5 Important Growth Hacking Lessons from the Man Who Coined the Term



I attended a GrowHack meet-up in New York City, hosted by Conrad Wadowski, and heard Sean Ellis speak about growth hacking. Sean was the first marketer at Dropbox, Lookout, Xobni, and led marketing teams at companies like LogMeIn and Uproar through IPO filings. Currently, he runs a successful data insight startup called Qualaroo. Most importantly, however, Sean coined the term “growth hacker” in his post Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup.

First, Hustle to Get Traction

Many people at the event were curious about how Dropbox became what it is today. Sean revealed that, in the beginning, it was all about hustling. Drew Houston first created a video with some clever tongue-in-cheek humor that caught on with the “tech crowd.” They also used Digg and Reddit to get more exposure.

Hustling is a common method to launch startups. Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of Tinder, visited sororities to get girls on Tinder. Shortly after, she went to their neighboring fraternities, which then gladly joined. The founders of Flickr commented on photos regularly in order to create an engaged community.

Our first product, EasyBib, now has 40 million yearly users. We started with zero in 2001. We invaded AOL chatrooms to talk about our product, spammed thousands of teachers individually, and sent emails to dozens of publications. We ended up being published on the front page of the business section of The Chicago Tribune.

Optimize Your Product for Marketing

Sean discussed Dropbox’s strong focus on making their product do the marketing for them. Specifically, they introduced the concept of a dual reward. When you invite someone to access your Dropbox, they receive 250MB of free space, and so do you. Therefore, the more people used Dropbox, the more beneficial it was.

But the Dropbox team made their product even better for current members. When someone you shared a Dropbox folder with created an account, you would be notified that you have more memory. If you’re familiar with Nir Eyal’s hook methodology, variable rewards like this keeps the customer highly engaged with a product. After the success of the referral program, the Dropbox team strategically placed prompts to share to test what users shared and ignored.

Do Whatever It Takes to Learn About Your Users

Sean advocated that every marketer should survey their audience. When working with companies in the past, Sean asked users how they would explain the product to a friend, and what one word they would use to describe the product. Then, he tested this information through messaging.

Surveying goes beyond the purpose of understanding messaging. For example, Sean would look at a user funnel and identify where drop-offs existed. Then, he would reach out to those who dropped off at a particular point to understand why. He cited an example where LogMeIn users from a new channel were dropping off on a free offer. It turned out they thought the offer was too good to be true. As result, Sean’s team created an option to download a trial of the premium version or download the free version, which increased conversion by three hundred percent.

Most importantly, Sean surveyed to benchmark survey to benchmark whether users found value in the product. He utilized that information to demonstrate the product’s value, and he surveyed a second time to determine if changes improved the reception of the product.

In my experience, talking to the customer is invaluable. When we show someone our new GetCourse product, we ask how they would describe the product, and why they would recommend it to a friend. These questions have helped us understand how we should position the product. To learn more about surveying, ConversionXL has a great post on the best questions to ask.

Think Beyond Content

Sean created a community website to center the conversation around the great marketing content available on the internet. His ultimate goal was to educate readers of GrowthHackers about his Qualaroo product. It’s fascinating to me, however, that Sean knew how to make Qualaroo stand out. He understood he would have to go beyond pumping out content. He was able to distinguish his efforts through curation and technology.

GrowthHackers exceeded expectations and provided exposure to Qualaroo, as expected. But, it also strengthened the community that rallied around GrowthHackers, and now that company has the potential to become its own business. Sean now hosts conferences with the Growth Hackers brand.

The future of content marketing is thinking beyond content. One of the most important lessons Sean shared with the audience was the significance of testing your ideas. His lessons aren’t text-book, they’re tested.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Image credit: CC by Susana Fernandez

About the author: Neal Taparia

Neal Taparia is the Co-CEO of Imagine Easy Solutions. The company’s latest product is GetCourse, which extracts data from powerpoint and PDFs online through by adding user tracking, questions, and surveys.

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