[The first half of this article is an extract from our book Growth Hack Your Way to Startup Success (link)]
Growth has always been the end game for all companies – young & old, multinationals & startups, single-person SAAS startups and multi-thousand strong behemoths. More often than not the responsibility of this growth was with the marketing team (with or without the contribution/ collaboration of the sales team). And things were actually not going that bad. Then why the change? Why this new term? And what’s with associating the term hacking with growth.
It is no surprise that many (most) people on hearing the term growth hacking think that it is a cross between Dilbert’s boardroom speak and some hipster lingo – in other words, not worth paying attention to.
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As reflected above, the meaning of the term ‘hack’ does not seem to indicate anything even remotely related to marketing or growth. However, if you look closely enough, understand why it was coined, and look at how it has evolved over the years, you will find that growth hacking is not just a term made by combining two random/independent words together.
Certain changes in the macro environment and in the way new ventures were created/expanded necessitated the change in the job profile of the traditional marketeer. And at least in this case, it were the job requirements that give rise to this term.
No longer was the traditional marketeer’s job limited to being a middleman between the company and the media agencies. No longer was there a finished product in his hand that had been made after years of research and development, one that could not be changed whatever the feedback may be, and that had to be marketed to a customer who may or may not want it.
And to be honest, it was the lump sum of these factors which had given advertising and marketing a sleazy ‘brand image’ in the past. You could have blamed the marketeers for sugarcoating the truth, the salespersons for exaggerating to the point of lying, and the ad writers for focusing on everything but the product’s value proposition – however the situation was pretty much beyond anyone’s control. The team had a budget and a product, neither of which could be changed. And even more critically, the customer’s role was mostly relegated to buy and pay. His opinion, even if collected, counted for very little.
Then, two things happened:
Technology changed the way we lived our lives. With rapid advances everyday, information started flowing freely. Customers knew what worked and what didn’t. They also knew about the available options for any product and could easily compare them. While these were important factors, they were not the tipping point. The tipping point was that companies themselves could now see what was working and what wasn’t. No one could now hide behind the amazingly overused saying:
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
While we may not yet be at the point where we know exactly which half is getting wasted, we are getting ever closer to that knowledge. We know which marketing spend is attracting customers and we can even track which of those customers went on to spend how much money on our platform. These changes brought about by technology were a big factor in changing the marketeer’s role.
An even more important factor was the start of the golden age of startups. There was a time when most graduates aimed to join an established company and continue a (hopefully) stable employment. Today most of us want to launch our own venture, even those who work at these big name companies have the idea generation factory in the back of their minds. So startups became more popular, but startups by definition had a problem – they had very limited money and even more limited time to achieve scale. Things had to be achieved fast and things had to be achieved cheaply. They could not have paid a big name filmmaker millions of dollars to make a video like Nike does and release it just to get brand recognition. Startups needed to get customers fast and they also needed to have a healthy conversation with the customers because the product had not been developed by years of research, and even if it had been – it would have not mattered much because things were changing every month.
Combined, these two factors meant that growth was to be achieved fast and also the traditional methods were to be of limited use. In fact any method in this book or another would always be of limited use given the fact that the whole ecosystem is changing rapidly.
So the world looked for the rise of the new hero, the growth hacker – someone we may or may not have deserved but the one which we really needed.
A growth hacker is a person who understands that there is only one job requirement for him – to achieve growth. There are no rules and there are also no rulebooks that he can follow. This person operates at the intersection of technology and marketing. His expertise is in understanding the customer. Like a marketeer, he focuses on growth, and crunches data that allows him to make efficient decisions. Like a hacker, he tweaks systems & processes, products & features, his own knowledge and the world’s rules – in the end what he has to hack out is a growth chart that lives in the real world and not on a five-year forecast presentation.
So growth hacking (in many ways similar to creative marketing) is now the need of the hour.
But what (if anything) changes when you think about growth hacking in India? Well not much, but enough. Here are a few things that you should keep in mind if you are aiming to be a top growth hacker in India.
There are even fewer rules in India
There are very few rules in growth hacking, in India there are even a fewer. India is just now emerging as a top breeding ground for start-ups. As such, established precedents are few and far in between. Entrepreneurs and startups are still discovering what works and what doesn’t, which are the consumer habits that can be changed and which are those that are too deeply ingrained to be changed in the short term. Add to it the fact that the regulatory environment is still unclear for the most part, and there is an undeniable corruption that cannot be ignored.
Remember the grey lines which startups often face while moving towards success, in India it’s not so much a line but a huge chunk of the ecosystem that is grey and where you have to operate. Thus, even while making and breaking your own rules you have to be extremely aware of the environment in which you are operating.
Copying and poaching are rampant
Intellectual property rights are still very loosely implemented so you have to be careful when you implement innovations. Think about barrier to entry for competitors and also know that you have to be extremely fast in gaining scale. Your incremental gains can be swept away in a single move by a competitor. At the same time poaching of key employees is also rampant and hence, you should not build your growth hacking strategies with a single points of failure in your company structure.
One of the advantages of growth hacking in India is that you can take inspirations from global examples and then put them in a local context. This would ensure that you are not reinventing the wheel, already have some examples to know the pitfalls and also your innovations are something which the local consumers have likely not seen. This is likely to give you a jumpstart.
At the same time, you can also look at the type of partnerships global startups have used for growth and try to structure similar ones in India.
Technology is yet not everywhere
We have mentioned in the book that almost always technology forms an integral part of a growth hacking strategy. The need for rapid scaling and sophisticated data collection necessitates such an arrangement. While operating as a growth hacker in India, do understand that many startups have fallen into the trap of under or overestimating the penetration of technology. India is still growing and so will the viability of technological solutions in the future. But as the old finance saying goes, “markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain liquid” – in other words your time and cash are limited so be very careful in assuming the technology penetration in your target market.
Plus, the in-a-flux nature of technology will mean that certain growth hacking solutions like API integrations with partners or using widgets etc. would be a little bit more difficult to implement.
Difficult to get mentors
Since the landscape is changing at such a rapid pace, it is difficult to find real mentor who have operated & succeeded in a closely related field. Of course there is no shortage of advice (good & bad) but it will be quite challenging for any entrepreneur to separate signal from noise.
Growth hacking is not a fancy position, you will need to be street-smart
In India growth hacking (or a growth hacker) will not be a fancy position for quite some time to come. You will need to be ready to get your hands dirty and be street-smart in navigating through the technology, marketing, regulatory and consumer space.
Finally, you should always keep in mind that a successful growth hacker is one who always keeps on learning from the markets, from the users and from other growth hackers. This learning part is the foundation of any growth hacker whether in India or in other countries.