An Introduction to Growth Hacking: 3 Quotes to Explain the Future of Marketing

rocketFor nearly two years now, I have been studying growth hacking. Not because I fancy myself one, in fact, on the contrary I know that I am not.

That’s what keeps me up at night. I made it to my own little top of the traditional marketing mountain (director of marketing for American Apparel, a controversial but publicly traded fashion retailer in 20 countries) only to find that a lot of my skills were on the very of being made obsolete.

So in the course of frantically trying to update my understand and prepare for the future of marketing, I undertook a crash course in growth hacking. I also wrote a book about this awakening called Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising.

I thought I’d give three quick quotes which I think exude the essence of this new science of marketing. Hopefully after reading them, you’ll be prepped for your own deep dive.

“Make stuff people want.” – Paul Graham


The best marketing advice you’ll ever get? Make something that doesn’t suck – make stuff that’s WORTH talking about and spreading. No one is a good enough marketer to growth hack a broken product. But fixing a broken product will make you seem like a genius marketer.

Take Instagram. It started as a location-based social network called Burbn (which had an optional photo feature). Slowly, the founders realized that its users were flocking to only one part of the app—the photos and filters.

So they retooled the service around this popularity and almost instantly growth exploded. One hundred thousand users within a week of re-launching. Within eighteen months, the founders sold Instagram for $1 billion.

If that isn’t marketing, what is?

“It’s a mindset not a toolkit.” – Aaron Ginn


In the early days, Twitter found that it was bringing a lot of new users through the door, but most of them never stuck around. They found when users manually selected five to ten accounts to “follow” or “friend” on the first day, the user was significantly more likely to stick around. So Josh Elman and his team designed and coded the “Suggested User List” to keep new users from joining and then quitting. It also turned out to be a much talked about feature, which was another added benefit.

It’s very unlikely that you will have the exact same problem as Twitter, and it’s even less likely that the right solution to that problem will be the exact same solution that Twitter found. In other words, the specific tools are much less important than the general thinking and approach behind it. The real lesson in the Twitter campaign is simple: “Retention trumps acquisition.”

Growth hacking as a mindset is varied but its general traits are: data-driven thinking, scalability, creativity, a penchant for ignoring the “rules.” You could ask 100 growth hackers what their secret weapon was and probably get 100 different answers. But the commonalities between those tools–whatever they happen to be–would be this: doing a lot more with a lot less.

If you can internalize this mindset and let it change the way you see and conceive of problems (and opportunities), you’ll find it will quickly become your greatest asset. Programming languages, technical training, even relationships with investors and media–these are all domain specific proficiencies. The growth hacking mindset on the other hand, transcends every situation and is applicable no matter what you are doing and what company or product you are doing it for.

“I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles.” – David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy in Manhattan

It might seem weird to use a quote about growth hacking from a guy who, even more than a character like Don Draper, seems to embody the traditional model of advertising. But I’m not sure if there is a better line describe what thinkers like Sean Ellis, Jesse Farmer, Chamath Palihapitiya, Noah Kagan, Aaron Ginn and Dan Martell do. And a lot people don’t know that Ogivily’s real specialty was direct advertising – a medium he always loved because the success or failure of a campaign could be tracked.

When Dropbox did the math on their pay per click campaigns, they were able to quickly see that spending $300+ to acquire a new user was not going to be sustainable as a strategy. So they tried something new – a referral program (borrowing the mindset/approach from other startups). Dropbox’s offer was that users would get 500 megabytes of free space for every friend they invited and got to sign up (along with bonuses for some other types of behavior) Guess what? The math of that DID work. For next to nothing, they sign-ups increased by roughly 60 percent and stayed at level for months. And today, 35 percent of Dropbox’s customers come to it via referral.

That is the definition of the discipline of knowledge conquering the anarchy of ignorance. Is there really an excuse for making multi-million dollar decisions based on gut feelings or hunches anymore? Not when you can track advertising down to the impression, when you can see what users actually do when they come to your site, when the tools for getting customer feedback have never been better. No one is saying marketing can’t still be an art, but the science can help direct those efforts and make sure you don’t waste them

Who can I ask for help?

For the real specific, granular tactics of growth hacking, there are also sorts of great experts out there–especially here on Clarity. Personally, I’ve learned the most from the essays of Andrew Chen (talk to him on Clarity), Jesse Farmer (talk to him on Clarity) and Sean Ellis (talk to him on Clarity). I’ve also been able to conduct a series of interviews with some of the best growth hackers in the world (the raw transcripts of which come as bonuses when you buy my new book)

But I think these quotes are a solid introduction. Good luck and hope to see you on the other side of your awakening!

About the Author: Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author, his newest book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry. He gives monthly reading recommendations as well.

Tags: , ,
Free Guide: Straight-up Startup Advice

Learn From The Best
Top Entrepreneurial Advice
150 Entrepreneurs Share Their Secrets

Free Guide: Straight-up Startup Advice


  • Joseph Wesley Putnam

    This post is solid. I’m a really big fan of growth hacking. Not sure how much it will find it’s way into the budgets of large corporations, but for startups, there’s no better way to grow. It takes some creativity and effort, but that’s why advertising is a tax on the lazy. Thanks for the great write-up.

  • faith

    Hey – just a heads up, the link to your book is broken. 🙂

  • Paul Sondhi

    Ryan’s book is fantastic! For anyone considering the book who doesn’t want to read long reviews, check out this short video summary on YouTube:

  • Paul Sondhi

    Ryan’s book is fantastic!

    For anyone considering the book who doesn’t want to read long reviews, check out this short video summary on YouTube:

    • Damien Parsons

      Great article Ryan and thanks for sharing this video Paul. I look forward to sharing with my followers.

      Many people ask me “What is growth hacking?”

      My response was mindset and viral discovery but this is an awesome introduction to growth hacking.