There’s a long-held secret in Silicon Valley that is starting to leak out. If you look around at some of the newest billion-dollar companies, you’ll find that most of them haven’t reached those heights through traditional marketing. Instead, they did it with a new mindset that views every activity through one lens: it’s value as a tool for driving measurable growth. It’s radically focused and very different than old school marketing of general awareness building—and it’s the key to success for today’s rising superstar companies like Square, Uber, and Airbnb. Today there’s a name for it: “growth hacking.” But what is this approach, and how can it work for your business?

During my time in the Valley, I saw this trend, and back in 2010 coined the term “growth hacker” as a way of expressing the difference between more traditional marketers and an emerging group of growth-oriented specialists who worked at these startups. These growth hackers came from diverse backgrounds, including marketing, sales, and engineering. But it’s not so much background and training that make someone a growth hacker—it’s priorities and approach. Growth hackers strip away traditional marketing functions like “building awareness” to focus simply on the growth of the company—from user bases to revenues.

A growth hacker’s true North is growth. It’s a way of looking at your business that’s both creative and highly analytical to identify opportunities that will really move the needle. This is why, regardless of the position you hold, your background, or the size of your company, with the right mindset and approach, you too can hack your business’s growth.

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Having said all that, you shouldn’t get caught up in the term “growth hack” or “growth hacker.” What’s important isn’t the terminology, but the key concepts that inform it. It’s about being growth focused rather than marketing focused. It’s about seeking authentic, sustainable growth using systematic, analytical, innovative, and creative strategies. It’s not about building awareness, worrying about branding campaigns or public relations. It’s about connecting your product to your target market. More than anything, it’s about doing so as quickly and affordably as possible.

So how do you make this new approach work for you? Where can you look to find ideas and inspiration for hacking your business’s growth?

You can’t learn to be a hacker from books. Books get outdated too quickly, and become common knowledge, which dilutes an opportunity for an edge. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should skip them entirely. Books are invaluable for learning the fundamentals like positioning, user psychology, and so on. You should take advantage of the great resources out there and use books to build a solid knowledge base to guide and inform your efforts.

To name just a few—Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout, Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, and The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank are all great for establishing a working knowledge of the principles that inform growth hacking.

Though books are great for the fundamentals, you need to familiarize yourself with the latest and greatest growth industry practices and strategies, which brings us to the second place to sharpen your growth hacking skills and instincts—the Internet. So many talented businesses and individuals are sharing their ideas via blogs and Twitter, so consider these your go-to source for fresh ideas, inspiration, and tactics. Inbound.org, usv.com, and growthhackers.com are all great places to see what practitioners are doing and how they are thinking about things.

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Seek out people who’ve worked for the companies you want to emulate and people you’re inspired by. Just keep in mind that things move very quickly online, so an article from just a year ago could be totally irrelevant today.

Perhaps most importantly, above the reading and research, is the critical need to develop a deep, holistic understanding of your customer. You have to “get out of the building”—look at things from your customer’s perspective—and learn as much as you can about them via every avenue available to you, including analytics, surveying, user testing, and actual face-to-face conversations.

When you understand why your product appeals to them, as well as any objections they might have, you can do a better job of meeting their needs. This goes beyond surface level understanding and customer demographics. What I’m talking about is deep analysis, and digging into the answers to find unique areas of opportunity for growth.

For example, Airbnb executives found success when they realized that by automatically cross-posting listings from Airbnb to Craigslist they could reach a massive new audience. Circle of Friends, a popular Facebook app, found lasting growth after a deep review of its analytics showed that moms were the main source of activity on its app. The company changed its name to Circle of Moms and focused relentlessly on serving their best customers. It’s these types of opportunities that growth hackers look for around every corner.

Combining all three components—the fundamentals, fresh new ideas, a deep knowledge of your customer base and a passion for finding unique, new ways to grow—will unlock the epiphany that leads to authentic growth for your business.

Once you understand the fundamentals of growth hacking and have some innovative strategies you want to apply, you can use your understanding of your customers to apply those principles in a way that makes sense in the context of their needs, motivations, desires, and objections.

This is the key to any successful growth hack—creatively applying a unique insight about your customers to a new and innovative way to reach them, one that connects your product to more of the people who are bound to love it. Now you know how to get started. The next step is finding that edge for your business. Think like a growth hacker, and take your business to new heights. 

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