Growth Hacking Will Kill Your Startup

Launching a product is easy. Building a company with fast growth is brutally hard.


Every waking moment you spend on your startup, you aspire to grow and you fight for hyper growth.

The term ‘Growth Hacker,’ coined in 2010, hit the marketing world hard and was considered by many as the new way to do marketing for startups. In fact, today still, many think it’s the new VP Marketing.

Those who know me know that I dislike the Growth Hacking movement so much that I’ve been doing talks about it to FounderFuel and Startup Institute companies for quite some time. But, to be fully honest, I don’t hate everything about Growth Hacking. Only about 90 per cent of it.

The Good: Growth hacking is data-driven

You can’t go wrong with this one. Of course, as a startup person you must be focused on metrics and measure everything. Nuff said.

The Bad: Marketers felt the need to coin a term for smart startup marketing

As a marketing guy, I’m allowed to say what I’m about to say. I find it hilarious when marketers market marketing. If you’re a smart marketer, you were data driven long before the term ‘Growth Hacking’ existed, and you were doing the right things.

The Ugly: People actually believe growth can be hacked

Google ‘Growth Hacking’ and you’ll get a plethora of tips and tricks to hack your way to growth.

“Growth Hack Your Company With These 8 Tricks”

“5 of the most famous (and effective) growth hacks of all time”

“21 Actionable Growth Hacking Tactics”

STOP! Don’t listen to any of it. It’s all crap.

How can something that worked for one product work for all products? The only way this can be true is if you’re building the same product and targeting the same people.

As a marketing guy who meets a lot of startup teams, the question I get the most is, “How do I acquire users?” My answer is always the same: “I don’t have a clue.” How would I know when I know nothing about your business?

There is no silver bullet!

AirBnB built numerous growth engines, but they didn’t do it by reading on a blog that a blue button is better than a green one. They did it by having a deep understanding of their core value proposition and understanding what their users really wanted. They launched small experiments to validate their growth hypotheses, and when they found something that worked, that resonated with their audience, they scaled it and repeated it over and over as long as it generated quality (not quantity) users with strong retention rates (3 day, 7 day, 28 day, 56 day and 84 day).

Spending time trying to hack (a.k.a. “trick”) people into visiting your site is waste of energy. Users see through it all and the numbers will likely show it because you’ll have little retention. When all you’re doing is pumping new registrations to your product, you retain none and continuously recycle your user base. Registrations are a vanity metric and you can’t build a business on them.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s up to your marketing/growth team to figure out what works for your product today, with the understanding that it won’t work tomorrow. Which, of course, means they’ll need to start all over again the day after.

Growth Hacking will kill your startup because you’re not focused on the right thing and you’re not focused on understanding your core value proposition.

I’ll end with what I think your growth strategy should be in the early days:

  1. Build a product that solves a real need
  2. Define your core value proposition
  3. Make sure your onboarding experience delivers the core value proposition as quickly as possible

That’s it! Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Bryan Bogensberger

    Ian, when you talk in absolutes in the world of startups your sound naive. Specifically, when you say growth cannot be hacked asked fellow Montrealer, Alistair Croll, how many times “Growth” has been hacked. This is one of the most simplistic reviews of how Startups can accelerate growth that I have seen in awhile. Actually, sometimes *it is* the “blue button”.

  2. 3
    Alan Quarry

    Ian, most if not all the startups I work with here in Waterloo can do 1,2 and 3 of your suggested ‘growth strategies’. And that just isn’t good enough. If the startup cannot attract, engage and convert leads into customers they fail no matter how good their product or service is. Product marketing based on the 4 P’s is DOA. Building a brand, whether you call it ‘growth hacking’ or not is imperative to startups. ‘ Hacking’ by the way is a verb used to improve or innovate in the startup ecosystem… it’s not about tricking.

    • 4
      ian jeffrey

      Hi Alan, thanks for sharing. I’d argue the biggest issue most startups have is not having a clear understanding of their core value proposition or aren’t addressing a real need. The onboarding part is the easy part 🙂

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