Having grown a few medium-sized communities, I’ve been curious about the buzz around the phrase growth hack.
I don’t think Sam Altman’s The Only Way to Grow Huge blog post is particularly useful. It’s either a rant triggered by the annoying frequency at which he hears the phrase growth hack or it’s his attempt to educate the clueless who don’t understand you need to create a product that people actually want to be successful.
For anyone with common sense, the only purpose the post serves is to get a “Yeah, you’re right!!!” reaction out of people who also are tired of hearing the phrase growth hack.
Sam is obviously a smart and successful entrepreneur. I’m not debating that. But why isn’t he posting something that people can actually disagree with or debate him on? Why no post something of substance?
Education aside, any audience worthy of having a blog post targeted at should know that you need an awesome product that people want (“product market fit”) to succeed at a large scale. So, the blog post and discussion should be focused on the role and degree of influence growth hacking can have on a startup’s success (assuming product market fit).
It’s not always black and white.
There are plenty of failed or losing startups with awesome products that ended up where they are because another startup was better at growth hacking or whatever you want to call it. It’s always debatable, but maybe the more successful startup had a marginally or significantly inferior product. At some point that can stop mattering. Instead of using a monopoly like Microsoft, startups can use growth hacks to dominate their competition with an equal or better product.
For example, while I’d argue that Mint had a better product than Wesabe, that’s not why Mint crushed Wesabe very quickly despite launching 10 months later. Mint crushed Wesabe because they had a very aggressive and effective content marketing strategy of creating blog posts and infographics that made personal finance interesting, entertaining and informative. Mint then would work to get their content featured on mainstream websites like Reddit and Digg, a wide variety of blogs not necessarily related to personal finance, as well as promoting it on social media. Mint’s infographics generated 10s of thousands of signups for them. Some former Mint employees even went on to create Visual.ly, a marketplace for infographics. The Why Wesabe Lost to Mint blog post by Wesabe co-founder Marc Hedlundis is partially wrong because it fails to mention this.
I think it’s hard to argue that the Spotify or Rdio music service is better other than the fact streaming service. I’ve noticed that most people I know who really love music tend to be drawn to Rdio over Spotify. Spotify is beating Rdio badly right now. Why? Growth hacking techniques like having a free plan (which Rdio didn’t offer until mid-2013) and early and tight integration with Facebook.
SnapJoy used growth hack techniques that were almost exactly the same as Dropbox’s and then was acquired by Dropbox not long launching to the public (although it’s probably just because they are both YC companies). The list is much shorter now, but before SnapJoy was acquired, there were a handful of serious competitors. Picturelife has sustained itself. ThisLife was acquired by ShutterFly. Everpix shutdown. I’d argue of the four (and I used all four with over 50,000 photos) that Everpix negligibly had the best product. It didn’t matter. They made two mistakes. No growth hacks and a bad business model.
What do Dropbox, Xobni, and LogMeIn all have in common? They are all arguably good products. Growth hacks contributed significantly to their success. All had competitors, some more than others and some more of a threat than others. Finally, Sean Ellis was the growth lead at all three of the companies in their most critical growth stages and he was the man that coined the phrase growth hack.
Yes, making a product people want to use matter for success, but so does implementing growth hacks, in some cases, to achieve rapid growth at a degree and time that’s not possible in traditional ways, but necessary to crush competition with a similar or superior product.