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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normcore. 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 eBay.com [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 [www.ebay.in] 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 eBay.in 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 eBay.in 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'] - http://www.quora.com/What-are-some-decisions-taken-by-the-Growth-team-at-Facebook-that-helped-Facebook-reach-500-million-users

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". 

Don't rule out newspapers just yet. by Sushant Sreeram

 The above illustration is by the very talented [seriously!] Dan Nott. Check out the rest of his work at  dannott.com . 

The above illustration is by the very talented [seriously!] Dan Nott. Check out the rest of his work at dannott.com

Over the last 12 months, there has been no dearth of news in India. From news of success in bilateral relations during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's travels abroad, to news of interesting startup ventures getting funded, one would assume newspaper editors would have their hands full.

And I am sure they do. But here's the interesting part: I, and I am guessing most people in my generation, rarely read news in the newspaper anymore. 

Not for lack of such content in the newspapers I get every morning [which I usually end up reading later in the evening, more on this in just a moment]. It just so happens that between Twitter [+] a curated Feedly RSS feed [+] Whatsapp conversations, I notice that I am, for the most part, decently informed of developments across a variety of areas even before I pick up the newspaper.

I am guessing my behaviour is not unique and is part of a bigger wave of digital channels such as above obviating the need for old-school newspaper subscriptions. The US newspaper industry is already in the throes of pain with revenues declining by more than 30% over the past decade. Some traditional newspapers such as NYT and Washington Post have set up digital copies with pay-walls but these models [of getting consumers to pay for news online] are already facing growth pangs.

Others like Blendle, a pay-per-article model, have tried to drastically lower the cost of consuming news moving away from 'subscription pay' to 'transactional pay'.

Back in India, media analysts are of the opinion the newspaper industry is going to see some good times. Especially regional language newspapers that are expected to clock double-digit growths as millions of Indians become literate. However, here's the theory: the moment a person is literate, he/she is going to go buy a smartphone to use Facebook and Whatsapp and soon enough, Newshunt. India's largest newspaper Dainik Bhaskar sells 3.6Mn copies every day. Newshunt has 90Mn installs with more than 75Mn pages of news consumed every day.

While I find the Blendle model interesting [read the post by their CEO, nice stuff] I have my doubts on whether news, in any model, is going to make money the way it has so far. And I am coming from a place which believes newspapers have another content model that can work IMHO.

Every evening, I spend ~ 20 minutes going through the day's newspaper. Typically, by that time, I more or less know the 'news' but here's what I spend almost all my time reading the newspaper - trends and opinions.

Trend stories are the proverbial 'let's take a step back' moments for me in looking at broad changes taking place. And good trend stories in newspapers have me hooked! I was told a long time ago that in analytics, first there is data, then insight, then knowledge [hey, don't shoot me if this is incorrect, I was never good at analytics!]. News is data. Discrete byte-sized information that's supposed to get the point across succinctly. Trend stories then to me, are the insights. The deeper patterns behind the data. And in my opinion, newspaper journalists in a geography [esp. India] do a far better job of putting together a local trend than most of the citizen journalists in that place.

Opinion pieces are even more interesting. Opinions, to me, are the 'knowledge' gleaned from insights i.e., a stab at predicting the future based on what we know about what's causing the present. And good opinions pieces in newspapers from people who know their stuff are not just informative but incredibly educative. I have learnt more about the implications of National Green Tribunal's diesel vehicle regulation to BJP's evolving minorities stance from that 20 minutes in the evening than from any other source.

And therein, in my opinion, lies a newspaper's core asset - high quality research combined with articulate points of view. And in a world where there is no dearth of content, I'd like to see newspapers continue to provide knowledge. Something, I will be willing to continue to pay for.

Mary Meeker's 2015 Internet Trends by Sushant Sreeram

 Source: http://thedilbertstore.com/

Source: http://thedilbertstore.com/

I am guessing by now you would have at least queued download of the 200-odd slide collection by Mary Meeker unassumingly called '2015 Internet Trends Report'. The 'report' part almost makes it sound like a trooper back from a tour regaling others of tales and things 'out there'.

This report is, however, about things happening right here and things you and I are part of. So go ahead and download it if you haven't already. Even if you have little interest in this 'internet thing', the report still makes for good non-fiction reading!

http://www.kpcb.com/internet-trends

And when a trends report is 196 slides long, I am tempted to attempt distilling it. So here's my take on some of the points covered in Mary Meeker's presentation.

1/ Slide 6: The only company from the Top 15 Public Internet companies in 1995 that made it to the 2015 list is Apple.

Talk about 'survival of the craziest'. Crazy enough to ride the wave [personal computing], accelerate the wave [smartphones] or in the case of the iWatch, even create the wave.

2/ Slide 10: Here's part of what explains the entrepreneurial activity in IN today.

