We are at a time of divergence. Growth Hacking has replaced digital marketing as the, “not so secret”, secret of billion dollar companies. It is well documented that the fastest growing tech companies did not rely on traditional marketing strategies. They simply couldn’t afford to indulge themselves in vanity campaigns, focusing instead on strategies that delivered tangible, measurable results.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” Peter Drucker

Growth hacking teams are traditionally relatively small and have a rare combination of skills sets with smart people who are equally at home hacking the growth of their own social media accounts or developing and leading viral campaigns costing thousands, worth millions.

This position is now incorporated into the most important parts of society – Hillary Clinton recently advertised for a Growth Hacker to accelerate the success of her campaign.

And in the noise that growth hacking rightly caused marketers and digital agencies saw an opportunity. “Let’s rebrand ourselves as a growth hackers, it’s essentially what we do”. Oh dear.

These opportunists and snake oil salesmen then fooled existing and new clients into signing up with them. For example: whenever I see a new website advertising their services on radio, billboards or worse – Television, I already know they have been fooled into paying for a campaign developed by traditional marketers rather than someone who really understands growth in today’s connected economy.

“Goals are Nice.   Ideas are Fun. Execution is Everything”

So here I am giving you the 3 pillars of an outstanding growth hacker. From this you can assess any agency who approaches you, any candidate for a position and separate the rising stars from the black holes.

1. Experts in Consumer and Behavioural Psychology

It’s no secret that in the upper circles of growth hacking the very best are experts in psychology. Constantly on the search for new thinking, new ideas, new theories, new experts to learn from.

It was from this starting point that I went and sought out the grandfather of influence, Dr Robert Cialdini. His bestselling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is still my bible for understanding how to influence people and persuade people, both on and offline.

His 6 core principles of influence (authority, scarcity, social proof, liking, commitment and consistency, and reciprocity) stand the test of time and can be easily applied to increase your effectiveness regardless of what industry you are in.

“It’s all in the application”

Behavioural psychologist, Daniel Ariely’s landmark book Predictably Irrational was a wake up call to many traditional marketers who believed that people behave in rational and intelligent ways. His central concept flew in the face of what people traditional believed made people tick and offered scientific evidence often demonstrating the opposite.

Nir Eyal is an outstandingly smart man who started to decode why we become hooked on certain products and services. Think of how often you check your Facebook app or how often you place a certain game on your iPhone compared to the multiple apps on your phone you look at one a week (if that).

There are many, many other exceptional experts out there who are producing incredible findings the majority of average marketers or growth hackers simply do not read. Worse still – they may read but never test out for themselves what works or what doesn’t.

And B Team growth and marketing “experts” will disregard these and many other experts because they are written for primarily online or tech companies, completely miss the point. These are based on human behaviour and whether we care to admit it or not, as a society we are increasingly moving online with every aspect of our lives.

While it is not necessary to be a behavioural economist or a psychological expert it does set you apart if you are able to at the very least understand how the concepts can be applied to growth.

For me, I took this one step further starting with the central question: “how can I allow someone to believe that my idea is their idea so that they act on it?”

Artificial Inspiration

So taking what I knew of science and how to ask questions to find the answers I went on a journey to understand the science of inspiration. Turns out I wasn’t as crazy as I thought and quickly found a body of work by scientists like Dr T Thrash who had been working on this premise for decades. Opportunities to talk with brilliant minds like Dr Gary Klein (author of Insight: Seeing What Others Don’t) and Ryan Holiday (author of Trust Me, I’m Lying and The Obstacle Is The Way) helped to set me on my path further.

What I discovered is that people’s application of inspiration was extremely limited. Primarily confined to creative arts or flashes of sporting excellence. In truth once the psychology of inspiration was deconstructed it was relatively easy, under the right conditions, to guide anyone to inspiration whether they are a marketing a product, leading an organization or politically maneuvering opponents in ways in which Frank Underwood would be impressed.

But we’ll save that for another time.

2. You Will Live Or Die By Your Metrics

In the early days of marketing and digital marketing we relied on vanity metrics – page views, unique impressions etc. We truly believed that the higher the number of views the more successful we were.

However, this was all turned on it’s head when people with a growth hacking mindset started asking difficult questions – so what is you CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost), MoM (Month on Month) Growth, Churn Rate and so on.

They are difficult questions if you don’t know the answers, but, fundamentally, if we are unable to fully understand what metrics you are currently measuring we have no idea what to focus our effort on.

I was once approached by stage at the Web Summit green room. I had just stepped off stage after giving a talk about growth hacking and was heading for a much needed glass of water. The individual was a well known celebrity who had launched their own app on the back of an idea they had had.

“Hey, this is my app, you’re a growth hacker, how do you think I can get my team to improve it?”

Big red flags and warning bells started sounding. If anyone who tells you how to start changing your website or app who hasn’t seen any of the data or even asks some basic questions about your metrics probably just sees you as a nice meal ticket for several months. Avoid them at all costs.

Here’s the truth, unless you can measure what you are going to change there is no point changing it.

Secondly, when making changes a growth hacker will advise small incremental changes. I have never met a successful growth hacker who has come in and completely changed everything.

Look at the early screenshots of Facebook as an example, although a lot has changed it still has a basic resemblance to the early years that required testing, changes, testing again and so on.

3. The Secret Weapon: Creativity

Lastly, outstanding growth hackers share this one common trait – they are highly creative problem solvers. Combining the two earlier skill sets the talent of creative problem solver is our most precious and valuable weapon in our arsenal.

I met one founder who had hired a “Growth Hacker” at a considerable cost to his company and naturally I was curious what his growth hacker was brought into do specifically and what he was doing. “Well he can’t do anything yet until we get funding and once we do he’s going to start our Facebook advertising”.

“Ok right, so what is he doing in the meantime?”

“Writing the plans for it”.

Hmmm sadly this is exactly the problem of a digital marketer pulling the wool over the eyes of a founder. And it is something that is becoming more and more of an issue. Growth hackers, the good and the great at least, have had to learn tricks, skills and strategies in the absence of a budget. Then when you have a budget to pour on the fire of a growth hacker it ignites like a fireball.

Relying on paid advertising (Facebook, Google, Linkedin etc) as your primary source of growth without also experimenting with other channels is a suicide strategy.

If you ever need suggestions on what other forms of traffic start by looking at Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares and then creatively understand what can be done.

But this is standard growth, there are opportunities to create significant step changes in growth which require creative thinking to develop unique solutions.

Unfortunately, an ugly truth is that once something has been done once by a company it is rare to have the same success copying the exact same strategy. This is due to the fact that it has already been done once and people remember, so if you try to emulate the success by copying exactly what had worked for a company you admire you will fail.


Surround yourself with Growth hackers who are creative, who think differently, who are prepared to fail, who demonstrate the above 3 pillars of excellence. Nothing great was ever built by following the herd.