or even try to be, unless we know exactly what that something is.

Defining the term Growth Hacking is not as simple as you might think. Often you will find definitions that end up confusing Growth Hacking with Growth Hacker.  Yes, of course, they are closely related, but this is perhaps where the problem begins.  Many people who want to learn what it is, end up getting a description of the person who does it.

How many times have you read something like this:  What is Growth Hacking?  And the answer starts with:  “A growth hacker is a person who…” (And then it goes on to describe techniques and tricks a growth hacker uses).

Let’s dissect the term and try to come up with a definition of what it is.

First of all, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the term growth refers to “the process of increasing in amount, value, or importance”, it also defines it as “increase in economic activity or value”.  We have the first element or definition, then as a Process of increasing amount, and value.

On the other hand, we need to take a look at the term “hack”.  Maybe it’s part of what we see in books and movies or just myths around that term that have given it a negative connotation but in reality, it basically refers to someone who pays more attention to achieving a goal or objective than following a previously defined process.

Growth hacker

In other words, a growth hacker is a person who is concerned with increasing the amount or value of an object (a company in this case) through any possible means and not necessarily following pre-established paths.

Here, we can start noticing why I have a problem with the way most explore growth hacking and why I don’t agree with just giving you a list of possible hacks for you to test with your own product.  If growth hacking, by definition, is concerned with growth and not necessarily following established paths, then why would we just want to read about paths others have created before us?

Having a basic definition of the term, allows us to dig deeper into the fundamental knowledge needed for the discipline.  Yes, only then we can actually talk about the philosophy behind growth hacking.

What is a Growth Hacker?

Once we have established what growth hacking is, we can start looking at what a growth hacker is and what he/she does.

Of course, we need to refer here to the person who originally coined the term in 2010:  Sean Ellis.  In his own words, A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.  Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Around this definition, we can see many characteristics that are (or at least should be) inherent to a growth hacker, as well as a number of myths that have been created.  Just to clarify the concept, let’s take a look first at what a growth hacker isn’t (myths), so then we can establish what he/she actually is.

Growth Hacking Myths

1Growth hacking is just a trendy phrase: Actually, when looking at it closely you can start noticing that in a short amount of time, growth hacking has become a lot more than a trend. We can find blogs, leaders, software, methodologies etc. All of these are constantly helping growth hacking acquire an individuality of its own and not another name for marketing.

2Growth hacking is the same as marketing: Although they are often confused and thought to be the same, they are not. While both are concerned with growth, what differs is the extent to which each one takes this concern. Further ahead, we will look deeper into this, but for now, let’s just say there are key differences between the two disciplines.

3Growth hacking is always a fast way to grow: This is one of the most common myths you will find out there. The truth is, although it could provide a fast way to grow, it doesn’t guarantee it. No method of marketing of growth hacking can guarantee this.

4Growth hacking is the only option for startups to make it: Again, just like in the previous myth, we need to say, that it doesn’t guarantee results and it is not the only way. Obviously, there are many factors you should consider and this will make a difference between success and failure. Product, target audience, etc. all make a difference.

5You need to be a programmer to be a growth hacker: Nothing can be further from the truth. This will become clear when we examine the characteristics a growth hacker must have, but for, now let’s just say, it’s not about the title, it’s about the mindset.

6Growth hacking is a fast way to fix company problems: By now, in case you have not noticed, we have only been talking about growth. Growth hacking will not fix the problems your company has, there are other disciplines you will need for this. Here we are talking about helping you reach more potential customers.

7Growth hacking is “black hat”: While I understand the term hacker carries a strong negative connotation, as we saw in our definition, nothing is further from the truth. Just because you use different techniques, and sometimes take advantage of loopholes it doesn’t mean you are doing something that should be frowned upon.

8Growth hacking is about acquiring new users: Actually, a real growth hacker knows that the best place to find growth is through existing users.

9A growth hacker works by himself: Since the discipline actually involves knowledge in different areas, often you will find companies (bigger ones, of course) that prefer to have a team of growth hackers instead of just one.

As these, I can mention more and make this list quite big.  Instead, I will stop here, and continue with our main concern.  I’m sure you will find more on your own, and hopefully, after reading this you will be able to recognize which ones are true and which ones are not.

