Starting the Growth Engine: Deciding whether to push, jump, or hotwire
There’s a lot of information out there around how to build a growth engine, how to organize for growth, how to hire for the skills required for growth, etc. But the one area that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of guidance around is about how to actually start your growth engine in the first place.Time and time again, inevitably, someone asks the following question (or some form of it) during a discussion about growth:
How does a new company go from nothing to something?
This is usually where you hear various definitions of what growth hacking is. (Insert passionate disagreements here.) This is then followed up with a request for examples of growth hacking to better understand the concept. This is then addressed with a list of famous growth hacks by other companies — without any real insight. What’s been lacking, at least in my opinion, is a framework to help hackers attack this problem. The following is my modest attempt at addressing this gap.
I feel the best way to think about starting a growth engine is to actually think about the ways one would start a car. The typical ways are:
- Jump starting
For those too young to remember, there was once a time where if your stick-shift car didn’t start due to a low battery, you could push the car to a decent speed, pop the clutch — and presto, your car would start. If you didn’t get it to catch at first, you tried again, and again, and again, until you got it going. Either way, you ended up out of breath, sweaty, pretty tired and thankful if it worked.
Essentially the idea here is that you are in a situation where you have figured out something that kinda works — at least in theory. With this idea, you keep at it day in and day out, and slowly progress until you get somewhere. Just like push-starting a car, this is honest and hard work — but eventually, with a little bit of luck, it pays off. In practice, this typically plays out with a hypothesis and a series of inspired experiments until success is achieved.
In the automotive world, this is where you take power from another working vehicle to power your own.
The idea here is that you leverage other people’s audiences to grow your product. You can bring your product to their audience, bring their audience to your product (by hook or by crook) — either way, you are leveraging networks that are not your own. Similarly, you can do this through paid acquisition — essentially buying traffic over various channels.
This is where things get ethically grey. Hot-wiring is essentially identifying that the ignition switch closes the circuit that allows you to start the car. So shorting the switch (i.e., bypassing it) starts the car without needing a key — though you may feel a bit icky afterwards depending on whose car you’re messing with.
This is probably the most interesting and the most controversial type of growth engine starting. The prerequisite here is that you have a very deep understanding of what is missing or broken from your engine. I.e., Identifying if you are missing power or fuel; if you have leaks, etc. Once you know the issue, you then short or bypass the issue completely. The grey part of this is how you decide to short the issue. Let me illustrate.
Say you are a window maker. Which of the following would you do?
- Convince people to install your windows over other windows
- Keep current customers happy and educate them that regularly replacing windows makes sense.
- Break all the windows in the neighborhood.
You can translate this to the growth world quite easily. Say you owned an anti-virus SaaS business, the choices in your world would be something like:
- Invest in marketing
- Invest in retention
- Create a virus that your company, alone, had the cure for
As you can see, all of these solutions could work — some faster than others, some cheaper than others, and finally, some more ethical than others.
But this isn’t a course on ethics. So while I can help with the thinking about how to start growth engines, I won’t attempt to guide your moral compass. That part, I’ll leave to you.
Happy (Safe) Hacking!