1. Of all the top countries by internet users, India continues to show the highest growth of 33% YoY. In comparison, the next highest is China at 7%

2. And of all the top countries by smartphone users, India continues to again show the highest growth of 55% YoY. Brazil at 28% comes in second

Corollary: Thanks to the appendix, got to know that each month 2.5 billion GB of data flows across mobile globally. For context, the total data across the entire internet in the entire 2000 year was 1/30 of this. Global internet traffic has been doubling every 3 years over the past 15 years, think of how challenging maintaining the infrastructure for this would be. So the next time that HD video takes time to load on our phone, let's just breathe.

3/ Slide 14: We today spend ~ 6 hours every day consuming content on the internet compared to < 3 hours per day in 2008. 

Guess where that extra 3 hours is coming from? The footnote on this slide perhaps has the answer - "time spent with each medium includes all time spent with that medium regardless of multitasking"

4/ Slide 16: I have a submission to make: The time-spent/ad-spend index annoys me every time I see it. 

We have all been hearing about the inevitable demise of Print advertising [because only 4% of time spent compared to ~20% ad spend] and I wonder:

Let's say I want to make an investment decision. Would I give more credence to a 10 minute conversation with a renowned investment expert or 2 weeks spent reading online?

Time spent doesn't take into account efficacy of the medium. Why do eCommerce brands in India spend a couple of crores on full front-page ads for just a day when the same money can buy the YouTube masthead for a cool couple of weeks?

5/ Slide 53: Forget Facebook, Messaging Apps = Internet.

First heard the theory of messaging apps becoming gateways to the internet from a senior manager at a messaging brand couple of months ago and it blew my mind. Looks like the WeChat playbook is going to play out globally [esp. countries like India] soon enough

6/ Slide 54: Contextual notifications have the power to make low-frequency apps stick. 

Check out the notification I received from Foursquare a couple of days ago when I was at the Rio Resort in Goa.

Before this, I had launched the Foursquare app maybe 6 months ago.

Addendum: As apps start moving towards niche use-cases to meet [think Swarm and Foursquare], will we start relying on too many apps that not only have to predictively satisfy needs but will, more importantly, become 'data pipes' feeding into an interface layer? If yes, then how do apps avoid running the risk of becoming data APIs? Additional context here - http://www.wired.com/2015/03/open-google-now-make-android-super-smart/

7/ Slide 64: Is Airbnb the new travel review powerhouse?

Globally, Airbnb has already scaled up to 14Mn reviews in the last 12 months. My estimates are Tripadvisor, founded 8 years before Airbnb, gets ~25Mn reviews globally every year.

8/ Slide 68: Is Twitter finding a loyal audience amongst youth?

Interpreting the two histograms on the left and right as 'Ever Used' and 'Most Used' respectively and then arriving at an index of 'MU/EU' suggests Twitter's building a highly solus audience in the US:12-24 bracket [Index: 0.75]. How are they doing it? Would love to hear.

9/ Slide 70: The consumer facing retail ends of banks are probably going to cease. 

The things that retail customer use banks/ATMs for are going mobile [cash will soon not exist any more, cheques are being scanned and submitted through banking apps, loans will be approved via mobile through credit score repositories]. Will banks then become secure storage facilities for high value items [lockers in Indian parlance?]

10/ Slide 76: 18% of US household spends dedicated to Transportation.

i.e., 1 in 5 dollars is spent of moving from A to B. The whole transportation concept, to me, seems grossly inefficient. And no, I am not talking about efficiency in how soon you can get a cab but more fundamentally questioning the essence of transportation. [A] Is inefficiency the result of a fragmented private ownership of means, or [B]Is inefficiency due to the social construct [moving from A to B to do some work at B to earn money to spend at C]

11/ Slide 111: Confusing extension with replacement.

So millennials would much rather Slack [i.e., use a cool online workplace collaborative tool] their colleagues than talk to them in person? As someone who has tried all such tools and with the benefit of hindsight, let me say: tools are great an making some parts of interactions more efficient but to think they can replace conversations entirely is dangerous thinking.

12/ Slide 114: Managers says millennials today seek high pay, high level of responsibility and high level of self expression as the key motivators while millennials are saying it's meaningful work and sense of accomplishment.

Is our [the millennial generation] apparent narcissism and egosyntonic behaviour leading us down a path where we begin to showcase what we believe we ought to show the world [reflected in proclamations such as 'meaningful work is the most important work value'] oblivious to what truly drives us - high pay - which is not a bad thing to seek provided I can deliver commensurate value?

Oh the dreaded 'e' word and what I learnt about it. by Sushant Sreeram

[Below are notes on a talk I gave on entrepreneurship in August 2012 to a class of MBA students. Stumbled upon it and thought I'd put it up here for posterity.]

10 Tips for those of you looking to become entrepreneurs.

Tip #1: Don't be an entrepreneur
As dramatic as it might sound, there is merit in this. There is a tremendous amount of value in first learning how businesses [or specific parts of successful businesses] operate before taking the plunge yourself. My first stint out of college was as a Sales Manager [people still wonder what the heck a Civil Engineer was up to] and I cannot overstate the value of what I learnt.

