Susan Snipes • August 22, 2016

Last Sunday morning I woke up and checked my email. My stomach clenched in fear. I had 63 emails in my work inbox, a far cry from what I normally have on a Sunday. Then I looked, and they all belonged to one subject line. There was person after person, asking, begging or demanding to be unsubscribed to an email string they never joined in the first place.

I don’t know where someone nabbed my email address (not even one of my company’s “supplemental” email address, but my actual email address) along with 499 other real people’s email addresses. But I know why: growth hacking.

It happens all the time. A developer conceived an idea for a game-changing new technology and was looking to get crowdfunded. Then, he hired a “growth hacker” to help him get the word out and get the project funded. The string I opened that Sunday morning was the result: nefarious emailing and pissing potential customers off. A fine example of growth hacking gone wrong.

So what is growth hacking?

There are a number of definitions out there, but the basic concept is this:
A growth hacker is someone who acquires customers through non-traditional approaches,often using unproven methods that are experimental, untested and even dangerous. Most interpretations would say growth hacking means trendy-maybe-even-secret shortcuts to grow your business or increase your sales. Some companies have actually starting listing positions called “growth hacking” or “growth hacker.”

Growth is not necessarily an easy path, and to do it right, you don’t need someone to hack your company. What do you really think of when you hear the word hacker? This isn’t about adding some coconut oil to your coffee every morning. Do you want someone running experiments on your potential and current customers? Or do you just want to hire smart people that can help you grow?

Am I risk-averse? Actually, I’m a risk taker. I founded and ran a business with multiple employees for ten years, and took hundreds of risks along the way. But taking risks for growth and doing something stupid, or even illegal, are two completely different things. To me, growth hacking looks a lot like black-hat SEO. It might work. Until you get caught.

Sustainable and lasting growth comes from proven strategy, not cutting corners and pissing people off. You can compress successful growth, and you can be creative with your growth strategies. But trying to skip critical steps to growth with a hacking approach is dangerous. When it backfires, like it did in my inbox the other day, you’re looking at wasted time and money, not to mention the possibility of angry potential customers and even legal recourse.

What is a growing business to do?

Old-school, traditional marketing techniques aren’t always the answer. But that doesn’t mean you need a growth hacker. Growth Hacking is not a shortcut. It’s a method to find experimental ways to grow your business. That’s all. No secrets. It’s just another marketing methodology. You’re not missing out on the secret to building a million-dollar-company if you’re not growth hacking. Instead, look for someone, or a team of people, who have a thoughtful and collaborative approach. A team that uses data science and marketing strategies with real numbers attached, who can make your business run faster and more powerfully.

Growth manager, growth marketer, director of growth? Sure.

Growth hacker? NO.