As we dig deeper and go beyond the myths, tips, tricks and how-to guides, we start noticing certain traits that are needed for growth hackers to be successful.  Some of these are more common than others and so are easier to identify.  Bottom line is, all of these are needed for someone who truly wants to be considered one.

I will not even attempt to list them in order of importance since they are all equally needed.

1Creativity: As we know, this term refers to the ability of a person to use their imagination to come up with new and innovative ideas to solve a problem. In other words, Inventiveness.

Growth hackers are not only driven by metrics and obsessed with growth, they are able to stop and look at a problem from a completely different point of view and come up with a solution. They don’t stop at the acquisition of data, they use this to solve and even prevent obstacles along the way.

They are able to think outside the box and brainstorm to take advantage of situations others would see as a problem to gain an advantage over their competitors.

2Willing to learn: Yes, even if they are usually ahead of the pack, they are still open to learning from others and even their own failures.

They understand the competitive landscape is constantly changing and will survive only if they are willing to adapt. This adaptation can only come from the process of learning constantly. This allows them to accept and embrace new technologies and tools that will allow them to continue their path to growth.

3Extremely Curious: This trait doesn’t only allow them to discover new ways of doing things, but it lets them understand why things work and why they don’t.

This is, perhaps, one of the most important traits found in successful growth hackers. As said in, “This curiosity leads to a grasp of product and user experience way beyond the surface. A growth hacker does not so much care that growth occurs but desires to understand the user mindset and product flow to replicate the method over and over”.

5Obsessed with metrics: Growth hackers are a rare mix of passion and rationality. Their passion for growth drives them to look for answers, but these answers are based on rationality. This rationality allows them to make well-informed decisions and the only way to do this is through data gathered in every step of the customer lifecycle.

As said by Ross Simmonds “For the best growth hackers, high–level data is never enough. Great growth hackers want to analyze and study every data point throughout the customer lifecycle to better understand how they can impact things like acquisition, retention and referrals. To understand this data, the best organizations are creation environments where their growth and data teams can quickly implement and measure results.”

Don’t confuse this obsession with the unwillingness to look beyond numbers, though. Even if they appreciate data, there is always room for creativity.

6Open minded: His passion for growth and rationality drives him to be open to new ideas and experiment all the time. Not only is he able to constantly try new things, but is also open to suggestions from others. Gathering ideas from others serves as inspiration for new tactics to try.

You cannot possibly think of a growth hacker who is “married to his ideas”.

7Reiterates:Any growth hacker knows that a key to success is repeating what has succeeded. This doesn’t mean, however, that he will do it blindly until it doesn’t work anymore. On the contrary, the process of repeating is always carried out in accordance to his obsession with metrics, which will allow him to find ways to improve what already works.

Moves one step at a time: He knows that attempting to move too fast, most times will lead to failure, and thus prefers to work in small iterations that will keep everything moving in the right direction.

8Agile: Their sharpness allows them to jump at opportunities as soon as they recognize them. True they are rational but at the same time, they are flexible enough to know that even if something is working, they need to improve it as soon as the need arises.

9Constantly Evolving: Of course the characteristics and traits mentioned above will cause a growth hacker to constantly evolve as his surroundings change.

We can obviously keep mentioning characteristics you will find in successful growth hackers, but the truth is, the ones mentioned are among the most important ones you will find the successful ones share.

That being said, we can see growth hacking is more than just a bag of tricks, tips, and shortcuts. It goes beyond the tools. It is more about a constant state of mind and why not, a philosophy of life.

The Future

Nobody knows what the future holds, but by their nature, we can say growth hackers are not a passing trend.  Their ability to evolve and adapt to their surroundings will allow them to survive most changes that come about.

With the changes brought forth by the internet in today’s marketplace, not all the good products are bound to make it.  The days when you could count on your “great product” to be successful are over. Today one of the biggest challenges companies have, especially startups, is distribution.

Although originally  growth hackers found their habitat within startups for several different reasons, I can say it is safe to assume that in the future they will not be confined to these.

Any company, whether it’s big or small, old or new, needs growth, and that is a fact. This can only mean that eventually and, perhaps sooner than we think even large corporations will start using growth hackers as part of their teams.

Growth hacking has worked so far with limited resources; without this predicament, the possibilities are immense.

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Karim Dahmani
Karim Dahmani
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