Growth Hacker Marketing was published in 2013, right at the peak of the growth hacking movement.

As a then-traditional VP of Marketing at American Apparel, Ryan Holiday was intrigued by growth hackers: people who combined engineering, marketing, psychology and a less-than-desirable budget to achieve great results. (Notable examples include Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, etc.)

Growth Hacker Marketing was a result of his investigation into the trend.

I actually read this book many years ago, and I’m only publishing my book notes now. The book is relatively short and touches very lightly on the whole subject.

Growth hacking has changed a lot since Ryan published this book, and thankfully, the movement seems to have died down.

But if you’re interested in a more in-depth treatment of the subject, I’d recommend reading Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown instead.

That said, here are my notes from the book.

What is growth hacking?

  • The end goal of every growth hacker is to build a self-perpetuating marketing machine that reaches millions by itself.
  • Traditional marketers tend to treat product launches like blockbuster movie premiers, i.e huge launches, major media coverage etc.
  • Traditional marketers also dangerously assume that they need to get as many customers as possible in a short window of time.
  • If it doesn’t work right away, the whole thing is a failure.

A new way

  • Growth hacking first started when Hotmail added: “P.S I Love You. Get your free e-mail at Hotmail at the bottom.” At the end of every email sent out by users.
  • The role of the growth hacker is to grow companies really fast, to take something from nothing and make it enormous within an incredibly tight window.

The new mindset

  • Noah Kagan: Marketing has always been about the same thing: who your customers are and where they are.
  • Growth hacking is more of a mindset than a tool kit.

Step 1: It begins with Product-Market Fit (PMF)

  • Growth hackers believe that products, businesses and business models should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them.
  • The best marketing decision you can make is to have a product/business that fulfills a real and compelling need for a real and defined group of people.
  • Airbnb went from “putting out air mattresses on the floor and free homemade breakfast” to “a service as networking alternative for attendees when hotels got booked up” to “travelers who didn’t want hostels but also avoiding hotels” to “a platform for people to rent and book any kind of lodging imaginable”.
  • Traditional marketers went back to the drawing board 0 times after a less-than-stellar response; all they did was to put in more muscle
    Burbn pivoted to a photo-sharing app, now known as Instagram.
  • Eric Ries: best way to get to product market fit is to start with a minimum viable product (MVP) and improving it based on feedback.
  • Marketers need to get involved by isolating the customers, figuring out their needs and designing a product that will blow their minds.
  • The growth hacker is a translator that bridges the producers and the consumers so they are in alignment.

Amazon works backwards from the customer

  • For new initiatives, they begin by creating an internal press release that announces this new potential project as though it was just finished.
  • This press release is addressed to the customers (whoever they happen to be) and explain how this new offering solves their problems in an exciting or compelling way.
  • If the press release cannot do that, the initiative is tweaked and tweaked until it can.
  • Amazon encourages product managers to think like Oprah — would she rapturously shout about this product if she were giving it away to her fans as a gift?
  • The exercises forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it.

How do you get product-market fit?

  • In the case of book publishing, some writers blog extensively before publishing.
  • They then develop their book ideas based on the themes that they naturally gravitate towards and that also gets the greatest response from readers.
  • Amazon: if internal press release doesn’t work, can write an FAQ for the product that you’re developing.
  • 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.
  • Try writing the user manual with 3 parts: concepts, how-to and reference.
  • These exercises force you to imagine your product from someone’s perspective other than your own.

Open up to feedback

  • You must have the humility to accept that as a marketer, you are not necessarily the most critical member of the team.
  • Sometimes the best thing marketers can do is not let people get distracted by “marketing” for a minute.
  • Evernote famously delayed spending on marketing for the first several years of its growth.
  • Stop thinking of the products we market as static and that it is to simply work with what we’ve got instead of working on and improving what we’ve got.
  • The prize and spoils no longer go to the person who makes it to market first, but whoever that makes it to Product-Market Fit first.
  • Most effective method is to use Socratic Method. Repeatedly question every assumption.
  • Who is this product for? Why would they use it? Why do I use it?
  • Ask your customer questions.
  • What is it that brought you to this product? What is holding you back from referring other people to it? What’s missing? What’s golden?
  • Be scientific about it.

