(according to growth hackers)
This article was originally posted on Medium’s GrowthBug Publication
Hiring a growth hacker for your startup is an increasingly common practice. As with most new trends (SEO, inbound marketing, etc.), many employers have no clue how to hire a growth hacker, much less if the startup is ready for one.
Growth hacking is a field that is full of hype, and for every amazing growth story there are dozens of failed tactics & a handful of startups self-cannibalizing with growth hacking misfires. As a startup founder and entrepreneur, you don’t have the luxury for these risks.
For better or worse, growth hackers are here.
Debates over the term “growth hacker” have largely devolved into jabs over semantics that I have very little interest in — the job market for growth is here, and it isn’t a bad thing. Despite working in both growth & startup marketing roles almost exclusively, now I’m going to explain why many startups shouldn’t hire a growth hacker. I’m not changing my opinion or my career path — I merely want more startups to avoid the consequences of hiring a “growth hacker” without first understanding what they want, or not knowing how to recruit for the role, or simply lack the budget & resources to hire the right growth hacker.
Note: I’m strictly referring to startups that are hiring a salaried growth employee, not a growth mentor/advisor
Beware the Bandwagon
For both your sake and the sake of maintaining the growth community’s integrity, never recruit a growth hacker simply because all the startup cool kids have one, or because you think hiring a growth hacker is on every startup’s path to success, or before you’ve learned how to discern the “hacks” from the hackers.
After 12 years of moving from development into marketing and eventually growth hacking, I had the chance to work with some great teams (at separate startups, since acquired) testing growth tactics to discover what worked & what didn’t. Eventually I was recruited for a role that was “officially” titled Growth Hacker. Watching my less geeky friends guess what that meant was entertaining, but since then I have seen the concept of growth hacking regularly misunderstood & misused within the startup community. Keeping these thoughts in mind—you shouldn’t hire a growth hacker if any of the following 6 conditions apply:
#1: If you can’t explain why you’re hiring a growth hacker vs. a marketer
“The ability to code does not separate a marketer from a “growth hacker,” anymore than the ability to give excellent presentations on stage makes one a “speak marketer” or artistic skills transform a marketer into a “design marketer.” Marketers who can program have existed for over a decade, and in many marketing roles, particularly in technically demanding fields like SEO, CRO, and CRM” — Rand Fishkin, MOZ
Despite the popular idea that growth hackers are marketers who code, it’s a valid point that this really isn’t an uncommon skill among marketers—the best growth hackers, by nature, offer something more specific to the product itself. Like most growth hackers I have a background in digital marketing, which is useful for startups needing team members to wear multiple hats but still not all there is to a growth hacker. I’ve spoken to several founders who are over-committed to their product—so much so they have little interest in considering changes, failing to realize that finding growth is much more than the result of good marketing.
If you don’t want someone who goes beyond marketing into crafting the product itself, don’t hire a growth hacker.
What that something is, even growth hackers disagree: Aaron Ginn’s 3-part review on TechCrunch, Andrew Chen’s popular essay on “marketers who code,” and of course Sean Ellis’ blog that originally coined the term.
Considering that different products & industries naturally require different engines of growth, I’m personally preferential to Clarity.fm founder Dan Martell’s view of growth hacking as a mindset (plus the right skillset, of course). If you can’t define this mindset as a startup founder, consider some mentoring before committing to a growth hire.
2: If you can’t distinguish the hacks from the hackers
“In many cases, growth hackers are people looking for little tricks here and there or people just looking for a niche they can apply themselves to, like data scientists were a year ago.” — Stan Chudnovsky
Consider this: growth hackers are quite similar to Paul Graham’s analogy comparing startups to actors (a must-read for anyone involved in startups). Anyone can decide to be an actor, with no guarantee they’ll be a successful actor. Growth hackers are very similar.
Growth Hackers Are Measured By Past Success
Some startups have begun recruiting for the role as early as their founding team, all wanting their own success story. But the role was popularized by people who could already prove their methods because of their past success “hacking” quantifiable growth. This leads us to a conclusion that growth hackers themselves sometimes forget:
Untested growth strategies are not valid ‘hacks’.
The statement above should be a guiding principle that drives this entire way of thinking about growth strategies. Growth hackers traditionally claim to be familiar with a cross-section of product planning, development and marketing skills. All of these disciplines thrive on the analysis of & interaction with data. Claiming that a tactic is a ‘hack’ before testing it with quantifiable results is a red flag of inexperience. This would also suggest that growth hackers without proof of past growth success are the much nerdier counterpart to actors before their breakout role.
Entry-level growth employees may often have all of the necessary product, marketing & technical skills to make an excellent growth hacker. Asking the entrepreneurs they work with to simply believe them—without a record of success—is still a bad start to the relationship and contradicts the very nature of growth hacking.
You don’t need an AirBnB or Dropbox-level growth story of your own to be a growth hacker—but you do need to be honest about the type of growth you’ve proven yourself capable of so far. If you’re a rookie, say so—I enjoyed watching Aaron Upright’s journey through the growth hacking communities that he later shared as a great read for would-be growth growth hackers:
When talking to founders, I never compare myself to more famous growth hacks & their hackers-it’d be completely ridiculous, my successes simply haven’t been at high-publicity growth giants like PayPal, Facebook, or Twitter. Instead, I rely on my own quantifiable success stories of user growth, or my track record with startups that have met their exit goals through acquisition or established early-stage traction.
Candor is vital to a growing startup, and teams will work better with current employees who are willing to learn than with a self-proclaimed growth hacker without the ability to warrant their claims.
