Let’s Talk About “Growth Hacking”

“Grow or die.”

“Growth is all that matters.”

“Growth, growth, growth, growth.”

Everyone loves growth. I get it.

But most people seem confused about how growth actually works.

When you’re building a company, it can feel like you’re just one brilliant idea away from having things really take off. If you could just find that one magic trick to get exposure or land your startup in TechCrunch or get a tweet from a celebrity, your business would explode.

When I was leading growth for a venture-funded startup, I had this mentality.

I thought we had to go out every day and try to hit a homerun. I tried–and failed–dozens of times to get us that one big piece of press or find that magic marketing strategy that would lead to explosive growth.

But you know what I learned?

I learned that this isn’t how it works for most companies. There’s no big flash and a million users come running to your site.

For most startups, it’s not about finding magic. It’s about building a model that works and doing it over and over again. And that’s what worked for us.

We managed to reach 1 million users about a year after launch. We did it through solid strategy, consistent growth over time, and a whole lot of trial and error. There wasn’t one magic bullet–just a steady climb and a steady investment in testing and experimenting.

The Growth Hacking Fallacy

The pressure to find ways to grow your business can sometimes overshadow the fundamentals.

At the moment, people can’t stop talking about “growth hacking”.

It seems that most people think that growth hackers are those who have found some holy grail to achieving growth and scale. They have, somehow, cracked the code and they can apply it like a magic formula to your business and it will take off tomorrow.

This is not how growth hacking works.

Growth hacking is about taking a system that already works and finding ways to make it work even better. It’s about iteration and experimentation. If your conversion rate is 1%, it’s about finding a way to turn it into 2%. Then, repeat that–over and over again–until it’s 10%, 20%, or 50%.

But it’s entirely dependent on having a system that already works.

In order to experiment with strategies for faster growth, you need a sustainable model.

Here’s what happens when your products gets featured in the press but you don’t have a sustainable acquisition model:


Boom, right? You’ve got a huge influx of new traffic, users, or revenue. It worked like a charm.

Except, then you fall right back down to earth.

This is not the trajectory of a successful company. This is a flash in the pan.

The halls of failed businesses are lined with companies like this. The ones that chased after a single magic bullet for growth. When they finally found it, they had no other ammunition. They saw a big spike and then slowly faded into obscurity.

Growth for a successful company looks more like this:


It begins with a clear line from 0 to the goal–some kind of consistent growth, even if it’s slow.

Then, the curve changes. The growth rate improves. Each new win adds up.

Over time, that path toward the goal goes from 10 years to 5 years and from 5 years to 1 year. Each time you improve your growth rate, you cut it down even further. But it’s not just a single “hack” that puts you on the right path. It’s hundreds of tiny experiments and a compounding growth model.

It’s the accumulation of compounding growth over time that drives continued success and creates a scalable and sustainable business.

Are you building a successful company? Or are you looking for a flash in the pan?

The most famous “growth hack” of all time is Dropbox’s free storage referral program. Every time a user signed up a friend, they got free cloud storage. People went crazy, referring friends in order to get new space. It worked like magic.

But, in order for this whole thing to work, Dropbox had to first develop an acquisition model that fed users into the platform. They couldn’t grow by referral if they didn’t have a sustainable model of growth in the first place. Zero users equals zero referrals.

This same logic applies to your business.

In order to be able to implement a true, data-driven growth hacking model, you first need a system of growth. You need a predictable stream of new sales, users, or business coming to your site.

This is why content marketing and SEO is central to growth for most companies.

A well-executed content marketing and SEO strategy can provide you with a steady stream of traffic, users, and revenue. In other words, it gives you a baseline of sustainable growth that you can use to find your path to scale.

Building a Growth System with Content Marketing and SEO

Many of the most successful companies in the last 20 years have used content marketing as a basis for tremendous growth. Companies like Intercom, Buffer, and Salesforce have all grown hugely successful businesses largely through content marketing.

The combination of content and SEO is lucrative for many companies because it allows them to invest in building a growth channel that they wholly own. It’s a way to build an audience without having to pay for every single eyeball.

Most importantly, content marketing scales.


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    Unlike paid acquisition channels, you don’t have to spend more and more money to achieve the same results each year. Instead, content marketing generates compounding returns.

    The content that you publish on day one continues to generate traffic for years to come.

    Of course, this requires a level of strategy and planning in order to maximize the value that you create with your content. And your strategy must also overlap with SEO considerations like keywords and backlinks in order to generate the kind of scalable model that you want.

    At a high level, most successful content marketing strategies include:

    1. Evergreen content
    2. Social/thought leadership content
    3. Link-building content
    4. Lead generation content

    There is some overlap for each of these types. And some content could potentially fall into all 4 categories. But, the specifics will depend on the overarching strategy, your business, and your industry.

    Framework for using content marketing to both drive short-term traffic and engagement while also investing in long-term growth through organic search.

    Whatever the case, the point is clear. Content marketing and SEO can provide the sustainable, repeatable, and scalable growth your business needs.

    Content marketing won’t get you a million users in one day. But it will give you a system and a process for building a steady pipeline of new traffic, users, sales, or revenue.

    Once you have sustainable growth system, you can apply growth hacking techniques to test, iterate, and accelerate that growth.

    There’s no magic here. There’s no silver bullet.

    Real growth can’t be faked. It takes planning, strategy, and experimentation.

    Before you invest in “growth hacking”, first invest in building a model that works. Lay the foundation that you’ll need to scale your business.

    Then focus on how to move the needle.

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    Tyler Hakes

    Tyler is the strategy director and principal at Optimist. He's been helping helping startups, agencies, and corporate clients achieve growth through strategic content marketing and SEO for over ten years. These days it's hard to find him anywhere as he nomads around the globe, but when you do, he's probably iterating on research strategies to better serve Optimist clients.