An Obsession with Growth Hacking is Limiting the Success of Startups

The promise of hyper-growth from little investment is too much for almost any start-up founder or Marketing person to walk away from. Much like the leadership traits from stories we pour over in folly from Ghandi to Martin Luther King, the results spoken about from growth hacking are aspirational and almost unattainable, almost, except for that one start-up who defies us all and hockey sticks to greatness in a matter of months.

The problem is, almost every marketer and every founder thinks their start-up has the potential to be that exception.

What is Growth Hacking, really?

Ask 10 different marketers what growth hacking is, and you will most likely get 10 different answers. But largely, the definition lies around digital marketers working with product and developers to deploy experiments that are aimed at getting growth in an area from accelerating top-of-funnel sign-ups to obliterating churn.

Before you think this is an attack on the art of growth-hacking, it really isn’t. But to me it is healthy and wise to focus a certain percentage of your time on growth-hacking, but a much larger portion on building marketing and growth for the long-term. One does not replace the other.

The Dangers of the Growth-hacking Obsession

The problem with growth-hacking for me lies not in the discipline itself, but in that it is viewed as the new and almost only way to get growth by the startup community. This brings a lot of problems with it:

i) Focus on short-term

Good Idea — digital, product and developers working together to find new ways to get growth.

Bad Idea — digital, product and developers working together as the only way to find growth.


If you are constantly deploying experiments with the hope that one will create immense growth, and that is your core tactic to hit ambitious growth targets over the next few months to a year, you are crazy. The number of startups that succeed in finding this ‘eureka hack’ are miniscule.

This means that although the competition are possibly not as innovative in the way they are approaching growth, they are probably much further down the line in terms of building a paying user-base after 1–2 years using more trialled and tested marketing methods.

Some of the best marketing teams I have seen view growth and marketing like this:

1, 3, 9, 27, 81

As opposed to 2 + 2 = 81

The first string of numbers is geometric progression. Basically applying the same effort over and over means you are compounding your efforts after time, and the demand gen and brand flywheel begins to spin. In the second instance if you do not find a series of magic hacks you are not building anything, except unrealistic expectations.

ii) You Can Hack Growth. You Cannot Hack Reputation

Vertical and product depending of course, but often the truly best way to build sustainable growth is through reputation and innovation. Larry Kim, a leading digital marketer blogged about this before about the impact of brand in search engine marketing.

Eventually his research led him to this point — actually the biggest driver of high-performing campaigns vs. those that performed poorly was brand and reputation. When consumers searched, they were far more likely to click on a result because they recognized the brand, not because of a headline, CTA, discount etc.

As I said, this depends on the market (e.g. electricity or other commodities are probably different), but still shows that trying to out-hack an established brand instead of trying to build truly great products and build a reputation, is a short-cut. Often the only shortcut to delivering quality, allowing you to charge a premium and build a brand, is to put in the effort and grit that the competition are not willing to put in. If you are small, agile and lean, why work on the shortcut when you can just outwork the behemoth incumbents.

Which leads me onto…

iii) Easy for your competitors to copy

Growth-hacking lends itself beautifully to first-mover advantage. Minimal input, creating fast growth, means by nature, your idea that is getting you growth is something that was probably overlooked by lazy incumbents

If you nail that idea, well done. But in reality most of the fabled growth-hacks are easily replicated. If you are a start-up that is looking at these stories going we can do that, you are almost guaranteed to be too late. If you are the first to find it, and make mistakes in execution, you are likely only to be serving ideas up to others.

Most of the growth-hacks we read about were found by chance, not a concentrated effort to find it. If you do find it, make it happen fast and do it well, or you are the cheapest R&D department your competition can ever have!

iv) Imposing Freemium Tactics on Unsuitable Models

Take Phorest Salon Software. We help salon owners get their clients back more often, spending more through our software. It is a SaaS product. We are not self-serve and we do not do free trials as it is a dense product (stock, staff, contacts, client history etc.). Word-of-mouth is poor as most salon owners work in isolation and don’t attend networking type events.

That doesn’t mean we don’t do growth experiments, particularly in our online bookings platform, but almost all growth hacking examples that have been truly successful are free products, or at least freemium. Dropbox, Hotmail, Pinterest.

Sometimes, you have to get the leads, prove your value, and work to get the growth. The companies above are not just rare in the fact that they had successful growth-hacks, but by definition are really suited to growth-hacking.

Growth looks different in almost every company. Lowering Churn, working to get a premium sale and generating revenue is also growth, even if it isn’t ‘sexy’.

v) It Isn’t New Anymore Guys… and that makes it harder

I am not going to dwell on this point, but Sean Ellis et al. have been doing this for years and the AirBnB type stories at this point are almost a decade old. This means that your competitors are more aware of it, are probably trying it, and consumers are possibly more skeptical of some of the classic growth hacks that are being adopted as we speak.

vi) Growth-hacking is About You

Finally, a lot of growth hacking requires you to spend time on finding growth, more so than the true value and fit of your product, your proposition, a greater understanding of your market or developing talent.


Marketers working with developers to deploy experiments is a worthwhile exercise but not a core strategy. It is an ‘also ran’ in terms of channels. Do events if they work. Do direct mail if it works. Do top-of-funnel content and SEM… if it works. Growth hacking requires a lot of failures and potentially never finding success. That means it’s worthwhile, but focusing on it for growth alone means you are probably focusing on the least likely tactic to succeed.

Originally published Jul 17, 2017 on

#GrowthHacking #SmallBusiness #Startup

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