Growth Hacker Marketing – by Ryan Holiday

Growth-Hacker-Marketing-Ryan-HolidayISBN: 1591847389
Read: November 2015
Rating: 7/10

Amazon page for more details and reviews.

I found this book fairly interesting, particularly the case studies about a few well known apps and companies whose origins and ways of growth hacking surprised me. Main takeaways are that growth hacking is a mindset, not a toolkit, and that growth hackers about creating testable, trackable, and scalable ways to create a loyal early-adopter base, using them to create a marketing machine, and refining and optimising to ensure you create lifelong, highly profitable customers.

My Notes

The tools of the Internet and social media have made it possible to track, test, iterate, and improve marketing to the point where these enormous gambles are not only unnecessary, but insanely counterproductive.

Gmail Case Study:
First Google built a superior product. Then it built excitement by making it invite-only. And by steadily increasing the number of invites allowed to its existing user base, Gmail spread from person to person until it became the most popular, and in many ways the best, free email service.

Their job isn’t to “do” marketing as I had always known it; it’s to grow companies really fast––to take something from nothing and make it something enormous within an incredibly tight window. And it says something about what marketing has become that these are no longer considered synonymous tasks.

Ryan’s definition of a growth hacker:
“A growth hacking is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are emails, PPC 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 relentless pursue users and growth––and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the investors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaing and self-propagating growth machine that can take a startup from nothing to something.”

One HBR study found that 80 percent of marketers are unhappy with their ability to measure marketing ROI. Not because the tools aren’t good enough, but because they’re too good, and marketers are seeing for the first time that their strategies are “often flawed and their spending is inefficient.”

Growth hackers are data scientists meets designers meets marketers.

They also add a strong acumen for strategy, for thinking big picture, and for leveraging platforms, unappreciated assets, and new ideas.

When you get right down to it, the real skill for marketers today isn’t going to be helping some big, boring company grow 1 percent a year but creating a totally new brand from nothing using next-to-no resources.

Growth hacking is more of a mindset than a tool kit.

John Boyd and the OODA loop concept:

“The phrase OODA loop refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist and USAF Colonel John Boyd. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes. The approach favors agility over raw power in dealing with human opponents in any endeavor.” From Wikipedia –

The new marketing mindset begins not a few weeks before launch but, in fact, during the development and design phase.


Eric Ries, author of The Lean Starup, explains that the best way to get to PMF is by starting with a “minimum viable product” and improving it based on feedback––as opposed to what most of us do, which is to try to launch publicly with what we think is our final perfected product.

Today, it is the market’s job as much as anyone else’s to make sure PMF happens.

Amazon has actually made this part of their basic procedures. Ian McAllister, general manager at Amazon, calls this approach “working backwards from the customer.” For new initiatives, employees begin by creating an internal press release that announces this new potential project as though it was just finished. It’s addressed to the customers––whoever they happen to be––and explains how this new offering solves their problems in an exciting or compelling way….encourages product managers to think like Oprah––that is, would she rapturously shout about this product if she were giving it away to her fans as a gift?

The exercise forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it.

PMF is a feeling backed with data and information.

In my experience, the books that tend to flop upon release are those where the author goes into a cave for a year to write it, then hands it off to the publisher for release. They hope for a hit that rarely comes.

On the other hand, I have clients who blog extensively before publishing. They develop their book ideas based on the themes that they naturally gravitate toward but that also get the greatest response from readers. (One client sold a book proposal using a screenshot of Google queries to his site.) They test the ideas they’re writing about in the book on their blog and when they speak in front of groups. They ask readers what they’d like to see i the book. They judge topic ideas by how many comments a given post generates, by how many FB shares an article gets. They put potential title and cover idea up online and receive feedback. They look to see what hot topics other influential bloggers are riding and find ways of addressing them in their book.

Amazon CTO, Werner Vogels, suggests trying to write an – – FAQ for this product you’re developing. (That way you can address, in advance, potential user issues and questions.)
– Or try to define the crucial parts of the user experience by making mockups of pages, writing hypothetical case studies so you can actually start to see what it would look like and who it would work for and how.
-Finally, try writing the user manual, which as Werner explains usually has three pars: concepts, how-to, and reference. (Defining these means you understand your idea in and out from the customers perspective. Also, he says, if you have more than one type of user then writer multiple manuals.)

PMF is not something mythical status that happens accidentally. Companies work for it; they crawl toward it. They’re ready to throw our weeks or months of work because the evidence supports that decision. The services as their customers know them now are fundamentally different from what they were at launch––before they had PMF.


“To be successful and grow your business and revenues, you must match the way you market your products with the way your prospects learn about and shop for your products.” – Brain Halligan, founder of Hubspot.

With PMF, we don’t need to hit the front page of the NYT to announce our launch. We need only to hit the NYT of OUR scene. We’re trying to hit a few hundred or thousand people––not millions.

Launching does not need to be an enormous campaign we’re expect (too often) to produce out of thinner so much as an initial boost or a shot in the arm…a strategic opening or a stunt that catches the attention of our core audience.

Like the old model, growth hacking still requires pulling your customers in. Except you seek to do it in a cheap, effective, and usually unique and new way. Whereas all traditional marketing starts the same way––with a news story or an ad campaign––startups can launch in a multitude of ways.

When the file-sharing service began, it was not even open to the public. New users had to sign up to a waiting list to be invited to join. In an effort to drive these sign-ups, the founders crafted a [home-made] fun demo video that walked potential users through the service. Knowing the outlets where they intended to post the video (Digg, Slashdot, and reddit), they filled it with all sorts of jokes, allusions, and references that those communities would eat up.

Growth hackers opt to attract only the early adopters who make or break new tech and seek to do it as cheaply as possible.

