What 300 Years of Growth Hacking Can Teach Us


Growth hacking is what happens when street smarts join forces with technology, operations, creativity, and revenue. The goal is to create a customer acquisition engine that essentially runs on autopilot.

That’s what you do. Here’s what you get:

If you move forward with a clear strategic vision:
A steady, sustainable, and robust user acquisition stream.

If you’re not smart about what you’re doing:

What’s amazing about growth hacking is that the concept is timeless. It’s a marketing practice with roots back to the earliest days of entrepreneurship.

That’s good news. In building your growth engine, you have hundreds of years of experience to draw from. Here are some of my favorite lessons that dating back as far as 300 years ago:

1. Dive into growing markets as early as possible. Own it.

In 1739, Eliza Lucas Pinckney realized that a growing textile industry was creating a need for new types of dyes, so she developed a high-quality blue indigo. Because her dye was the first and best solution in this growing market, sales took off and dramatically impacted the United States economy. Its development produced one-third of the total value of colonial South Carolina’s exports before the Revolutionary War. As a 16 year old entrepreneur, Pinckney literally growth hacked the distribution of her high-value product. In 1989, she became the first woman inducted into South Carolina’s Business Hall of Fame.

This concept goes back to the metaphorical big fish in a small pond analogy. When you’re among the first and you bring something awesome to the table, you’ll be a shark like Pinckney.

Markets can be technology ecosystems, places, or networks of buyers and sellers. The market that Eliza Lucas Pinckney entered was a growing textile industry. Here’s another example that will strike a chord with the tech aficionados in this audience.

At the height of the dot-com boom, online transactions were taking off through marketplaces like eBay. This ecosystem spurred the development of PayPal in the early 2000s.

Today, PayPal is eBay’s official payment system. But this wasn’t always the case.

“As PayPal noticed their growth among eBay sellers, they worked out a deal with eBay to include the PayPal logo on the listings that accepted PayPal,” recaps the MixRank blog about Keith Rabois’s speech at the 2013 Growth Hackers Conference in San Francisco. “The logo sat side by side with other prefered forms of payment like Visa and MasterCard logos.”

This partnership took off because eBay was an established, but growing market for online auctions. The growth of this marketplace inspired a need for a safe and streamlined payment system.

More and more sellers started accepting PayPal as the role payment option, forcing users to create accounts. PayPal was so invaluable to eBay’s marketplace that eBay bought it for $1.5 Billion. As of 2012, PayPal accounted for 40% of eBay’s Q3 revenue.

2. Quit forcing your customers jump through hoops

vendor_compliance_main_0312Growth hacking is more than just bringing people to your website or brick and mortar business. You need to make the process as easy as possible. If users are confused, frustrated, or faced with a time-consuming sign-on process, they’ll churn faster than you can say your name backwards.

This is a perspective that Wealthfront’s VP of product and growth Elliot Shmukler truly champions. Back in May, he spoke at the Growth Hackers Conference in San Francisco about his previous life where he oversaw the strategy for LinkedIn’s membership growth efforts.

Reduce friction

was one of his core lessons.

Make the sign-up process as easy as possible. Embrace the heavy lifting so it’s disgustingly easy for your users to opt in.

3. Partner ecosystems enhance distribution

In 1946, Estee Lauder founded the Estee Lauder company to sell high-quality skin care products that her uncle developed. Her customer base included hotels and beauty salons, but she quickly realized that she could reach a larger consumer base through channels where makeup lovers were already shopping – department stores. Her sales genius led to her own counter at NYC’s Saks Fifth Avenue in 1948 and Neiman Marcus in 1950.

Now let’s flash forward to today.

Eagle Rock Brewery is a tiny microbrewery in an industrial Los Angeles neighborhood. In several short years, the company has amassed an extensive fan community and customer base. Why? For one, people love the beer. But more importantly, this business has been damn smart about their growth, pioneering distribution partnerships with local restaurants who are interested in selling their product.

But growth hacking is more than just business development. Technology can amplify your efforts to a superhuman capacity. Andrew Chen points out one of the most eloquent examples that the tech space has ever seen — Airbnb’s integration with Craigslist.

They’ve picked a platform with 10s of millions of users where relatively few automated tools exist, and have created a great experience to share your Airbnb experience,

he wrote.

And Airbnb isn’t the only one. In sunny San Diego, a lead response management company called Speak2Leads was able to amplify its customer acquisition through platform integrations with complementary products like Unbounce and Infusionsoft.

The key is to identify your marketing vision. Leverage technology to make it easy, seamless, and bigger.

4. Don’t be afraid… to get a little guerilla


If you fixate on perfection, you’re never going to start. Establish your vision. Then work backwards to piece together your first iteration.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘minimum viable product.’ For growth hacking, the concept is similar in that it’s possible to get started with a ‘minimum viable engine.’

Noah Kagan followed this 18-step formula to scale three companies to their first 100k users. Much of these tips involve:

  • connecting with prospects 1:1
  • writing guest posts
  • doing lots of manual outreach

These are processes that you can automate as your initiatives start to scale, but when you’re first starting out, guerilla is your best option.

I went through a similar process this year when I built a growth engine to scale Investopedia’s audience by tens of millions of readers. When I started, I literally had nothing — a $200 marketing spend, zero engineering resources, Excel, basic reporting, a notebook for feverish brainstorming, and a telephone to call my boss, our company president, for a pep talk. Seven months after the project’s earliest iteration, this thing is 50% automated and positioned to kick butt. I went from throwing darts in the dark to scaling a few hundred dollars into an ROI-driven, multi-million dollar marketing spend.

The trick is to start with your vision and work backwards. Be a connector, iterate, strive for improvement, and be relentlessly patient. Believe in your goal, give setbacks the finger, and don’t wuss out.

Focus on sustainable growth, not quick wins

Here is another pointer that Sean Ellis describes eloquently. Growth hacking is about authentic, healthy user acquisition.

I recommend that people don’t get caught up on the term “growth hacker” or even a specific definition for it,

Ellis wrote.

Focus instead on the concepts behind it. The fastest growing companies on the Internet have a growth focus rather than a marketing focus. Try to understand how businesses like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Linkedin, Eventbrite and Groupon are driving growth and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of “growth hacker.”

Focus on goals, not glamour. You need to know your ‘why’ before deploying the ‘how.’

That means building the right systems, engines, and analytic frameworks to support your goals. You can blog, run PPC ads, host webinars, and send thousands of newsletters, but unless you’re focusing on your operations, your efforts with fall flat. Build an engine, not a series of disjointed campaigns.

Ritika Puri manages audience development at Investopedia and runs a storytelling consulting company, UserGrasp. Her experiences include:

  • Co-founding a health center in New Delhi, India when she was 20.
  • Building marketing programs and strategic partnerships from scratch for a major finance education portal.
  • Starting an after-hours business as a freelance blogger and customer engagement consultant, and scaling it by 3x in two years.
  • Being a continuous advocate for education by putting herself through grad school debt free, teaching a quantitative research class at UC Irvine, and recently writing her first e-book on marketing.
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  • Prabal Chowdhury

    Excellent writing. Thanks for your writing about growth hacking. How do you monitor your website? Have you ever used ColibriTool for monitoring your website backlinks? I have been using colibri for all of my SEO working including website monitoring, keyword analysis, competitor’s website monitoring and so on. You can have a look here in http://colibritool.com

  • Mark Hayes

    I think the example that you used of Speak 2 Leads is a great one. I noticed recently how they had integrated their platform with Unbounce which is a smart hack to get people noticing your company and signing up as a user.

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