Career Boosters: Growth hacking demystified

Can big companies be more nimble in their marketing outlook?

Career Boosters is a monthly e-panel discussion led by Boost Agents. We scout out leaders in the marketing, digital, communications and advertising spaces to provide their perspectives on industry topics related to career development, talent acquisition and hiring practices.

This time around, we discussed growth hacking with Cristian Contreras, marketing director at FundThrough, Tiffany Da Silva, director of digital strategy at Powered by Search, Sarah Stockdale, growth manager at Tilt, and Amrita Mathur, growth marketer at Vision Critical.

Growth hacking: a marketing technique developed by technology startups which uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure… Growth hackers focus on low-cost and innovative alternatives to traditional marketing, e.g. utilizing social media and viral marketing instead of buying advertising through more traditional media such as radio, newspaper, and television. (via Wikipedia)

Growth hacking is currently one of the most widely discussed — commonly misunderstood — terms in the industry. How do you define it?

Amrita Mathur

Amrita Mathur

Amrita: Growth hacking is a mindset rather than a marketing tactic or technique. It is the way in which you approach problems. A growth hacker is looking for a scalable and repeatable method for growth, inspired by data and driven by product instincts. Many progressive, data-driven, automation-leveraging marketers today are already growth hackers. They are modern marketers who are both creative yet technical, have clear goals, are results driven, don’t mind digging into data and numbers and are infinitely curious. They use analytics to get insights on what’s working, where it’s working, and then figure out how to allocate budget and resources accordingly. They can spot a good thing, and scale it incredibly. At the same time, they don’t hold grudges when things don’t work out – they’re already on to the next thing.
Christian Contreras

Christian Contreras

Cristian: Growth hacking has become something of a panacea term for founders and investors looking to grow their businesses. What started as the accidental love child of engineers-turned-marketers has now been extended to connote high-impact, data-driven creativity in marketing. This poses both a danger and an opportunity. On the one side, we now have a framework we can follow in search of our hockey stick growth curve. On the other side, we face new pressures to focus on finding the holy-grail hack too early and set strategy aside. Growth hacking is unpredictable by definition. New companies ought to focus instead on building predictable and repeatable growth engines.

Tiffany Dasilva

Tiffany Dasilva

Tiffany: I always loved Sean Ellis’ approach to growth hacking. He talks about growth hacking as this thing startup people do when they find themselves desperate and disadvantaged. We use this situation to think outside of the box, be efficient, create opportunities in places you would never think of and, most of all, innovate.

That’s what growth hacking is to me – it’s about taking what you know about marketing and acting rapidly and effectively, with growth as your main objective.

Sarah Stockdale

Sarah Stockdale

Sarah: To be totally candid, a lot of us folks that work in growth don’t really love the term “growth hacker,” because it is so contentious and widely misunderstood. Growth is a new kind of marketing bred for early-stage startups. Growth professionals are constantly searching for unique ways to get their product to their customers, experimenting with new technologies and methods, aggressively measuring their experiments with data, and optimizing for better results. It’s a lot of fast trial, error and learning.

Tell us about the key milestones that brought you to where you are today.
Cristian: I began my career in sales with organizations that had little marketing support. This gave me an early respect and appreciation for both sides of the table. As a business development associate for Idea Couture, I came to realize that I wanted to become more intimately acquainted with technology and product design where I could play a more creative role.

Tiffany: I’ve always been obsessed with learning and trying to see things from different perspectives. Digital marketing and growth has always been at the forefront of this. So, knowing this, you can see how my career evolved from SEO to PPC to social media and content to managing online marketing to conversion rate optimization and growth hacking and, finally, to digital strategy, which is the area I’m in today.

Sarah: I think most professionals working in early-stage growth positions have weird paths. I like to say I got to where I am with a lot of hustle, but it was honestly quite a bit of luck as well. My career in tech started when I decided to risk taking a three month contract at a tiny 20-person accounting startup over a full time job at a very well established PR firm. Two months later that startup raised 20 million in venture capital from the valley and grew to be 70 people in my first year. I was on a small marketing team of three, and we were able to get to a place where we were acquiring 1,300 users/day.

At Tilt, I got the unique opportunity to grow the product in a brand new country with a small, mighty team from scratch. In my interview process I pitched the idea of hiring ambassadors at campuses across Canada to organically grow Tilt usage. I was able to start executing on that vision, and a year later we have a team of 200 campus ambassadors across the country, and we’re seeing 90% month over month growth in new campaigns in Canada.

Amrita: Many of the key milestones in my life have been realizations I’ve had or decisions I’ve made, rather than events. The earliest one I remember was realizing that I didn’t want to be a programmer, rather a marketer —  a data informed, full-stack marketer, who could use a technical skillset for faster and more efficient growth. I’d say the second key one was realizing that there is no silver bullet, and that no successful marketing technique lasts forever. One has to reinvent themselves and the solutions to their business challenges over and over. It never stops.

Does growth hacking have a place in large, well-established companies? If so, what does it look like?
Cristian: Absolutely. The marketing departments of established companies can become reactive, spending too much time responding to the internal demands of their organizations, and playing catch up with the latest trend. They become bogged down in a game of whack-a-mole. To counter this tendency, I believe CMO’s at large organizations should create a growth team dedicated to exploring and testing creative growth formulas, and isolate them completely from any distracting demands. An ‘innovator’s-dilemma-type solution designed to lead marketing innovation.

Tiffany: I think it does, but it needs a few things to successful: freedom, trust and a problem to solve. You can’t just create a group, tell them to grow, and then back away slowly. You need to take a small group of people you trust, give them a problem to solve, and then give them the freedom to solve it. Freedom, I find, is the hardest thing to give up.

Sarah: Yes! I think every industry can benefit from bringing a culture of growth hacking into their organization. There are three major ways they can do that: experimentation, data, and speed. Monotony is the enemy of growth, so employees need to feel they can try new, creative methods to get faster results, and that failure (as long as you learn something) is OK. The second piece is data; in larger organizations it’s hard for employees to know how their work directly impacts the business, which can lead to apathy. Give your employees one metric to focus on, and make sure they feel a sense of ownership over that goal. The last piece is speed, which may be hardest for larger organizations. To truly be a growth-focused organization you need to get out of the way of progress, which means removing unnecessary process or barriers for your employees.

Amrita: Yes, definitely. It might be difficult to shake things up at a bank, for example, that has marketed a certain way for years, and still enjoy decent revenue and growth. However, most companies that are looking to grow exponentially, well-established or not, will undoubtedly welcome new ideas and methods of growth. After all, they want to get there as fast as possible, with the least operational overhead possible. At Vision Critical, where I work, we are focused on the enterprise buyer and use the typical growth hacking mindset to constantly question and redefine our existing approach. My team is responsible for demand generation and looks at various metrics on a weekly, if not daily basis. Every two weeks we get together as a team and talk about how to reach our audience and capture their attention in new and interesting ways. These ideas aren’t revolutionary; rather, they are incremental and iterative.

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