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Growth Hacker Marketing: How To Build Something People Want In 2017

968 days ago the first post on this blog went live. When I started almost three years ago, the plan was clear:

  1. Read all about marketing.
  2. Growth hack the shit out of writing.
  3. Make millions of dollars.

How do you think that worked out? Well, you’re right. If you want to start something online too, today’s book review and summary will save you a lot of time. A LOT.

Growth Slacker Marketing

One of the first articles I read talked about how to create great content. Unlike most people, I did write something after reading it. In fact, I was so convinced of the idea that I went ahead and wrote a whole book. Six weeks later, my first masterpiece went up:

Knowing good stuff needs good promo, I set to work. I spent an entire day sending 100 custom emails to spread the word and the result was…depressing. I got one good tweet.

What I didn’t know at the time was that that’s how it’s supposed to be. Of course your first few attempts are gonna bomb. After all, you’ve never done this before. Where I wish I’d have done things differently is with how I proceeded afterwards. Instead of reading the same five blogs in circles and repeating the same mistakes over and over again, I could’ve picked up one book – just one – and be set with my marketing strategy for 1-2 years.

The name of that book is Growth Hacker Marketing.

Marketing Has Changed – A Lot

“Deep down, I think anyone marketing or launching fantasizes that they are premiering a blockbuster movie,” Ryan Holiday states early in the book. Guilty! It sure must’ve felt like that for Ryan too.

At the time still sitting comfortably in his chair as director of marketing at American Apparel, an article about growth hacking shook him into reality:

Growth Hacker Is the New VP of Marketing

Unlike most marketing executives though, Ryan didn’t cling to his armrests, but started asking questions. What the hell is a growth hacker? How does this work? If it does, can I become one?

One of the first examples he found was Hotmail. After initial founder resistance, investor Tim Draper’s suggestion to include ‘P.S.: I love you. Get your free e-mail at Hotmail’ at the bottom of each free message sent through the service was implemented. Exponential growth ensued. Six months later? One million users. Five weeks more? Another million. In 1997, the service sold to Microsoft for $400 million – with ten million users.

Growth Hacker Marketing Summary


The idea is as simple as it is brilliant: Let every user market to more potential users by simply showing them the product itself.

In his own words, Ryan defines a growth hacker as:

someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like ‘branding’ and ‘mind share,’ growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth – and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.

The answer a growth hacker provides a company with is a different one each time, but it always answers the same question:

How do you get, maintain and multiply attention in a scalable and efficient way?

“Whereas marketing was once brand-based, with growth hacking it becomes metric and ROI driven.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

Step 1: How To Achieve Product Market Fit

“Product Market Fit is a feeling backed with data and information,” Ryan continues to explain the first step of a growth hacker’s approach. A necessary, but not sufficient condition of exponential growth is that people need a product and want it too. Ryan suggests the Socratic method. Repeatedly ask questions like:

  • Who is this product for?
  • Why would they use it?
  • Why do I use it?

Ask customers too:

  • What brought you to this product?
  • Would you refer others? Why? Why not?
  • What’s missing? What’s good?

You have to see yourself, Ryan says, as “the translator who helps bridge the producers and the consumers so they are in alignment.” Other exercises to help with this are:

  • Writing an internal press release as if the product was just finished and released.
  • Testing book ideas with blog posts.
  • Creating an FAQ for your product before making it.
  • Try writing the user manual with three parts: concepts, how-to and reference section.

Why do these ideas work? “They force you to imagine your product from someone’s perspective other than your own. That’s the best way to get to product market fit – because ultimately this isn’t about you; it’s about the people you’re trying to turn into customers.”

Equipped with some initial answers, you can build a minimum viable product and start improving it with more feedback. This openness to feedback is essential. All great startups accept the adaptability of their product. They change it until it works.

AirBnB didn’t force the “crash at friends and get breakfast” part, Instagram doubled down on photo sharing and Lift re-branded to to focus on its accountability aspect.

To have something you can evolve into a million-user product, you first need to have something that’s interesting at all.

“You know what the single worst marketing decision you can make is? Starting with a product nobody wants or nobody needs.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

Step 2: How To Find Your Growth Hack

Assuming your product fits the market, you can start attracting customers. But to attract many, you first have to attract some. This is the tricky part most marketers miss. Because while going viral means going broad, that’s the opposite of how it starts.

“It’s with a targeted offensive in the right places aimed at the right people,” Ryan says.

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel recommends the same. Calibrate your laser to focus on a small, ideal target market, swoop in and take its majority share. You don’t need “a blowout grand opening, but a strategic opening or a stunt that catches the attention of [y]our core audience.”

An excellent example is Dropbox’s original video demo. Being well-integrated members in the communities they aimed the video at (Digg, Slashdot and Reddit), they filled it with inside jokes. The result? Their waiting list ballooned from 5,000 to 75,000 users overnight.

