So what is growth hacking, really?


In 2010 Sean Ellis, entrepreneur, angel investor, startup advisor and now CEO of GrowthHackers, coined the term “growth hacker” as someone whose every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative is attempted in the hopes of growing. But that’s pretty vague, right?

Check out the Google Trends graph below. Lots of people are searching for this term, so let’s dig into what it really means.

What is growth hacking, really?

‘Growth hacking’ meshes digital marketing with traditional marketing with customer retention and product performance. Growth roles typically apply to the startup world where software and apps are the products because these days, there’s a lot to gain from marketers being close to product development.

Ellis saw this as a talent gap. He had helped grow many popular startups, like Dropbox and Qualaroo, but had a hard time finding the right talent to support him.

The tactics and strategies they use are simply to reach new customers efficiently, retain existing customers long-term, and build a product that markets and sells itself. For example, if people love the product so much that they are telling coworkers about it, blogging about it, or leaving app store reviews, then marketing somewhat handles itself.

Growth hackers know this and will strive to find optimizations on the product side through quantitative study (ex: web analytics and CRM data) and combine those insights with their market research or discussions with users. You can learn about a few examples of successful growth hacking here.

Qualities of a growth hacker and five top skills they possess

According to San Diego Growth Hacker Dan Greco, the qualities of a growth hacker are simple to understand but often difficult to mimic: “Growth hackers see opportunity where others see challenges, solve problems creatively and collaboratively, empathize with users and try to tie everything back to metrics. Growth hacking is the mindset of never being satisfied.”

It’s great to celebrate wins when the numbers are up, but growth hackers are programmed to always look for opportunities to improve.

Five skills that you’ll need to become a growth hacker include:

1. Web Analytics

Arguably the most important skill of a growth hacker is web analytics and quantitative skills.  Before aggressively deploying tactics and strategies for growth, they need to have a measurement strategy in place. In other words, if we deploy this initiative, how will we measure success?

For digital marketing this often lives in Google Analytics or Firebase (for mobile apps) or if the data source feeds into a database, running queries through SQL or automating reports to populate in MS Excel are extremely valuable. Don’t confuse this with data science; growth hackers don’t need to know advanced statistics or predictive modeling, but they do need to know how to collect and interpret data.

Common Tools: Google Analytics (for websites and web apps), Firebase (for mobile apps and web apps), Excel, SQL

2. Digital Marketing

Growth hackers should have a good understanding of SEO, PPC, social media, email and retargeting best practices. They’ll likely need to implement many of the optimizations and strategies across these channels if it’s a small startup, but if it’s a company that has the support of a digital agency, the growth hacker should manage the relationship and ensure they are hitting desired performance goals.

Common Tools: AdWords, Bing Ads, Facebook Advertising, Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools), Mailchimp

3. Community Building

Building communities, both online and offline, is an important part of a growth hacking because it helps people to begin to perceive your brand as a thought leader.

Unlike social media marketing, which is more about branding and short term awareness, community building hits at the source. Like responding to people’s questions on Quora, making relationships and building followers on LinkedIn or hosting a local meetup for like-minded people in your industry or potential consumers.

Common Tools: LinkedIn,, Quora

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4. User/Customer Experience

Empathy is a strong characteristic of a growth hacker because they are able to step into the shoes of their consumers and relate to their needs. Web analytics can help uncover weak spots in a user experience and devise a hypothesis for what can be done better.

Tools like Optimizely and VWO allow marketers to create AB tests but also have functionality for developers to add custom code for complex tests. Customer interviews are great ways to ask for candid feedback on “What can we do to serve you better?” is a tool that allows you to message users from your website or app or have users message you. Hotjar similarly has website surveys, records a user’s screen during their session to help you understand what may be confusing and what may be valuable, and provide heat maps to see where they click.

Common Tools:, Hotjar, Appsee (mobile apps), Optimizely, VWO

5. Product Marketing

Product marketers know the product inside and out and how the features and value propositions can resonate with different target audiences. Having a fundamental understanding of how to communicate from a lead nurturing and sales perspective is key, especially for B2B businesses. For B2C, this is more focused on messaging and branding through website content like blog posts and videos.

Where do growth hackers work?

Growth hackers work mostly in startup environments. For that reason, the majority of Growth Hacker talent resides in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, but most startups with a software or app product that have raised a Series A likely are in need of someone to lead their growth.

With that said, larger companies are starting to adopt them as well, to act as a bridge between marketing and product development teams.


The growth hacker role is becoming more and more valuable. The ability to collaborate cross-functionally with the Sales, Engineering and Product teams and then translate those understandings into digital marketing strategy and data analysis is extremely valuable to startups that have already validated their product-market fit and are ready to scale.

If you’re a marketer looking for a way into the startup world, if you’re a data nerd looking to pursue a more creative and strategic role, or if you’re an entrepreneur looking to make an early hire, hopefully this article will help you with your growth goals.

Are you a growth hacker with something to add? Are you planning to hire a growth hacker in your business? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for HigherVisibility, a full service SEO agency, and a contributor to SEW. You can connect with Amanda on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

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