The topic of growth has been more polarizing than I would have ever expected. The animosity largely surrounds the use of the term “growth hacking.” The animosity is so high in fact that I debated whether I should even publish this post.
It seems most of the negativity stems from a few sources:
- There are a small set of advanced people/teams that have been doing growth for years (even before the term growth hacking was popularized). This group looks at the wave of popularity and says “WTF? This isn’t new, I’ve been doing this for years.”
- There are disingenuous people taking advantage of the new term for purpose of popularity. The disingenuousness is obvious and therefore people tend to form a negative association with the term.
- There are disingenuous people doing really shady marketing tactics and labeling it as growth hacking to make the tactics seem legit. Of course others call BS on this.
The conversation then tends to spiral into a debate about terminology and calling growth hacking bullshit.
I look at the above and see it from a different angle. They seem more like pains of a maturing topic. Growth as a topic is in its awkward teenage years.
I also look at the three reasons above and think why care about any of them? Who cares if there are people who have been doing it for years? Who cares if there are disingenuous people taking advantage of the term? Debating terminology and focusing on these groups feels useless to me.
The more important questions seem to be are there really smart authentic people in growth? If so why? Has the game changed (or in the process of changing)? If so, how do we/you need to evolve?
How The Game Has Changed
In the past 5 years I think there have been 4 very large foundational changes that impact that way we think about growing tech companies:
1. Access to Data
Today there are a plethora of analytics tools. Mixpanel, Kissmetrics, RJ Metrics, etc. In addition most marketing/engagement tools like Intercom.io have a data/analytics piece built in. But rewind 5 years ago and almost all of these tools didn’t exist or were in their infancy. We’ve seen the ease of access to data increase, and the cost massively decrease.
2. Access To Platforms
Facebook, Twitter, iOS, Android, LinkedIn, and more provide unprecedented access to billions of users to not only help you acquire new customers but activate, retain, and monetize them over time. The number of these platforms is increasing at an accelerating rate as well as how companies can integrate with them to effect growth.
3. Scale and Speed
The scale of technology companies are reaching today is beyond anything we’ve ever seen and the speed they get there is accelerating with it. With this comes higher expectations on how quickly your company and product should be growing.
4. Merging of Technology and Marketing
Tools like Optimizely, Hubspot, etc have made things that were previously hard a lot easier. But to get the full use out of these tools you still need some solid technical integration. More importantly, as things that were previously hard become easy and commoditized as tactics, companies operating in a competitive environment need to keep pushing their game forward. In other words, take on even harder tactics of which almost all require technical ability.
These four things lead to my belief that there is a better way to think about and execute growing a technology company compared to the past. It is a large part why I recently joined Hubspot as VP of Growth on some new product initiatives. (side note: I’m hiring engineers, designers, and technical marketers if you are interested in joining me).
Here is how I am thinking about Growth compared to marketing and product.
Growth vs Marketing
Growth is typically described as the blending of marketing, product, and engineering. This is true but first I think it is important to explain why that is.
Looking at the classic funnel, marketing organizations have typically focused on the first first two layers, Awareness and Acquisition. This is apparent when you look at how the marketing teams are structured and the goals they operate against. Marketing teams tend to focus on KPI’s that align with the top two layers of the funnel - leads, signups, new users, downloads, etc. Marketing teams are optimized for pursuing those KPI's with the majority of the team members having marketing backgrounds in content, paid acquisition, copywriting, pr, etc.
What is not usually included is worth noting - engineers, designers, pm’s, and data scientists. Those roles tend to be in completely different silo’s. Other teams within the organization usually own the rest of the funnel beyond Awareness/Acquisition. Product might own Activation and Retention. Sales may own Revenue. Every organization is structured differently, but the point is that the layers of the funnel are owned by completely separate teams in silos.
Contrast this to growth teams. They focus on looking at the funnel in a holistic way. That is because their mission is about growth rate of a metric that tells a more complete picture of the business. Examples might be Daily Active Users, Monthly Active Subscribers, etc. Leads, registrations, new users, etc are one of many inputs to growth rate.
Growth rate can be effected by influencing any layer of the funnel, and the goal is to figure out how these layers interact with each other to grow in a authentic way. As a result the goals growth teams pursue are different from marketing teams. At a high level, the goal is always on growth rate. But at any given time a growth team could be focused on improving any layer of the funnel as they all influence growth rate. Acquisition and Awareness is a subset of that.
Influencing the middle and bottom of the funnel can be done in three ways. Product changes, extending your product to other platforms, and paid acquisition (i.e. remarketing). To carry out this mission requires a very different type of team. Instead of having engineering, design, and data completely separate in a different part of the organization, those resources are tightly integrated on the growth team. I can’t put enough emphasis on this point. In organizations where engineering is completely separate, technology tasks to support marketing are almost always de-prioritized. Marketing has to fight tooth and nail just to get a little bit of an engineers time. That will be a recipe for failure going forward.
Some would say that this view of Growth is just good marketing. Possibly, but the majority of marketing teams I've encountered are not structured this way nor pursue these types of goals. Most marketing teams keep an eye on bottom of funnel performance, but ultimately they are built to focus most of their time on influencing top of the funnel.
The growth team needs to be successful at blending product, engineering, marketing, and data skills into one tight knit team. This sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It’s because it is. It is why growth is the result of a team effort, not a singular magical unicorn. It is also why great leaders of growth teams are still in low supply.
My path to learning growth was a happy accident. Before I really focused on growth I spent two years learning to code (albeit poorly), 3 years learning product management, 3 years on user acquisition. With out those diverse experiences there is no way I would understand how the pieces of growth come together and my learning is very far from over.
Growth vs Product
If growth teams are focused on optimizing the full funnel, then where does product fit in? Chamath Palihapitiya, the former head of growth at Facebook stated a very simple framework in a talk he gave at a conference.
There are three things you need to do to build massive growth.
1. Build Core Product Value
2. Get users to experience that core value as quickly as possible
3. Help users experience that core value as often as possible within a given time period.
Product teams are very focused on building and expanding that core value, the core features that make people want to use your product. Growth teams own getting the largest percentage of your target audience to experience that core value as quickly as possible. Helping users experience that core value as often as possible tends be a blend between product/growth. The line is different based on the company, but growth owns at a minimum a major chunk (if not all of it). All three elements are a must to grow a product. One is not more important than another.
At The End Of The Day
Call it growth, growth hacking, quantitative marketing, full stack marketing, technical marketing, or whatever you want. Growth, in my opinion, far less about the terminology or tactics. It is more about a change in our mentality, process, and team structure of how we grow a technology company. Those changes are a reflection of how the macro environment has changed over the past 5 years.
At the end of the day don't worry about the haters. Focus on doing authentic, quality and progressive work and you will win in the long run.
Interested in joining a killer growth team? I’m looking for engineers, designers, and data driven marketers to join me. Read more about it here.