Does Growth Hacking Require Cheating?

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0401p12-AaronGinn-2x3Having started my professional career in politics, it was very interesting to hear Aaron Ginn’s seminar last night at Refresh Miami about Growth Hacking in the technology and startup world. Aaron was recently involved in politics, having served on the Romney campaign(ugh). For some, the attitude behind growth hacking is very similar to the attitudes of political operatives, especially those that aren’t being interviewed on CNN or MSNBC every night – do whatever it takes to drive your acquisition metrics within or often outside of the rules. Aaron currently works for StumbleUpon and I highly recommend their tools for promoting your business, because I have had great success in the past.

Before I get too far into pontificating below, let me make clear, that I think there is tremendous value in the basic concept of Growth Hacking of being metrics driven, using channels and technology in an innovative way to drive sales, and focusing relentlessly on making signup, evangelism, and retention the core of your efforts. Aaron did a great job last night helping our community understand how he does what he does for StumbleUpon and I applaud all of these efforts to marry engineering with strategy and growth, but as you will see below, I’d like to make sure that when we have that focus, that we don’t lose track of values and the idea of creating a great product. If you want to skip my preaching, you can scroll down to some valuable links at the bottom to help you get started.

Many growth hacking efforts are directly related to pushing sharing and the process of closing the deal with customers within the product itself, but a few of the more famous examples of growth hacking speak to a renegade mentality that says you can do whatever it takes to win including violating the terms of use of other companies and using their traffic and infrastructure to drive your signups without their permission.

The attitude was evident in the Q&A component of last nights seminar, when a local Miami Startup asked how to handle their competitively crowded space. Ginn’s answer was to attack and grow at the same time, by flooding the competitor’s existing channel for growth and diluting their ability to capture customers, while simultaneously growing your own base. This is in fact very similar to some campaign dirty tactics that you will see played out election after election.

I get it. I understand thinking about attacking your competitors growth valve and trying to shut it off because you are so desperate to succeed, but is that really how you want to spend your day and do you really have that kind of time(or resources)? Are you motivated by the value your product brings to the market or are you motivated by winning at all cost? Many growth hacking tactics are brilliant and speak to improving the process of getting people to signup, improving the user experience, and asking people to share why they love your product through legitimate means, but as is always the case in human endeavors, we get sucked into the concept of victory and killing an opponent by any means necessary rather than making what we do better.

I have no problem with product comparisons and speaking to the superior value of what you do or even motivating around being better than what others offer, but when you resort to spending time and money focused on taking out your opponent’s growth, then you’ve lost track of improving your users’ experience and optimizing what you offer and how people signup. Do we want a business world based on positive values or do we want the same climate of anger, negativity, and shit slinging that we have in our political system?

I’m 48 years old and I get it. I’ve been in that mode of attack, kill, and win no matter what, but even when I thought I was having fun doing it, ultimately, it was a miserable place to be. It’s your startup and it represents you, your employees, and your community, so if that’s the world you want to live in and you don’t mind knowing that it’s going to eventually come around and kick your ass one day, then go for it. I prefer to build a community of value-based growth.

Another component of this is using the resources of others to garner new clients and there are thousands of ways you can do this legitimately, but there are many examples that are looked upon with glee and excitement in the startup world, because they break the rules. AirBnb is a great example of this. The firm portrays themselves as the champions of the little guy and touts their model as changing the way things are done and I applaud their innovation and their ability to upset the market they serve, but a lot of their growth came from spammy tactics and abuses of Craigslist postings as Aaron Ginn discussed last night. Nothing was likely illegal about it, but it spoke to the desire to abuse someone else’s customer base at their expense in order to gain for themselves. We even had a Miami Startup get up and talk about their abuse of Aaron’s current employer’s network – StumbleUpon and ask him how he could continue to do it if they caught on to it. I’m not sure if it was an attempt to look clever, but it displayed an attitude of winning no matter what and an arrogance that I think does a disservice to your business.

Running a startup is a difficult and trying experience for many and when things are really tight, then that is when many of our own values get thrown out the window. I would encourage you at those times to reach deep down inside and decide if that’s the kind of company culture you want to create and what you want to leave behind. On a practical level, it’s also important to ask yourself whether it’s worth the investment, when you know that eventually you will get caught and have to start all over again.

