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This article was published on March 6, 2020

Growth hacking is BS — here are 3 tips for sustainable growth instead

Lay a strong foundation and forget the 'silver bullet'

Growth hacking is BS — here are 3 tips for sustainable growth instead
Dan Wheatley
Story by

Dan Wheatley

Co-founder & CEO, StraightTalk Consulting

Dan Wheatley is CEO/co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting, a SAAS operations and growth consultancy which works with B2B founders to impleme Dan Wheatley is CEO/co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting, a SAAS operations and growth consultancy which works with B2B founders to implement long term data-driven growth strategies

Nowadays, it’s hard to browse a tech site, attend an event, or open your LinkedIn without being smacked in the face with a new ‘growth hacking’ technique promising startup founders a low-cost, high return, silver bullet to get their struggling businesses booming. 

The only problem is, if it seems too good to be true, it’s generally because it is. If it wasn’t, nine out of ten startups wouldn’t fail in their first year. 

Essentially, ‘growth hacking’ promises that with a few simple techniques, businesses will quickly see viral growth. Sounds great. It’s actually an even better branding strategy by the guy who coined it, GrowthHackers CEO Sean Ellis. Unfortunately, the term soon became hijacked by others who just wanted a sexier way of selling conversion rate optimization (CRO), but without the business model and long-term vision. 

The result? It rarely works — I know because I’ve had to rescue many of my clients from this honeytrap. So if you’re looking to grow your business, I suggest you take a look at these three far better ways of developing processes that actually drive results: 

1. Play the long game

Sorry, but this needs to be clear from the beginning, there is no quick fix. Growth hackers will try and convince you that there is an expedient solution to you flatlining, that a few tools and marketing campaigns will get new clients flooding in. But even if you were to generate more leads, they don’t set your business up to cope with it. 

[Read: 4 data points that will help your startup grow]

For any viral growth to truly be sustainable, you have to start slow and steady to avoid collapsing under your own weight. That might sound boring, but let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s say you’re riding a bicycle in top gear. You’re gliding through the streets with minimal effort. Until you reach a hill — that hill is your business growing, and the greater operational demand that comes with it. It won’t take long before you grind to a halt. And the same thing will happen to your business. You’re in the wrong gear and let’s face it, you’re not fit enough to face it — yet.

Before viral growth can happen, your startup needs to spend time building an infrastructure and operations capable of handling it. This is the three-year plan my colleagues and I suggest to startups:

Year 1 – Get your basic infrastructure sorted. Constantly refine your targeting and non-scalable activities. Focus on breaking even. Find solutions to make your product unique and accessible. Remember to regularly review your product as it matures and consider how it applies to specific users.

Year 2 – Polish off your infrastructure and messaging. Aim to implement scalable acquisition and run CRO tests once sufficient data is acquired. You should be able to demonstrate some scalability and improvements from CRO tests. 

Year 3 – A full year of scalable acquisition and CRO testing should enable you to hit the hockey stick growth. At this stage you will want to ensure all of your CRO teams become growth teams that apply the same hypothesis –> test –> analysis. Focus your growth teams towards product usage, retention, and sales. These are areas CRO is not typically applied to.

Remember this: Most companies will get to viral growth if they fit the criteria to become a large business (find that big market and be capable of serving that market), but they have to survive long enough. 

Surviving means achieving continuous, gradual improvements that you can grow your business and infrastructure around. So focus on those small growth margins that you can definitely achieve, rather than searching for that single growth hack that doesn’t exist. 

People tend to misunderstand Dropbox’s amazing growth.

2. Get your own business model, there’s no one-size-fits-all

Growth hacking relies on the reductive principle that if it worked for them, it can work for you. 

Dropbox is a classic example of a complex strategy being mis-promoted by those looking to sell snake oil. Its referral scheme — by which existing users draw in new ones through two-sided incentives — led to exponential growth for the company. So referrals should work for everyone else, right? What this ignores is the grueling data-driven work that Dropbox carried out to eventually churn out the winning strategy.

