I would argue that increasingly, we’re all like startups. We all need our work to get “traction”, most of us are “bootstrapping”. And without the reach that startups need to survive, we’re simply lost in the noise. The rise of social media, the connections created by social networks, and the massive amounts of competition out there for our attention has accelerated many parts of our culture and business life. Just look at Uber—in less than five years it became a $40 billion dollar company with millions of users. That’s very different than a guy who started driving a cab, eventually expanded into starting his own company and slowly but surely became the operator of his own transportation company.
The question is: what can we all learn from companies that trade incremental growth for exponential and viral adoption? What does it mean when many of the traditional marketing techniques become irrelevant and what strategies will rise to replace them? How does one grow their brand, career, company, or idea at a similar pace?
These questions were ones I ran smack into as the Director of Marketing at American Apparel. Just as I felt I was starting to get the hang of the traditional marketing world, I realized that it was obsolete. New products came out too fast, the media cycle was too busy and the budgets were too small. And so studying growth hacking and looking at the strategies of some of the Silicon Valley’s most talented growth experts and now, best practices for traction, I was able to help grow the business and reach more people. I’ve since applied these strategies to my own projects and to many of the clients I’ve worked with.
Let’s look at some of these lessons and think about how they might change our marketing and growth mindset.
1. Begin with product market fit
Paul Graham has another piece of marketing advice: Make stuff people want. Of course, everybody thinks they have this covered but really, they don’t. Growth hackers believe that products—even whole businesses and business models—can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions.
Think about the guts it took for Burbn, a company which raised about $500,000 in venture funding, to toss out everything they’d built and re-launch as Instagram. Can you sit down like this founder did and say: “Look, what we have is working but not working well enough. If we want to become something that millions of people use, we have to get a lot better and be very different than we are now.”
Focusing exclusively on the feature that their users actually loved (photos with filters), the team nailed what growth hackers call Product Market Fit—having the product and its customers in perfect sync with each other. It requires a product perfectly designed to fit a specific and critical need for a well-defined audience. To accomplish this not just precedes successful marketing, but it makes everything you’re going to want to do so much easier.
You need to deeply understand who your potential customers are, what they want and how and why your product truly meets their needs. Only then you can kickstart real growth—and your marketing will simply be a matter of reaching them. Its why startups often “pivot” through a bunch of products before getting it right. It’s also why some of the most successful people often wander a bit between different careers and roles before hitting their stride.
2. Find your growth hack
Building great stuff is important, but a lot of designers fall in love with what they’ve made—to the degree that they think that building it was enough. The best products also come up with the best ways to reach people. Think about Airbnb building a workaround that lets users cross post on Craigslist. Or Fred Brumwell renting a billboard in front of Google’s offices to get hired there. Take BuzzFeed or Elite Daily which grew by optimizing and taking advantage of the Facebook algorithm. With bestselling author Tim Ferriss, we gave away a huge chunk of one of his books on Bittorrent.
The point is: You have to bring people in. And startups, as Micah Baldwin puts it, “in the absence of big budgets, learned how to hack the system.” This applies to you too—don’t compete against everyone else in the bloody oceans. The way you stand out is to carve out new frontiers. Find a blue ocean and reap the rewards.
3. Leverage viral lift
Wouldn’t it be awesome to wake up one day and find that your work had spread to millions of people overnight? Wouldn’t you love to go viral? Guess what? This doesn’t just happen. When Mathew Carpenter turned a funny idea called ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com into $100,000 cash in less than a week, it wasn’t an accident. He studied how things spread by word of mouth, he coordinated a strategy and he seeded it in the right places. Have you done that yet? What often seems like an overnight success is almost always the result of months of research and experimentation.
Startups understand the importance of word of mouth because they usually don’t have the budgets for advertising. Their growth has to happen naturally. Not that they can’t encourage and incentivize it—think of Dropbox’s famous referral program which bonuses users space for referring other users. At one point, it was responsible for more than 30 percent of new signups. Dropbox is worth $10 billion today and has 300 million users. Think of Hotmail’s decision to include “PS I love you. Get Free Email” at the bottom of their users’ signatures. Each time a user sent an email it was essentially a small piece of advertisement for Hotmail.
You can’t just expect your users to become evangelists of your product—you’ve got to provide the incentives and the platform for them to do so. Virality is not an accident. It is engineered.
4. Optimize for Retention
The final, and I think most inspiring, examples of growth come from humility and awareness required to improve and change—continuously and endlessly. I like the line from Mailbox’s engineer Sean Beausoleil who says “No matter what your current state is, it could be better.” That is, trying to get more and more users for something that’s not fully optimized can be like running against a headwind. Think about Twitter, which despite growing in terms of signups in its early days, noticed that far too many users never actually used the service. So they rolled out the Suggested Users list which gave new users solid accounts to follow. Pinterest now does the same thing. Facebook’s growth hackers saw that users who added seven friends in 10 days were the most engaged and active, so that’s what they designed features and campaigns to promote (see video adobe for more). Or think about Airbnb which pays to send a freelancer photographer out to your house to photograph your listing for one simple reason: Attractive photos are critical for building trust and getting people to actually rent. So they’re willing to do it for their customers.
Yes, it’s more seductive to chase new marketing initiatives. Yes, it would be more fun to get some press. But it’s better for businesses to retain and optimize what you already have.
It’s funny that the phrase “growth hacking” sounds like simple buzzwords, because really it’s a pretty old idea. Growth is what every business and brand needs—and today, we simply need it faster. It makes sense that there would be specialists who have developed really effective strategies to do this.
We can learn from their tricks. We can see how a unique mind applied to the growth problems at Dropbox might inspire a new way of thinking about customer loyalty at the wine bar you want to open. We can see how the distribution techniques used by an author like Tim Ferriss or a publisher like BuzzFeed might be equally viable for a musician or an artist.
For example, when I wrote a book on growth hacking I figured it was an opportunity to test it all in a sort of meta-experiment. But it worked every step of the way. We found product market fit by starting with an article and an ebook instead of doing a print book out of the gates. We hacked growth by pricing it much cheaper than other books and excerpting it widely. We let the physical book become sharable when we did a 1,000 book giveaway to college students with all sorts of cool social tools. And of course, when I finally did expand the book, I had an email list I could reach and improved the book based on the initial feedback. That’s all four phases, in four sentences!
The best creatives all have a plan for acquiring new customers, readers, fans, and users. As you formulate yours, remember: Whoever we are, we want to grow, and that growth rarely happens accidentally or in a straight steady line.