How to adopt a growth hacker’s mindset

If you’re a new startup or small business, chances are you don’t have a large budget for marketing and branding your business. If this is the case, how are you supposed to compete with the established players in your space with their brand recognition and big marketing budgets? The answer may lie in a phrase that is rapidly entrenching itself in the Silicon Valley lexicon.

growth1That phrase is “growth hacking.”

Sure, you’ve heard it before, but you just might be tempted to dismiss it as the latest buzzword to come out of the tech media machine and that would be a huge mistake. Valley veteran Andrew Chen coined the term in 2012, and since then everyone has been using it – sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly. But it’s important to remember that even though the term is still fairly new, the tactics and strategies that growth hacking encompasses have been around for awhile now. Today’s tech giants – companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest and others got to where they are (billion-dollar companies) thanks to what has become known as growth hacking.

So what is it? Chen defined it in the following way:

“Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of ‘How do I get customers for my product?’ and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets and a lot of database queries.”

In other words, Tweet: A growth hacker takes only what is measurable and certain and discards the rest. When money is tight, you can’t afford to throw the big bucks at things that offer you little to no way to see if they’re even driving growth. As we’ll soon see, this is a key component of the overall mindset of the growth hacker.

As Ryan Holiday, author of “Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising,” argued in his book, learning specific growth hacking tactics or studying a particular company isn’t enough. Tactics come and go – what worked at one time may not work later on. Additionally, what works for a certain company may not work for everyone else. Instead of tactics, then, Holiday noted that budding growth hackers should focus on adopting the right mindset – principles upon which you can devise marketing and growth tactics unique to your own business.

Here are some ways that you can start thinking like a growth hacker when marketing and growing your business.

growth2Loosen your definition of what “marketing” is
When we think of marketing we often think of SEO, content marketing, traditional advertising like print or TV, press releases – the whole gamut of tried and true tactics that have driven marketing departments for ages. The first step toward taking on the mindset of a growth hacker is to relax your definition of what marketing is.

Holiday says it’s simple: Tweet: Anything that gets you customers is #marketing. Stunts, viral tactics – it all counts. Don’t stay in the box of traditional marketing. They’re often very expensive and risky.

One of the earliest growth hacking success stories came from a most unexpected place: Hotmail. Holiday wrote that Hotmail’s creators originally wanted to advertise their new product on billboards – the traditional approach. Venture capitalist Tim Draper advised against it, saying it was too expensive an idea for a free email service. Draper and the developers were kicking around a few ideas when Draper happened to come up with the perfect tactic, and in addition, may have invented the first growth hack.

He suggested putting a message at the bottom of every email sent through Hotmail that said “P.S. I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.”

This meant that every email sent doubled as a free advertisement for Hotmail. It worked. For many years, Hotmail was the most popular email service on the Internet. In 1997, it had 10 million users, and the founders sold it to Microsoft for $400 million. Google would do the same with its Gmail application a few years later. None of this would have been possible with traditional marketing tactics. The Hotmail story is just one example of many low-cost, high-impact marketing techniques engendered by the growth hacking mindset.

Think like a software developer – build, then iterate
Previously, businesses prepared to launch like they were a blockbuster movie. Huge build-up, expensive marketing tactics, everything riding on one launch. If it fails, everyone goes down with it.

The growth hacker doesn’t leave things to chance like that. He or she thinks like an agile software developer. They build what is known as a minimum viable product – a wireframe version of their offering – and then they get it in front of some beta users or customers immediately. The first users give their feedback on every facet of the product. From there, the developers know where they stand – does this product fill a real need? Does it lend itself to sharing? What features are important, and what can wait until a later release?

Being able to answer these questions means that the developer can rapidly release another iteration, with customer feedback built into it. This is vital for the next part of the growth hacker mindset.

dev1Development and marketing come together for product market fit
Thinking like a software developer naturally lends itself to one of the core tenets of growth hacking – finding a product/market fit before you actually make the product.

A hallmark of a traditional business model is to develop a product behind a veil of secrecy, then release it to the world. Once again, this is a risky proposition. Even the most sophisticated focus groups and predictive analytics can’t perfectly predict success in the market.

By utilizing customer feedback as you go along, you can see what features and benefits are most important to your customers. This takes the guesswork out of what you should build into your offering. Chen noted that you can achieve growth and traction only when you have nailed your market’s needs perfectly. Not even the most advanced growth hacking tactics can be effective if people don’t really need the product.

Additionally, when you build your product off of what customers actually want, marketing becomes a more straightforward process. You know the exact benefits your customers are looking for, and even the language they use to express those needs. Holiday refers to this process as “baking the marketing into the product.”

Because the product lends itself so easily to marketing to your target customers, the money you would have spent on expensive advertising can be spent on making the perfect product for your audience. And because you took the time to bake the marketing into the product and understand your customers on a deep level, you will launch your product with confidence that there are real buyers waiting for it.

With these tips in mind, how can you start applying the growth hacker mindset to your own business?

Martin Jones

Martin Jones is a Senior Marketing Manager with the corporate Cox Communications social media team where he assists in leading strategy, campaign ideation and marketing execution for Cox Business social media & content marketing. Today, over 1 million fans engage with Cox Communications content, campaigns and Customer Care on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube. LinkedIn and Google+.