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How do I learn to be a growth hacker? Work for one of these guys :)


After writing my recent article on Growth Hackers, I’ve been asked by quite a few folks on how to learn the discipline. The best answer is, learn from someone who’s already good at it – if you’re technical and creative, it’s well worth the time.

I would encourage everyone to also read Andy Johns’s Quora answers on What is Facebook’s User Growth team responsible for and what have they launched? and
What are some decisions taken by the “Growth team” at Facebook that helped Facebook reach 500 million users?
– it lays out a lot of the key activities used in a well-run growth team.

The list below includes some of these folks I know personally, some just by reputation- but collectively they’ve grown products up to millions, 10s of millions, and in some cases, 100M+ users. Typically they use quantitatively-oriented techniques centered on virality across different channels such as iOS, Facebook, email, etc. There’s lots of iteration, A/B testing, and experimentation involved. There’s also really great growth hackers centered around SEO, SEM/ad arb, and other techniques, but for the most part I’m just listing out the folks around quant-based virality. The important thing about virality is, it’s free :) So it’s an important skill for startups.

Missing from this list are many unsung heroes over at Zynga, Dropbox, Branchout, Viddy/Socialcam, lots of ex-Paypal/Slide people, etc., etc. Also, all of these guys typically have co-founders or entire growth teams around them that are experts, even if I don’t know them by name.

If others in the community would like to make suggestions, tweet me at @andrewchen or just reply in the comments.

Name Background Twitter
Noah Kagan AppSumo, Mint, Facebook noahkagan
David King Blip.me, ex-Lil Green Patch deekay
Mike Greenfield Circle of Moms, ex LinkedIn mike_greenfield
Ivan Kirigin Dropbox, ex-Facebook ikirigin
Michael Birch ex-Bebo, BirthdayAlarm mickbirch
Blake Commegere ex-Causes/Many games commagere
Ivko Maksimovic ex-Chainn/Compare People ivko
Dave Zohrob ex-Hot or Not, MegaTasty dzohrob
Jia Shen ex-RockYou metatek
James Currier ex-Tickle jamescurrier
Stan Chudnovsky ex-Tickle stan_chudnovsky
Siqi Chen ex-Zynga blader
Ed Baker Facebook esbaker
Alex Schultz Facebook alexschultz
Joe Greenstein Flixster joseph77b
Yee Lee Google yeeguy
Josh Elman Greylock, ex-Twitter joshelman
Jamie Quint Lookcraft, ex-Swipely jamiequint
Elliot Shmukler LinkedIn eshmu
Aatif Awan LinkedIn aatif_awan
Andy Johns Quora, Twitter, Facebook ibringtraffic
Robert Cezar Matei Quora, ex-Zynga rmatei
Nabeel Hyatt Spark, ex-Zynga nabeel
Paul McKellar SV Angel, ex-Square pm
Greg Tseng Tagged gregtseng
Othman Laraki Twitter othman
Akash Garg Twitter, ex-Hi5 akashgarg
Jonathan Katzman Yahoo, ex-Xoopit jkatzman
Gustaf Alstromer Voxer gustaf
Jon Tien Zynga jontien

UPDATE: My friend Dan Martell’s new company, Clarity, provides a way to access experts like this via phone and email. Here’s the directory of folks with expertise on growth.

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Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing

The rise of the Growth Hacker
The new job title of “Growth Hacker” is integrating itself into Silicon Valley’s culture, emphasizing that coding and technical chops are now an essential part of being a great marketer. Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.

This isn’t just a single role – the entire marketing team is being disrupted. Rather than a VP of Marketing with a bunch of non-technical marketers reporting to them, instead growth hackers are engineers leading teams of engineers. The process of integrating and optimizing your product to a big platform requires a blurring of lines between marketing, product, and engineering, so that they work together to make the product market itself. Projects like email deliverability, page-load times, and Facebook sign-in are no longer technical or design decisions – instead they are offensive weapons to win in the market.

Get updates to this essay, and new writing on growth hacking:

The stakes are huge because of “superplatforms” giving access to 100M+ consumers
These skills are invaluable and can change the trajectory of a new product. For the first time ever, it’s possible for new products to go from zero to 10s of millions users in just a few years. Great examples include Pinterest, Zynga, Groupon, Instagram, Dropbox. New products with incredible traction emerge every week. These products, with millions of users, are built on top of new, open platforms that in turn have hundreds of millions of users – Facebook and Apple in particular. Whereas the web in 1995 consisted of a mere 16 million users on dialup, today over 2 billion people access the internet. On top of these unprecedented numbers, consumers use super-viral communication platforms that rapidly speed up the proliferation of new products – not only is the market bigger, but it moves faster too.

Before this era, the discipline of marketing relied on the only communication channels that could reach 10s of millions of people – newspaper, TV, conferences, and channels like retail stores. To talk to these communication channels, you used people – advertising agencies, PR, keynote speeches, and business development. Today, the traditional communication channels are fragmented and passe. The fastest way to spread your product is by distributing it on a platform using APIs, not MBAs. Business development is now API-centric, not people-centric.

