13 Critically Important Lessons from Over 50 Growth Hackers

I’ve had the incredible privilege of interviewing over 50 of the most-gifted growth hackers working today. People like Neil Patel, the co-founder of KISSmetrics; Ivan Kirigin, who helped Dropbox grow 12x; Elliot Shmukler, who helped LinkedIn grow from 20m-200m users; and of course, Josh Elman, who led growth at Twitter during its period of massive expansion. After spending countless hours conversing with the geniuses of growth, here are 13 things I’ve learned:

1. Retention trumps acquisition

It’s a rookie mistake to focus on customer acquisition instead of customer retention, especially early in a startup’s life. It’s exciting to get new traffic and acquire new users, but the primary purpose of your first visitors is to inform you of the holes in your funnel.

Early visitors exist for one reason, and one reason only – to show you how broken your website really is. Until you are successfully learning from, and retaining, those visitors, you are not ready to drive a lot of new people to your product. Leaky buckets don’t need more water, they need their holes fixed.

2. Growth favors the agnostic

Growth is like the proverbial skinning of a cat – there are a million ways to do it. Proud entrepreneurs arbitrarily decide that certain methods of growth are more pure than others (i.e., they like viral loops over PPC). The problem is that different startups need to use different growth mechanisms because of their product and team DNA. If you disallow certain growth channels based on emotion, then your chances of reaching scale are greatly diminished.

3. Customer development is cheating

A large part of lean methodology is customer development: the activity of talking to your market and your users before you actually build something. If you do this well, it will feel like cheating, because people will disclose the path to their heart.

Kevin Mitnick was a famous hacker (a real hacker, who did jail time), and he preferred social engineering over digital invasion to execute his hacks. Maybe we should follow his lead. Talk to people instead of banging on a keyboard. It’s a shortcut to growth because you’ll be building something people actually want.

4. Data-informed is better than data-driven

Data is good. But there’s a catch. Data should inform our decisions. It shouldn’t be our master, dictating our every move. The greatest asset of any startup is the profound ability of the humans who are involved. When people are willing to be “informed” by data, they can create something special. When people are “driven” by data, they begin thinking like machines and making decisions that do not appeal to carbon-based organisms.

5. Deep growth can’t be hacked

You can do things to drive traffic. You can do things to retain users. You can do things to hack growth at a surface level, but deep growth cannot be manipulated. Great products – the ones that are woven into the fabric of our lives and become habits and addictions – tap into something buried within the human psyche. Twitter-esque, Facebook-esque, and LinkedIn-esque growth cannot be hacked. There is something deeper at play.

6. Destroy cognitive overhead

Product complexity is a killer. Users crave things that take less time and have fewer steps and features. However, we overlook cognitive overhead as a primary source of friction. David Demaree defines cognitive overhead as “how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.” Growth hackers make products that are easily understood beyond a niche tech crowd.

7. There is one metric that matters

Now that we can track everything, we want to focus on everything. But for any startup, there usually is one metric that matters at any given time. The problem is that this metric is different depending on what your startup does and the stage of development it’s in. Read Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz to uncover the one metric that matters for your business. Otherwise, you’ll be optimizing in vain.

8. Metrics don’t tell you what to do

The shortcoming of metrics is their inability to tell you what to do. For instance, an A/B test doesn’t provide you with A and B. You, the creator, the founder, the entrepreneur, must come up with A and B. The test simply tells you which of the two options you’ve created is better. This holds for all of data. It’s just numbers.For every hour spent staring at dashboards and reports, spend 2 hours brainstorming and ideating.

9. Growth is not rocket science

Growth can seem mysterious and hidden, a tool to be wielded by only the Silicon Valley elite. In reality, growth is within the grasp of mortals. Growth is a mixture of good people, the good data they use, the good decisions they make, and the good advice they receive. Growth is part common sense, part creativity, part hustle, and sometimes, part luck. Growth is improbable, but always possible.

10. Language is everything

Startups usually are concerned with design, and rightly so, but it is hard to overstate the effects of our language on consumer adoption. Play with words. Rearrange them. Change them. Make them sell, make them express, make them do the work they must do. Language is humanity’s oldest, and possibly best, growth hack. The right words, in the right order, at the right time, can do wonders.

11. Correlation is good, but causality is better

Data shows us when things are correlated. When A goes up and to the right, so does B. These are good insights to accumulate. But there is something even more powerful – causation. A and B both happen in tandem, but does A cause B? Does B cause A? Does C cause both A and B? Once you see correlations, then you must run experiments to uncover the causal relationships. Correlation gives you insights. Causation gives you power.

12. It’s the product, stupid

In the final assessment, growth hacking, when deployed in the service of a bad product, is a waste of life. Sorry, it needs to be said that bluntly. Engineering growth for something meaningful and important is a noble cause. Pushing a lazy idea, with lazy execution, is not worthy of your energy. Your results won’t be lasting no matter what your charts look like in the short term. Time breaks all hockey sticks that are not owned by great products.

13. Start a local growth hacking group

The difficulty in learning how to grow a startup is that you have exposure to only the project you’re working on. If you start a local meeting of growth engineers, then you will be able to learn from their trials, their context, and their insights. You’ll be exposed to different size budgets, different markets, etc., all from the sidelines, taking notes on the failures and successes they share.