Step 2: Finding your growth hack

  • Brian Halligan: you must match the way you market your products with the way your prospects learn about and shop for your products.
  • Growth hacking still requires pulling your customers in.
  • Except you seek to do it in a cheap, effective and usually unique and new way.
  • E.g Dropbox made a product demo video themselves, and knowing the outlets where they intended to post, they filled the demo video with jokes, allusions and references that those communities would lap up.
  • E.g eBay partnered with Gogo (inflight wifi provider) to provide free access to eBay for customers on Delta and Virgin America flights

Not all people — The right people

  • The old mindset says go out and get everyone you conceivably can.
  • Growth hackers opt deliberately to attract only the early adopters who make or break new tech services and seek to do it as cheaply as possible.
  • Our outward facing marketing and PR efforts are needed simply to reach out to and capture a group of highly interested, loyal and fanatical users.
  • Then we grow with and because of them.
  • If you need to ask “where to find the right people and it isn’t immediately obvious to you”, then you don’t know your own industry well enough to consider launching a product yet.
  • To reach your first group of users:
  • Reach out to sites you know your potential customers read with a pitch e-mail: “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.
  • Start writing blog posts about popular topics and get traffic.
  • Use Kickstarter to get exposure and bribe your first users with cool prizes.
  • Use HARO.
  • Find your potential customers one by one and invite them to your service for free/special incentive.
  • Do whatever it takes to pull in a contingent of initial users from your particular space.
  • It’s often about exploiting systems or platforms that others have not yet fully appreciated.
  • Patrick Vlaskovits: “the more innovative your product is, the more likely you will have to find new and novel ways to get at your customers”


  • Create aura of exclusivity with invite-only.
  • Create 100s of fake profiles and make your service look more popular and active than it actually is.
  • Target a single service or platform and cater to it exclusively.
  • Launch for a small group of people, own that market and then move from host to host until your product spreads like a virus.
  • Host cool events and drive your first users through the system manually.
  • Dominate the App Store.
  • Bring on influential advisors and investors for their audience and fame instead of money.
  • Set up a special sub-domain on your e-commerce site where a percentage of every purchase users goes to a charity of their choice.
  • All these outreach are done with a very specific mindset, with a very specific goal, and not just spreading the word.
  • Intensely focused on driving an initial set of new user sign-ups and customers.
  • Today’s marketer’s job isn’t to build a brand or maintain a pre-existing one.
  • But building an army of immensely loyal and passionate users.

Step 3: Turn 1 into 2 and 2 into 4 — Going viral

  • Why should customers help you share/go viral? Have you made it easy for them to spread about your product? Is the product even worth talking about?
  • Virality is not an accident.
  • Only a specific type of product/business/content will go viral — it has to be worth spreading AND provoke a desire in people to spread it.
  • Virality at its core is asking someone to spend their social capital recommending or linking or posting about you for free.
  • Best way to get people to do this enormous favour for you is to make it seem like it isn’t a favour.
  • Virality isn’t something that comes after the fact but that the product must be inherently worth sharing
  • Then facilitate and encourage the spreading by adding tools and campaigns that encourage virality.
  • You should not just encourage sharing but create powerful incentives to do so.


  • Publicness is one of the most crucial factors in driving someone’s spread.
  • Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more popular.
  • We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.
  • A growth hacker doesn’t think branding is useless, just not worth the premium that traditional marketers pay for.
  • Growth hackers will look to make the use of their product inherently public and drive that branding.

Growth hacking your virality

  • Dropbox: their famous referral programs.
  • Virality must be baked into your product.
  • There must be a reason to share it and the means to do so.

Step 4: Close the loop: Retention and optimization

  • Your job is also to create lifelong users.
  • What’s the point of driving a bunch of new customers through marketing channels if they immediately leak out through a hole in the bottom?
  • What’s the use of building up a certain perception of your product in the media and via marketing if the moment people try it they find out the hype isn’t true?
  • Twitter: Make their users sign up and follow at least 20 people = retaining
  • Every company will have their own metrics and definitions of what this retaining is.
  • Metrics are relative depending on what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Figure out what your most important metric for growth is and focus on that.

Always be tweaking

  • What growth hackers have mastered is the ability to grow and expand their businesses without having to chase down new customers.
  • Even the best growth hacker cannot grow a broken product.
  • Just because you’ve achieved PMF doesn’t mean your idea is flawless.
  • Whatever your current state is, it can be better.
  • A growth hacker uses all available information to figure out where those problems are and then does something about them as soon as possible
  • Role of growth hacker is to ruthlessly optimise incoming traffic for success; a focus on customer retention.

Scaling retention and optimisation

  • It is about 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.
  • It is always more seductive to chase new marketing initiatives, but it’s better for businesses to retain and optimise what we already have.
  • Growth hacking is about maximising ROI: expending energies and efforts where they will be most effective.
  • Better off rolling new features that get more out of your customer base that turn potential users into active users than going out and pounding the pavement for more potentials.
  • Better off teaching customers how to use your product than chasing new people who don’t care.

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