Whereas PR and press used to be the drivers of customer acquisition, instead it’s now a lagging indicator that your Facebook integration is working. The role of the VP of Marketing, long thought to be a non-technical role, is rapidly fading and in its place, a new breed of marketer/coder hybrids have emerged.

Airbnb, a case study
Let’s use case of Airbnb to illustrate this mindset. First, recall The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs:

Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.

The converse of this law is that if you are first-to-market, or just as well, first-to-marketing-channel, you can get strong clickthrough and conversion rates because of novelty and lack of competition. This presents a compelling opportunity for a growth team that knows what they are doing – they can do a reasonably difficult integration into a big platform and expect to achieve an advantage early on.

Airbnb does just this, with a remarkable Craigslist integration. They’ve picked a platform with 10s of millions of users where relatively few automated tools exist, and have created a great experience to share your Airbnb listing. It’s integrated simply and deeply into the product, and is one of the most impressive ad-hoc integrations I’ve seen in years. Certainly a traditional marketer would not have come up with this, or known it was even possible – instead it’d take a marketing-minded engineer to dissect the product and build an integration this smooth.

Here’s how it works at a UI level, and then we’ll dissect the technology bits:

(This screenshots are courtesy of Luke Bornheimer and his wonderful answer on Quora)

Looks simple, right? The impressive part is that this is done with no public Craigslist API! It turns out, you have to look closely and carefully at Craigslist in order to accomplish an integration like this. Note that it’s 100X easier for me to reverse engineer something that’s already working versus coming up with the reference implementation – and for this reason, I’m super impressed with this integration.

Reverse-engineering “Post to Craigslist”
The first thing you have to do is to look at how Craigslist allows users to post to the site. Without an API, you have to write a script that can scrape Craigslist and interact with its forms, to pre-fill all the information you want.

The first thing you can notice from playing around with Craigslist is that when you go to post something, you get a unique URL where all your information is saved. So if you go to https://post.craigslist.org you’ll get redirected to a different URL that looks like https://post.craigslist.org/k/HLjRsQyQ4RGu6gFwMi3iXg/StmM3?s=type. It turns out that this URL is unique, and all information that goes into this listing is associated to this URL and not to your Craigslist cookie. This is different than the way that most sites do it, where a bunch of information is saved in a cookie and/or server-side and then pulled out. This unique way of associating your Craigslist data and the URL means that you can build a bot that visits Craigslist, gets a unique URL, fills in the listing info, and then passes the URL to the user to take the final step of publishing. That becomes the foundation for the integration.

At the same time, the bot needs to know information to deal with all the forms – beyond filling out the Craigslist category, which is simple, you also need to know which geographical region to select. For that, you’d have to visit every Craigslist in every market they serve, and scrape the names and codes for every region. Luckily, you can start with the links in the Craiglist sidepanel – there’s 100s of different versions of Craigslist, it turns out.

If you dig around a little bit you find that certain geographical markets are more detailed than others. In some, like the SF Bay Area, there’s subareas (south bay, peninsula, etc.) and neighborhoods (bernal, pacific heights) whereas in other markets there’s only subareas, or there’s just the market. So you’d have to incorporate all of that into your interface.

Then there’s the problem of the listing itself – by default, Craigslist works by giving you an anonymous email address which you use to communicate to potential customers. If you want to drive them to your site, you’d have to notice that you can turn off showing an email, and just provide the “Contact me here” link instead. Or, you could potentially fill a special email address like listing-29372@domain.com that automatically directs inquiries to the right person, which can be done using services like Mailgun or Sendgrid.

Finally, you’ll want the listing to look good – it turns out Craigslist only supports a limited amount of HTML, so you’ll need to work to make your listings work well within those constraints.

Completing the integration is only the beginning – once it’s up, you’d have to optimize it. What’s the completion % once sometime starts sharing their listing out to Craigslist? How can you change the flow, the call to action, the steps in the form, to increase this %? And similarly, when people land from Craigslist, how do you make sure they are likely to complete a transaction? Do they need special messaging?

Tracking all of this requires additional work with click-tracking with unique URLs, 1×1 GIFs on the Craigslist listing, and many more details.

Long story short, this kind of integration is not trivial. There’s many little details to notice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the initial integration took some very smart people a lot of time to perfect.

No traditional marketer would have figured this out
Let’s be honest, a traditional marketer would not even be close to imagining the integration above – there’s too many technical details needed for it to happen. As a result, it could only have come out of the mind of an engineer tasked with the problem of acquiring more users from Craigslist. Who knows how much value Airbnb is getting from this integration, but in my book, it’s damn impressive. It taps into a low-competition, huge-volume marketing channel, and builds a marketing function deeply into the product. Best of all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved – both the people renting out their places by tapping into pre-built demand, and for renters, who see much nicer listings with better photos and descriptions.