#3: If You Don’t have Your S***T Together For Growth
Know Your Core Product Value
Experienced growth hackers know how to hustle. Their bread & butter comes in the form of strategic integrations, getting a round of press coverage for reaching a growth milestone, or seeing KPIs above target. This can only happen if the startup has defined their core product value.
For example, ODesk and Crew are both marketplaces where you can hire freelance developers & designers. However, Crew’s freelancers are curated by hand. ODesk has their own systems for quality assurance, but since anyone can sign up it’s a very different kind of marketplace. Perhaps ODesk’s more open community means more “growth” by their KPIs, but Crew’s value proposition of hand-picked quality means that their growth engines should account for their staff’s time commitment & quality control systems. In other words, Crew’s growth is crafted around their core product value— the aspects of their product that define who they are, that (at least for now) they’re not willing to sacrifice for the sake of growth. Remember, growth hackers work beyond marketing & into the product—if you can’t articulate your core product value, there are countless directions to take the product to create growth.
Growth Hackers Need to Follow Brand Ethics
For instance, the infamous AirBnB growth hack created a powerful growth engine, but technically they hijacked that traffic from CraigsList’s pre-existing housing marketplace. Legal marketplace Avvo created growth by pre-populating profiles for lawyers & assigning them an “Avvo Rating,” requiring attorneys to sign up in order to improve their rank. Both companies took some criticism for this, which isn’t a reason to not do something by itself—but you should have a clear picture of what you want your startup to be known for and what your brand ethics are before you can find a growth hacker that you’re comfortable working with.
#4: If You’re Pre-Product or Haven’t Found your Product/Market Fit
Growth Hackers Aren’t Wizards
I’ve been down this road myself—luckily, we had a great team & managed to pivot to a new SaaS product with a much better market fit. Before pivoting, my job as Head of Growth was hampered by 2 main barriers:
- An overly-generic Core Product Value; and
- No Product/Market fit already established
Fact: you can’t grow a product without a market.
In the spirit of candor, I explained to the founders why I had been hired too early—so like any scrappy startup, we used the data & market I’d developed so far to iterate the first product (for 3 months of 200%+ growth) and build the beta test for our pivot product.
Tom Leung from Poachable wrote a great article (below) on why you shouldn’t hire before product market fit, in which he says:
“In the early days before you’ve really found a product-market fit, don’t hire people unless it’s excruciatingly painful to leave that role unfilled.” - Tom Leung
#5: If you can’t already afford the hire for at least 6 months.
This should be a given as a basic business principle, but it happens. Most startups don’t get extraordinary valuations & piles of capital right from the gate, so it’s important to dispel any myths, including that hiring a growth expert is not a golden ticket to success. I’ve watched (thankfully as a spectator) as an entire startup team crumbled in just 2 months because of this, leaving the founder with no team & little remaining capital—so don’t be that guy.
Why 6 months?
From the growth hire’s perspective: No matter how excellent the hire, your new employee still has to learn, plan, try things, iterate & repeat. Unless the hacker is also your co-founder, he or she is still your employee & expects a salary. Faith in your hacker’s abilities doesn’t trump that it is simply bad business to hire employees you can’t afford to keep at least long enough for your product to undergo as many iterations as possible.
From the business perspective: Crafting the product for growth is what a growth hacker is supposed to do. and while most growth experts have a bag of cheap traffic-acquiring tricks that isn’t sustainable growth—and sustainable growth means watching your KPIs & tweaking iterations for a long enough time to know you’ve built your product’s own viral loops. It may not be 6 months for all products & markets though—have you calculated how long it takes to collect analytics from a large enough sample size of your market to draw conclusions about your product after each iteration?
“But that’s why we need to hire Growth Hackers, to build our revenue — they’ll pay for themselves if they succeed.”
No. Just, no. This thinking kills startups & SMBs alike, and the assumption that causes it makes #6 on our list:
#6: Rockstar Hires
Sometimes a very tempting hire come along that makes you think, “If we hire him/her, we’re sure to see growth!” (It’s rare, but it happens).
If you’re going to gamble, don’t play at the high stakes table with your investor’s money.
Say Hello to Failure (not as depressing as it sounds)
After the last 7 years spent almost exclusively with startups, I’m a firm believer that the best “litmus test” of a growth hacker (assuming they have the prerequisite mindset) and the litmus test of an entrepreneur are one and the same — if they have the patience & work ethic to accept that the path to understanding startup growth inevitably leads directly through your own failures as often as necessary, until your failures lead you to the growth wins that your startup needs to grow. Then, do it all over again — so perhaps “trial by fire” is more appropriate than a litmus test.
Even if a growth hacker is among the best in their field, they are still limited by unknown variables. To make an educated decision on which growth engines to implement in your next product iteration, it’s good practice to use any relevant available data & the lessons from past failures to reduce variables whenever possible. Marketers live & breath data, as do many technical professionals and/or developers — combining the two into a single growth hacker shouldn’t change our love of data-driven decisions.
So, now what?
Growth hackers can make great employees, but at the right times and in the right teams. Startups fail often — an entrepreneur’s & growth hacker’s combined mission is to iterate their product as many times as possible before that happens, using each failure & success to give their product the velocity it needs to push it over the tipping point of growth.
Seek Growth Hacking Advice
If you’re not ready to hire but still want a growth hacker’s perspective on a product, it isn’t difficult to find a growth expert to talk with. Another successful entrepreneur, an investor, or an experienced growth advisor is a much better choice than hiring for a growth role before you’re ready. If you can’t find one locally, Clarity always has a great collection available to schedule a call with.