Of course, you could have a mother-effin’ idea that needs to be in the market now. In which case, go for it. But if you don’t have such an idea yet but at the same time, are clear that you want to be an entrepreneur building value, learn the system before re-inventing it.

Tip #2: Better still, do a sales job
In my first [and probably the most defining job of my life so far], I was tasked with leading a team of 19 Sales Officers. More than half of them had been working longer than I had been alive! Talk about jumping [being thrown into is probably more like it] into the deep-end of the pool.

Business and entrepreneurship more so, is about selling: Selling a vision to get others to work with you, Selling an idea to investors to put faith in you, Selling a future to vendors to do work for you, Selling a product to consumers who don’t know you and Selling the multi-millionaire dream to friends and family!

It’s not just negotiation skills. It is actually about people with vastly different world-views, aspirations, fears and hopes. Learn to be able to listen, empathise and solve something for them.

Tip #3: 'kaizen' is bs
Kaizen – the process of continuous incremental improvement. Great for established businesses [maybe dangerous even for them. We digress].

If your idea is a 10% improvement over an existing product or service, ask yourself: are consumers going to switch for that? Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every object continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon it.

And it helps if that force is a massive force and worth your while.

[Edit: Read what Peter Thiel has to say about product innovation [point #1] - http://blog.hypeinnovation.com/peter-thiels-7-questions-for-product-innovation]

Tip #4: Roger, copy that!
Here's a little exercise: 

Step 1: Close your eyes.
[Edit: read the Step 2 before you do so as otherwise you won't be able to follow the rest of the instructions. This was originally a talk, remember!]

Step 2: Now imagine a face but one you have NEVER seen.

It’s a lil tough, isn’t it?

What is art if not inspired forgery? Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, Mona Lisa, is thought to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a silk merchant who commissioned the painting.

The trick is not in coming up with an original idea. The trick is also not in identifying an idea to copy. True smarts is in connecting an idea with a user-need in a way that hasn't been connected before.

Addendum:
Read what Ev Williams, founder of Twitter, had to say about 'getting rich online' - http://www.wired.com/2013/09/ev-williams-xoxo/

At a time when so many internet entrepreneurs are running around Silicon Valley trying to do something no one else has ever done, Williams believes that the real trick is to find something that’s tried and true — and to do it better.

“We often think of the internet enables you to do new things. But people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.” - Ev Williams

Tip #5: Scale is dead
My guess is almost all the spots at the ‘soaps’ table are taken. Same with pretty much all other categories that operate on scale [i.e., very high volumes/very low margins].

Following from this, a business plan that talks about a USD 2.5B branded t-shirt market [which is the size of India market] and about capturing a 1% share of it is dangerous.

Instead, a plan that talks about a very clearly identified set of prospective customers and why these set of customers will consumer your product or service in huge quantities, even at a premium, is better off.

If you do end up reaching 1 in 7 people on the planet a.l.a Facebook, good for you. But start by building for the 1,000 people.

Tip #6: Stop listening, actually stop asking
When you are still figuring out what you want to do, attend all the conventions and conferences you can. Interact with as many people as you can.

Once you know what your business idea is, shut down. Stop running around trying to get constant feedback. This will only muddle your thinking.

And if you do want an advisor, pick your worst critic! Nothing gets me off my seat more than a critic dismissing my idea and telling me why something won’t work.

Tip #7: You don't need that money
In my first venture, we boot-strapped it for almost an year [with a total of USD 10K keeping us alive] and had already started retailing our product before we approached investors.

In a majority of cases, the startup doesn’t need the money it thinks it does.

Problem with going after getting this money – it is a huge distraction in the early stages. Very soon, you are talking about ‘pivoting’ the business, reprioritizing, making a paradigm shift and such words I don’t fully understand yet.

Money is an enabler, not an outcome.

Tip #8: Use data to base decisions on
‘Smell of the soil’ follows the lizard brain in our head. We selectively pick up signals and information – the ones that support our world-view.

Data screws all that. Data has no feelings. You do.

Most market research is pretty in-expensive. Do it.

And if you aren’t comfortable with numbers. Get comfortable!

Tip #9: Be clear why
Be very clear why you want to do a startup. Any reason is kosher.

Some might want to do it for the money, some for the fame, some of something else. All are fine.

But be clear. Helps you make the right long-term decisions.

Tip #10: Don't waste time
There is no perfection.

There is no perfect idea | No perfect time | No perfect team

Do it. Fail. Learn. Do it again. Fail again. Do it again. The ‘Law of Averages’ will catch up sooner or later!

To quote Charles Bukowski: You are marvellous. The Gods wait to delight in you.

Entrepreneurship is like a relationship [not in the sense of both are ‘ships’ that ultimately sink!]. You will rarely regret a relationship much as you will rarely regret having started up. Go forth!