This is just a case study, but with this type of integration, a new product is able to compete not just on features, but on distribution strategy as well. In this way, two identical products can have 100X different outcomes, just based on how well they integrate into Craigslist/Twitter/Facebook. It’s an amazing time, and a new breed of creative, technical marketers are emerging. Watch this trend.

So to summarize:

  • For the first time ever, superplatforms like Facebook and Apple uniquely provide access to 10s of millions of customers
  • The discipline of marketing is shifting from people-centric to API-centric activities
  • Growth hackers embody the hybrid between marketer and coder needed to thrive in the age of platforms
  • Airbnb has an amazing Craigslist integration

Good luck, growth hackers!

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Google+ and the curse of instant distribution

I was reading today’s NYT article on Google+’s new redesign and found myself continually puzzled by the key metric Google continues to report as the success of their new social product: Registered Users.

In the very first sentence, Vic Gundotra writes:

More than 170 million people have upgraded to Google+, enjoying new ways to share in Search, Gmail, YouTube and lots of other places.

The use of registered users is a vanity metric, and reflects how easily Google can cross-sell any new product to their core base of 1 billion uniques per month. What it doesn’t reflect, however, is the actual health of the product.

Ultimately, this misalignment of metrics is due to the curse of instant distribution. Because Google can cross-sell whatever products they want against their billion unique users, it’s easy to grade on that effort. Plus it’s a big number, who doesn’t love a big number?

Google+ should be measured on per user metrics
Here’s what metrics are more important instead: Given the Google+ emphasis on Circles and Hangouts, you’d think that the best metrics to use would evaluate the extent to which these more personal and more authentic features are being used. These would include metrics like:

  • Shares per user per day (especially utilizing the Circles feature)
  • Friends manually added to circles per user per day (not automatically!)
  • Minutes of engagement per user per day
And if there’s too much noise with all the millions of user onboarding to Google+ recently, then create a new bucket of “activated” users who comprise your best and more engaged userbase, and just calculate for those guys.

Point is, the density and frequency of relationships within small circles ought to matter more than the aggregate counts on the network. As I’ve blogged about before, you use metrics to reflect the strategy you already have in place, and based on the Google+’s focus on authentic circles of friends, you’d think the metrics would focus on the density of friendships and activities, and not the aggregate numbers.

The curse of instant distribution
Every new product for a startup goes through a gauntlet to reach product/market fit, and then traction. In the real world, product quality and the ability to solve a real problem for people ends up correlating with your ability to distribute the product. Google+ is blessed, and cursed, with the ability to sidestep this completely. They are able to onboard hundreds of millions of users without having great product/market fit, and can claim positive metrics without going through the gauntlet of really making their product work.

Adam D’Angelo of Quora (and previously CTO of Facebook) wrote this insightful commentary regarding Google Buzz a while back:

Why have social networks tied to webmail clients failed to gain traction?
Personally I think this is mostly because the social networking products built by webmail teams haven’t been very good. Even Google Buzz, which is way ahead of the attempts built into Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, has serious problems: the connections inside it aren’t meaningful, profiles and photos are second class, comments bump items to the top of the feed meaning there’s old stuff endlessly getting recycled, and the whole product itself is a secondary feature accessible only through a click below the inbox, which hasn’t gotten it enough distribution to kick off and sustain conversations.

I’m pretty sure that if Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo had cloned Facebook almost exactly (friends, profiles, news feed, photos) and integrated it well into their webmail product, that it could have taken off (before Facebook got to its current scale; at this point it will be hard for any competitor, even with a massive distribution channel pushing it).

So I think this question is really, why are social networks that webmail teams build always bad? Here’s my guess:

  • The team building the social network knows that they’re going to get a huge amount of distribution via the integration and so they aren’t focused on growth and making a product that people will visit on their own.
  • Integrating any two big products is really hard.
  • Any big webmail provider is going to have a big organization behind it, and lots of politics and compromises probably make it difficult to execute well.
  • Teams that work on webmail products have gotten good at building a webmail product, and haven’t selected for the skills and culture that a team that grows around building a social network will have.

(The bolding is from me). I couldn’t agree more with this answer. I think a key lesson behind the recent success of products like Instagram and Pinterest is that there’s still a lot of room in the market for great social products to take off- but the emphasis has to be on the product rather than the superficial act of onboarding a lot of new users into Google+.

Ultimately, it comes down to how realistic the Google+ folks are in looking at their metrics. If they drink their own kool-aid and think they have product/market fit when it’s in fact the traction is solely dependent on the power of their distribution channels, they may never get their product working.

On the other hand, if they have a balanced view on their metrics and know they don’t have product/market fit yet, then they have a fighting chance.¬†Unfortunately, I think the changes they’ve made to the product recently are more efforts to optimize, rather than fundamental improvements to the product. I think Google+ needs much bigger changes to make it as engaging as the best social products.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

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