There is incredible value in the growth hacking movement to companies of all kinds and it’s important to make sure you takeaway the core lessons from how and what you can do, without turning it into a zero-sum game.

growth hacker (noun) – one who’s passion and focus is pushing a metric through use of a testable and scalable methodology. – Aaron Ginn

Growth hacking appeared as the modern way in the age of Web 2.0 to reach a market and distribute an idea. Instead of classic marketing which typically interrupts your day, a growth hacker uses “pull”; he or she understands user behavior provides value immediately to persuade. A growth hacker wraps messaging into the fabric of the lives and thoughts of users. A growth hacker will leverage across disciplines, pulling in insights from behavioral economics and gamification, to find the right message to pull in users.

Here are some places to get started with Growth Hacking:

Growth hackers utilize analytical thinking, product engineering and creativity to significantly increase their company’s core metric(s). – Explained: The actual difference between growth hacking and marketing

Growth Hacker is the New VP Of Marketing
Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup
Are Marketers Now Required to be Engineers Too? – Great tools referenced here.

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

Aaron’s Growth Hacking seminar was well delivered and thought provoking, if you had an idea of what growth hacking is before you came in the room, but for those I spoke to in the audience last night without any familiarity with the topic, the nuances of what he was trying to teach people to do was lost, because the background or base of knowledge wasn’t established prior to the seminar. I am pretty confident that most of those attending, had some idea what to expect, but I would encourage Aaron to think about a little bit of an introduction or examples before his next appearance for the uninitiated.

I am going to keep providing resources on growth hacking, because I think it’s one of the best ways for Miami startups to grow, but I hope we don’t lose site of why we are creating companies, because we so desperately want to win and succeed. You can defeat your opponents, without defeating your integrity and I’d like to be sure we keep our focus on that.

The floor is yours in the comments. I welcome your opposition, agreement, questions, or ideas.

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  • http://www.aginnt.com/ Aaron Ginn

    hey Brad! Appreciate your feedback.

    A core value of growth hacking is aggressiveness to push metrics. Achieving rapid growth means rethinking channels. My comment on saturating a competitor channel was to be in the same namespace as your competitor. Competing against a competitor on their home turf usually means failure. A core strategy of growth hacking is “opn”, on other’s people’s networks. Investing time in building you own distribution channel increases the chances of failure.

    I don’t believe the best way to challenge the concepts of growth hacking is to use ad hominem based attacks. Being creative and rethinking the way you market your business does not equate to losing your integrity.

  • http://www.clickbrain.com/ ClickBrain

    Aaron,

    Thanks so much for taking time to comment on this post.

    I think I made it pretty clear that I am a strong supporter of the concepts behind growth hacking and that I support using them. As a matter of fact, I’ve been using “other people’s networks” for a good 20 years in the technology field, to grow smaller companies using the distribution of larger companies, including deals with the likes of Microsoft to embed our products in theirs, deals with HP, Canon, Xerox, and others to embed tech in their products and piggybacking on the install base of numerous products and networks with a great deal of success. It’s a much easier process today, because integrations don’t require a formal deal and are far more interesting, but the primary concepts are the same. Other peoples networks have been a part of every gig I’ve had, so as I said in the post, these are great concepts and they make a lot of sense and I’m not disparaging the use, but in fact support it and encourage it in our companies. I also realize that that is not the only component of growth hacking and testing, tracking, aggressive metrics and improving acquisition and retention are a part of everything we do for our clients, but we are also excited to learn from folks like you what works for your company.

    As to your comments to the startup at your presentation, I am pretty confident that I interpreted it correctly, but will wait to see the video to be sure. If I misinterpreted, then I am happy to apologize for that and make a change to the post.

    I want to be clear though, that I understand the desire to try less than savory tactics. I’ve been in that position and I understand the very real emotions that drive that type of behavior and approach, but am hoping that others can learn from my mistakes/regrets. I get that they can be effective and can grow a user base, but I am glad to see that you agree and that growth hacking does not require a loss of integrity. Unfortunately, just like any tool, these tactics can be used in a negative way and as has already been seen by others can be used to abuse the generosity and openness of other networks and result in a more closed off world and cost other companies time and effort to counter the abuse(I am sure StumbleUpon deals with that daily). I want entrepreneurs to focus on the kind of improvements and strategies you outlined in your excellent presentation and not resort to abusing a good thing.

    Thank you again for presenting the really cool work and strategies you are using in your world and helping South Florida understand what is possible for our startups.

    Brad

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