But how do you find those people? Simple: Wherever you hang out, they will be too. After all, whoever’s as convinced of your product as you are will share other traits and beliefs with you as well. “If they are ____________, like you and your founders are, they are reading and doing the same things you do every day.”

However, you can’t just copy Dropbox’s trick. That’s the crux of the matter: Every product needs a different growth hack. Experimentation is your only option. What you could try:

  • Pitch relevant sites in your industry to write reviews.
  • Write blog posts and post them to popular outlets.
  • Launch a Kickstarter.
  • Get into big publications through HARO.
  • Go one-by-one.
  • Make your product invite-only.
  • Create fake users to make it look more active.
  • Piggyback off another big platform you cater to (like PayPal did with eBay).
  • Host or sponsor events.
  • Launch an app that’s likely to do well.
  • Bring on influencers.
  • Collaborate with a big partner or for a good cause by giving some revenue of each purchase to a certain charity.

A good book listing 19 more possible growth channels is Traction by Justin Mares and Gabriel Weinberg, but chances are, you won’t find your growth hack in a book, but through trial and error.

“Your start-up is designed to be a growth engine – and at some point early on, that engine has to be kickstarted. The good news is that we have to do that only once.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

Step 3: Going Viral Is An Ask, Not An Accident

A product that a large percentage of users voluntarily shares is every marketers dream. “Well, why should customers do that? Have you actually made it easy for them to spread your product? Is the product even worth talking about?” Great questions, Ryan.

Of course there’s only so much you can do to help virality, but you don’t want to nip it in the bud either. Make no mistake. Especially in the beginning, users sharing your product with others is a favor they do for you.

“The best way to get people to do this enormous favor for you? Make it seem like it isn’t a favor. You should not just encourage sharing but create powerful incentives to do so.”

Here’s how I’m doing it. After a few weeks and being delivered plenty of awesome articles via email, I send new subscribers a simple prompt.

Growth Hacker Marketing Review

They can forward this email to a friend with a simple click, who can then subscribe via the button. Aiding virality is simple:

  1. Have something worth sharing.
  2. Ask people to share.

“If you want to go viral, it must be baked into your product. There must be a reason to share it and the means to do so.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

Step 4: Making People Stay

“What matters is happy customers.” It’s easy to forget that you don’t just have to get people. You have to get them to stay. Without retention, acquisition doesn’t matter much. The way Ryan describes it, I see three important components:

  1. Great onboarding. Twitter prompts you to follow a few people right when you sign up. Buffer walks you through its software step-by-step. Facebook pings you to suggest friends to new users.
  2. Continuous follow-up. When you buy a dog, a good pet shop will call after a few days to see how you’re coping. Medium sends out a newsletter with curated content each week. Apple reminds you to update your software.
  3. Offering more. Dropbox offers you free space for completing certain actions. Referring friends to Blinkist gets you free days to use the app. Tinder Plus comes with extra features and unlimited swipes.

Don’t hope people will figure out your product. Give them a place to start and then guide them along. Forever. Give them more. Make them want to come back. Everything can be improved all the time. That’s not the point.

The point is, as in every step of growth hacking, to have something you can improve.

“Remember, raw growth is great, but at the end of the day, we’re running businesses here. We want to turn stats into dollars.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

My Growth Hacking Experiments

When Ryan wrote this book, he made himself the perfect case study.

Step 1: Starting with an article in Fast Company about the topic, he then went ahead and published a short ebook right after he saw interest was there. This later yielded the expanded print version, which already included feedback from thousands of readers.

Step 2 & 3: Keeping the price at a low $2.99 for the ebook, the book and its insights short and to the point, along with articles highlighting various chapters in big media outlets helped the book spread quickly.

Step 4: About 10% of all readers signed up for Ryan’s email list in exchange for heaps of bonuses, which he not only uses for promotion, but can now also leverage to keep a constant dialogue with his audience.

Taking this book as inspiration, I instantly came up with potential book ideas, which I’m now testing in various ways.

For one, I’ve written two articles directed at millennials, one about life and one about finance, testing the waters with this theme. Second, I’m working on something to aggregate the lessons from Four Minute Books. I’ve also written two articles designed to go viral, one of which did, the other I just released.

Lastly, I just updated my welcome email to new subscribers, which can now help me brainstorm book ideas and shape what I write about with a simple 60-second-survey.

How’s that for taking action, putting something out and then improving it as you go?

That’s what I learned from Growth Hacker Marketing and that’s why I think it’s brilliant.

“Growth hacking doesn’t make our instincts any better, but it fundamentally reduces the costs of being wrong, giving us freedom to experiment and try new things.” ~Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing

Note: You can find three more lessons I wrote down after reading the summary of this book on Blinkist in 2016 here.

This was my second Ryan Holiday book review after Trust Me, I’m Lying. Next up: The Obstacle Is The Way.