Growth Hacking and our ability to be clever. / by Sushant Sreeram

Have you heard of 'normcore'? The first time I did, I had this moment.

Normcore is a fashion trend that is defined by people wearing 'average-looking' clothing. I am not kidding - Now, who does that remind you of? Me, it reminds me of most people I know including me. This is what happens when 'coining terms' goes full circle and comes back to define the base-line that everything else was defined from. And 'growth hacking', to me, is another example.

Sean Ellis coined the term 'Growth Hacker' in 2010 as someone 'whose true north is growth' in a post titled 'Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup'. Sean's need for coming up with a term was understandable - he was getting frustrated in his search for marketers who sat in the nice intersection between marketing, product optimization, conversion funnels and buzz. 

Understandable because this was [is?] a time when traditional business models that involved 5% CAGR through slightly better distribution [read: Consumer Products] were being upended by digital models that seem to be growing 20% every week. When companies like Uber, Glassdoor and BigBasket [in India] are disrupting categories like transportation, job search and grocery in a way that's [a]making old-school models run the risk of redundancy, and [b]creating a need for marketers who are adept not just at 'brand building' but making the frikkin' sale happen.

And then came our penchant for meme-ifying and 'growth hacking' moved from becoming a loose description for 'a marketer who didn't suck' to a thing to do in itself! Startups everywhere started 'pivoting' into 'growth hacking' modes with conferences, networking events and even a website dedicated to growth hacking!

The reality is - growth hacking has been going on for a long time and those of us who today are enamored by this philosophy have ourselves been doing it without calling it that. We used to call it 'hitting the number'.

At eBay India a long time ago, I spent some time trying to grow the Global EasyBuy business. The idea behind GEB is simple - make available inventory listed on [US site] to Indian buyers who would be able to pay in Indian Rupees, not have to deal with the hassle of customs duties, etc. and have the item delivered to their home in India all the way from the seller in the US. The idea was brilliant but there was little in terms of marketing budgets to get the word out. i.e., we had to hack growth.

And so, unencumbered by any play-book while at the same time, desperate to make a dent, we spent time figuring out non-intuitive ways to get users to come to Global EasyBuy and shop. And one specific 'growth hack' comes to mind.

In our attempts to attract traffic to GEB, we realized the core eBay India site [] got tonnes of traffic that was converted and monetized pretty well. However, it occurred to me that there might be instances where a user would search for a product on and be met with a blank search results page due to no supply from Indian sellers. What if supply from Global EasyBuy [GEB] were to be 'put in these blank search results pages'? Wouldn't that be both better user-experience and also provide GEB some traction?

And so, with the help of one web developer in the office, we spent a week working on a very dirty hack that leveraged Google AdSense style placements on the core site, wrote a logic to check for null results and then IFramed the GEB search results page into the core page, essentially serving it as an ad. And boy did it work! Global EasyBuy, in large part due to this hack, went on to contribute to 15% of the eBay India GMV in 11 months.

The reason for narrating the above example is not to say I am a kickass growth marketer. Hardly. I was a guy tasked with making numbers happen who went down multiple rabbit-holes hoping one of them works. Simple. And as I think about how something like the above would be construed today as growth-hacking, some key takeaways on what growth-hacking is [or isn't] come to mind:

1. It's not growth hacking if you can apply it to more than one scenario/business

A hack, by its nature, is about 'exploiting' a really narrow path in a specific situation that others either felt was too difficult or not worthy enough of attempting and coming up with a clever way to travel that. As such, good growth hacks are custom solutions in that they can't necessarily be re-used or re-framed in another setting. Can't be re-used 'cause soon competition too is gonna be using it, can't be re-framed 'cause they were custom solutions to a very precise situation. So perhaps we can stop calling things like re-targeting, plain vanilla referral programs and ilk growth-hacking.

2. It's not growth hacking if considerable company resources are being expended

A hack is dirty. It's low on the radar. It's one man/team's idea that is quickly put together with minimal fuss [i.e., no slide decks, meetings, committees, etc.]. A hack never comes with a high certainty of success. And therefore, good hacks require minimal resources with the potential for a massive payoff. Potential.

3. It's not growth hacking if someone in-charge of 'maintenance' isn't really pissed

Back at eBay when we did the above hack, we used an advertising placement on the site in a way that it wasn't supposed to be used. Not surprisingly, soon after this went live, I got an e-mail from the Global Head of the eBay Search Page experience who stumbled upon what we had done, was stunned, and pretty much told me I was gonna be out of a job soon. I survived that thanks to my boss who told that senior guy to go cry somewhere else. The guy in-charge of maintaining something [typically user-experience, tech, engineering guys] is going to hate a hack. And that's ok. [We did end up rolling out a more 'stable' framework couple of months later that did the same thing but the important point is we didn't wait for that to happen].

4. It's not growth hacking if it is about moving an intermediate metric

Growth hacking is about starting from the basics. If you work in a digital commerce company, growth hacking is not about ways to improve CTR on display banners or your mailer Open Rates. These are intermediate metrics where the core business outcome might be higher unit conversions or top-line revenue [GMV]. Improving banner CTRs is an on-going job of the lever owner not the growth hacker.

5. It's not a hack if it's part of a product roadmap that's expected to roll out next quarter

Anything that takes more than 1/10th the time a typical product enhancement takes in your Org. is not a hack, forget a growth hack. Hacks, as mentioned above, are solutions that will most probably work but can just as well fail. And therefore, true growth hacking is an iterative process of testing an idea very very quickly, spending tonnes of time on the analytics and moving on to the next idea if this bombs. A lot of companies come up with ideas worth testing and then put them in a product road-map where, by the time the hack is live-on-site, either it's no longer effective 'cause the landscape has changed [ex: building a hack for desktop when the ecosystem has become mobile] or more importantly, the guy/team who suggested the hack in the first place and was friggin' excited about testing it has now lost enthusiasm and doesn't care anymore.

6. It's not growth hacking just 'cause you want to call it growth hacking

While the interweb is spewing the 'growth hacking' spiel, here's a very useful answer from Andy Johns, a former Growth PM at Facebook [i.e., someone who knows what he's talking about when talking about 'growth'] -

Sean Ellis was right in coining the term 'growth hacker' but I think he got it wrong when he said the growth hacker is one "whose true north is growth". I think, in the context of how this term is being erroneously interpreted, the more sensible definition is "one whose true north is a hack".