Sean Ellis did amazing work at Dropbox, constantly surveying users, running tests, analyzing the data, and using this to refine each step. The team ran thousands of tests in total, which eventually led to Dropbox trying out the referral scheme. When it showed potential, they expanded the strategy further, testing as they went along.

Despite all of this work, if you type “How did Dropbox test referral scheme” into Google, the first result you see is titled “How Dropbox grew 3900% with a simple referral scheme.”

Doesn’t provide an accurate picture, does it?

This highlights the modern problem with growth hacking and its repackaged offerings. Everything is boiled down to a simple quick win statement used to sell a dream, rather than focusing on building a structured process for continual improvement until growth is unlocked — which is exactly what companies like Dropbox do behind the scenes. 

The real question you should be asking is: How do I run tests, and which tests should I be running? Even before you can answer those questions, you need to know what your buyer journey looks like.

For example, most will start with “problem education” — people know they have a problem but they don’t know enough about it to make an informed purchase of any product. They’ll be researching the subject before they start researching solutions. 

You can track this journey using tools like Google Analytics — in the case of problem education, you may be asking these simple questions: 

  • What are the main entry pages for new users?
  • What is the traffic source?
  • Do people behave differently from different traffic sources?
  • What is the bounce rate?
  • Where do they go next? 
  • What does page heatmapping show?
  • Are visitors seeing my CTA?

Compare your users’ journey through your website to what your ideal scenario — a lead becoming a client — would look like. Now, it should be easy for you to form hypotheses and test them on your users. 

For example, if a page has a higher bounce rate than other landing pages and the main traffic source is paid PPC ads, perhaps people are clicking on paid search but not finding what they are looking for, and you could apply split testing with different search terms leading to that page to see which are the most successful. 

Constantly testing out new solutions based on this kind of data will put you on your personalized path to success.

3. Don’t fall for useless metrics 

You may be thinking, if quick viral growth isn’t the answer, how do I know if I’m doing it right? What metrics should I be tracking? First, I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t be wasting time on.

Vanity metrics look good, but they’re basically false readings that don’t actually tell you if your business is growing or not. One common example is revenue – even if it’s climbing, it says nothing about whether or not there’s an actual growth machine behind it, and it may be completely unsustainable. That income could be dependent on one or two large customers, which puts you in a dangerous position should you lose either of them. 

A common growth hacking tactic that provides great vanity metrics is to “growth hack Linkedin.” It’s worth mentioning that the people promoting these “hacks” have been banned from Linkedin. Not great for long-term growth.

Often this hack will include using a tool like Phantombuster to auto-send connection requests to a targeted audience. It spams them all with Linkedin messages, builds a list of email addresses, and spams them again with cold emails. 

If you are looking to build lots of connections, this is a great tactic. It’s also a great tactic for pissing off all of your first degree connections. These are sold as lead generation schemes, but they quite simply are not. Of the hundreds of people you’ve connected with, none of them are leads – they’re unqualified prospects at best, and still require significant work to qualify and move through a sales process.

After all that, you will not have moved the needle for your business.

What you should be looking at is not activity, but valuable action. This is the difference between, say, how many people you email, and how many follow the link to your website and engage with you. Between how many visit your page, and how many opt in to your product. Use metrics that prove your business is growing sustainably, not full of hot air.

Unfortunately, despite many founders turning to these “hacks” in critical moments of need – but instead falling victim to hype artists targeting vulnerable businesses, as a means of selling their own ebooks, workshops, courses or consulting, growth hacking will probably stick around for quite some time. People will always be drawn to the easy option. 

But at the end of the day, while it’s easy to tell someone the answer to 2+2 all they will ever know is the answer to that question. Learning the mathematical process will let them answer every question — taking them to where they need to be. 

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