by Mike Sharman (@MikeSharman) The term “growth hacker” was introduced by Sean Ellis in 2010, based upon the premise that this individual is someone obsessed with growth and that everything they do is judged upon ‘potential impact on scalable growth’. Brands — and, similarly, their creative partners — need to adopt a growth-hacker mentality to survive and thrive in this age of market volatility and consumer fickleness.

Today’s most-valuable brands have been born from an adaptive and innovative approach to infiltrating markets and minds. The Unicorns — companies with billion-dollar valuations and beyond — have proven time and time again that it is impossible to take any form of success for granted.

In a world where even 100-year-old brands aren’t immune from having to file for bankruptcy, a mindset shift is required to ensure that your brand survives the digital cull. Change is uncomfortable; it’s a necessity.

Facebook, Uber and Airbnb — a tale of three hackers

Facebook logoCritics questioned whether or not Facebook could survive in a mobile-first world. Its success had been built off a desktop experience and competitor threats lay in the form of platforms that engaged at mass, feature-phone level. Early iterations of Twitter merely required you to send a text to post a tweet.

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg and team experienced the mobile tipping point at Facebook as user numbers on mobile began to overshadow desktop visits. According to Business Insider, “following an all-hands meeting in which Zuckerberg emphasised mobile being the company’s first priority, the Facebook CEO held a meeting with a senior engineer to go over some product mockups.”

The engineer showed Zuckerberg these concepts on a desktop computer, who proceeded to kick him out of the conference room as he had ignored the mobile-first brief. All 3000 engineers were subsequently retrained how to code in mobile. One billion unique users later, this growth hack will live on in digital folk lore as an imposed sanction that changed the game for the once-desktop-first platform.

Disruptive approach

Uber logoUnlike Facebook, Uber’s disruptive approach has always been geared towards a mobile UX (user experience). The ‘Everyone’s Private Driver’ app leverages off the peer-to-peer viral-sharing nature of social media by rewarding early adopters with discount codes to trial the service — in exchange for priceless social shares. Instead of opting for ATL campaigns when entering a new market or territory, Uber spends its money on absorbing costs for discounted rides and then encouraging riders to share with their networks.

Leveraging off an existing network of hundreds of millions of people is always easier than building a community from scratch. Uber has effectively converted its early-adopter fans into its own influencer-marketing platform.

Finally, Airbnb’s approach to growth hacking has seen the ‘Belong Anywhere’ brand infiltrate popular market place Craigslist by posting some of its listings in an environment comprising a captive market of property seekers. This was a relatively technical hack as it was based upon the following process:

Leveraging off an existing network

Airbnb logoAirbnb was able to build a bot to visit Craigslist, snag a unique URL, input the listing info, and forward the URL to the user for publishing — effectively double-posting between Airbnb and Craigslist, leveraging off an existing network, akin to the Uber tactics.

The digital age ensures fewer barriers to entry for the emergence of new offerings and competitors to existing brands. The taxi and hotel industries have well and truly been disrupted by fledgling businesses; once-startup Airbnb has booked more nights than the Hilton group and has a greater valuation than Hyatt.

This isn’t a doom-and-gloom piece for brands in their ivory towers, but rather an anecdotal account of how disruptors have emerged in a short space of time to become consumer champions and threaten the fabric of traditional business. It is imperative that ‘established’ brands analyse their macro and micro environments for ways in which they, too, can adapt to this uncertain landscape.

New age, new rules

It’s a new age, with new rules and more unknown unknowns than ever before. It’s time for brands to equip themselves with staff and agency partners who think like startups and have the ability to incorporate speedboat insights into cruise-liner operations.

Growth hack or die!


Mike SharmanMike Sharman (@MikeSharman) is co-founder of Retroviral, a digital communications agency specialising in content creation, community engagement and client commerce wins. He understands the platforms to guide brands on how to execute the stories, in order to have a direct impact on sales. Mike contributes the monthly “Tech Speak” column, dedicated to the advancements on the marketing-technology front and addressing the trend of tech vs storytelling, to

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One reply on “Tech Speak: Growth hack or die!”

  1. Excellent article, Mike. Redefining or not, growth hacking has certainly brought new energy and vigour to marketing. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at

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