What does a growth hacker do?

In order to answer this question, we first have to establish what a growth hacker is. A growth hacker from a startup could be the exact same person as the digital marketer within a large corporate, or even a product manager at a tech firm. So there is not that much new under the sun.

The first person to come up with the term growth hacker was Sean Ellis in 2010 (check his blog on startup marketing). He defined a growth hacker as a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth. Later, Andrew Chen wrote a blog post named Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing.

It is clear that digitalisation has opened up opportunities for platforms to grow to hundreds of millions of users. That is why growth hackers are so important. It started of as something that was part of the startup culture, as a growth hacker does not necessarily need large marketing budgets to be successful. By setting up the product in a clever way, based on data, product growth is fostered. Nowadays, only a few years after Sean’s post, growth hackers are active in businesses varying from small startups to large multinationals.

So what does a growth hacker do?

Two things: understand the product and optimising growth processes. In short, a growth hacker tries to understand in detail why people use the product and how people find it, and optimises this process of growth. In order to do this, the growth team needs to know why growth happens.

Understanding the product

There are several ways for the growth team to get to know the product and figure out why growth happens. The team can get familiar with the product through:

• Using the product
• Interviewing clients
• Analysing the data

Understanding the product will make it easier for the growth team to understand why product usage grows. This allows for a metric that will foster growth, which can be optimised.

The goal is to come up with a metric that results in a growth loop. An example would be buying ads, making money, buying more ads, making more money. Another could be using the famous k-factor (growth=#invites*%conversion), with users sending out invitations, leading to more users sending out more invitations.

The metric for your specific product will most likely not be perfect when you start developing one. That is alright. You just need something to get started. You will adjust the metric as you get along. In the beginning of your journey there might be some large gains to be made. As your metric gets more sophisticated, and your user base grows, the gains will be harder to unravel, as your metric gets better.

There is no golden rule for growth, as it is very product-specific. Three completely different cases are Twitter, Hotmail and Airbnb.

• The Twitter team discovered that when people followed a minimum of X others, they would be most likely to keep using the platform. As a result, their whole strategy became to get new users to follow that number of people as soon as they sign up.
• Hotmail simply attached one sentence in the bottom of every email sent, saying “Get your free email at Hotmail”, turning every mail into an advertisement.
• Airbnb created a simple feature that posted a newly created Airbnb listing onto Craigslist. Craigslist was the place to go to for American apartment rentals, and got quickly dominated by beautiful, elegant postings from Airbnb.


There are plenty of options for a growth team to optimise the growth process. It can vary from pushing an internal growth metric, via optimising click through ratio’s in-page, to SEO results or ad performance. Keep in mind that you never know anything for sure, unless data proves it. You can think that a pink button will boost sales, but if you don’t test it to other colours, sizes and font types, you won’t know for sure.

A large part of the work is about creating and implementing A/B tests. Examples of testing objects are:
• Buttons: location in page, size, font, colour
• Landing pages: number of words, call to action, types of content
• Advertisements: Wording, call to action, types of content, ad location, publishing platform

Anything that results in your numbers going up and right contributes to your growth strategy. Generally you will want to see results as soon as possible, so you’ll have to do a lot of tests. Most of the test won’t be successful, with sometimes only a 10% success rate. To still get a win every week, you will need to execute at least ten tests a week. It seems like a lot of effort for a little gain, but just imagine the week on week gain that you will have.
There are multiple roles within a growth team, so the day-to-day of the different team members will differ per person.

The growth team

Every company’s growth team will need its own formation, as each growth strategy is different. There are three qualities, however, that every team should have. It might look slightly familiar to Dave McClure’s Hipster Hacker Hustler for startup teams.
1. Analyst: The data has to be analysed to identify opportunities for improvement. Also, A/B tests have to be analysed to determine if those are improvements or need to be abandoned.
2. Creative: Crafting landing pages, testing different ad designs, writing copy and building layouts are things that take a lot of time.
3. Developer: Implementing tests, development of landing pages and other test elements are generally done by the development team.

A startup isn’t likely to attribute three people to a growth team directly, whereas a large corporate can even include a specialist for every viable area, such as email, referral programmes, SEO or Facebook.

Generally, a Head of Growth functions as a manager within the growth team. The Head of Growth should have a heavy data mindset, preferably with a scientific approach. If desired, a Head of Growth can form the growth team together with one part-time assigned developer. If the results are positive, this team can be expanded with one of the other roles or a specialist.

As the company grows, specialists can be hired for important growth sections. For instance, you can hire a SEO superstar or an Instagram champion. These will help you focus efforts within these important sectors of growth, whilst other parts of the team can keep exploring other areas of growth.