Ignore the urge to appeal to the mass market, at least to start with.

Our outward facing marketing and PR effort are needed simply to reach out to and capture, at the beginning, a group of highly interested, loyal, and fanatical users. Then we grow with and because of them.

Where do I find the right people? You NEED to know your own industry well enough to even consider launching a product yet.

Ways of reaching out to first group of users:
– Reach out to the sites you know your potential customers read with a pitch email: “this is who we are, this is what we’re doing, and this is why you should write about us.”
– Upload a post to Hacker News, Quora, or reddit.
– Blog posts about popular topics that get traffic and indirectly pimp your product
– Find your potential customers one by one and invite them to your service for free or with some special incentive.

Do whatever it takes to pull in a small contingent of initial users from your particular space.

– Create the aura of exclusivity with an invite-only feature (as Mailbox did).
– Target a single service or platform and cater to it exclusively––essentially piggybacking off or even stealing someone else’s growth (as PayPal did with eBay).
– Launch for just a small group of people, own that marketing, and then move from host to host until your product spreads like a virus (like FB did by starting in colleges before taking on the rest of the population).
– Host cool events and drive your first users through the system manually (as MySpace, Yelp, and Udemy did)

Sean Ellis: “Focusing on customer acquisition over ‘awareness’ takes discipline..At a certain scale, awareness/brand building makes sense. But for the first year or two it’s a total waste of money.”

Big blowout launch is just as bad as “Build it and they will come”. Users have to be pulled in. Use targeted offensives in the right places aimed at the right people.

Next step is to turn first customers into an army.


Growth hackers make it easy for customers to spread your product. It has to prove a desire in people to spread it.

The product must be inherently worth sharing––and then on top of that, you must facilitate and encourage the spreading you’d like to see by adding tools and campaigns that enable vitality.

If you do it right, people will advertise your product and feel like they are the ones getting something out of it.

Jonah Berger, a social scientist well-known for his studies of vitality, explains that publicness is one of the most crucial factors in driving something’s spread: “Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular…We need to design products and initiatives that advertising themselves and create behavioural residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.”

We can use other people’s networks to our advantage (as Spotify did by integrating to Facebook).

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.

There has to be a compelling reason for a community to take hold of it and pass it around. You can’t just expect your users to become evangelists of your product–– you’ve got to provide the incentives and the platform for them to do so.

Vitality is not an accident. It is engineered.


Your job is to create lifelong users.

Figure out what your most important metric for growth is and focus on that. Don’t listen to or judge yourself on other people.

Airbnb invested heavily in an expensive program that a lot of growth hackers doubted at first. In 2011, in an effort to improve the site’s aesthetic appeal and attract higher-end customers, Airbnb began offering FREE pro photography for its listenings. Why? Because, as they put it, “Taking crisp, well-lit and composed photographs that accurately convey the look and feel of the space is the most difficult part of creating a listing, so we make it easy.”

This increases the conversion rate, increases the price a listing can charge, draws members deeper into the community, weeds out potentially risky or negative listings, teaches users how to user the product better, makes them rave about the product, and just as a bonus, it got a bunch of positive publicity about it.

Retention and optimisation is marketing to someone who is a lot more likely to convert than some busy stranger you might otherwise try flashing an online banner ad to.

Think less about how to get NEW users and more about how to drive REVENUE from customers who already signed up. Turn stats into dollars.


Awesome case study of Tim Ferriss’ “The 4 Hour Chef” launch.

Tim took PMF to the next level–– designing each chapter to stand alone on its own merits and made specifically for a define community and group of readers. Even within the chapters, he wanted bit-size pieces of content that would immediately provide value to the reader––if you picked up the book and opened it to a random page, he wanted you to be able to get something out of it.

Even Tim’s editing was data-driven. He used tools like SurveyMonkey and Wufoo to ask friends and colleagues about the sections they responded to most. We tested the back cover and subtitle repeatedly. Before a section was cut or added, multiple readers of the manuscript had to agree.

With tools like Compete, Quantcast, and Alexa, it was easy to research potential sites we wanted to appear on, cross-check their traffic, and then reach out.

Writing articles about you means more page views (and ad revenue) for them!

A well timed barrage of big online media mentions that went live on the day of release.

Blogs were just one part. We partnered with startups, apps, anyone who had an audience.

For Tim, blogging weekly for five years meant he had a captive audience to launch to, and this was a huge asset for us.

If you’re planing to launch a business in a few months or a few years, start building your platform––and your network––today. It will make your launch, as it did for Tim, much much easier.

Before he became the most brilliant and famous ad man, David Ogilvy sold overs door-to-door. Because of that, he never forgot that advertising is just a slightly more scalable form of creating demand than door-to-door sales.

At the core, marketing is lead generation. All activities should drive sales.


Aim for a wow factor and response from your customers.

If you were launching a startup or a new product, what questions would you ask yourself before launching?

  • Who are my ideal early adopters
  • How can I make my platform particularly enticing to them right now?
  • Why is this service indispensable? Or how do I make it indispensable to them?
  • Once they come on board, does the service provide/encourage/faciilate them inviting or bringing more users with them?
  • How willing and prepared am I to improve based on the feedback and behaviour of these users?
  • What kind of crazy/cool thing can I do to get attention––something that, ideally, no one has ever done before?

Reddit market research:
Find a subreddit, subscribe, and watch the articles and comments for a few weeks. See what people say, what they react to, what they like/dislike etc.

Blogs: (Noah Kagan) (Paul Graham’s essays)

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries
Learn Startup Marketing – Sean Ellis

Check out MarketWatch, Betabeat, Fast Company, Thought Catalog, Shopify, HuffPo, Hacker News, SlideShare, reddit, Medium, for article placements.