Growth Hacking 101: The Basics

So, you built a startup.

Sexy logo, website looking sharp, app is in the store, and you even closed a small seed round from friends and family investors.

Your initial vision is now a reality, and it’s time to see what the world thinks.

This seems to be the single biggest hurdle in startup land. How do you get from zero to something?

The truth is great growth-hacks start at the product level —  integrated into the app itself.

But since you already have an app, lets start from launch. What now? Good question, thanks for asking.

After doing a bunch of campaigns, certain things start to stand out as ‘obvious’ low hanging fruit when it comes to product growth.

By executing these simple things, you should be able to properly acquire, retain, and grow your user base.


First, let’s talk about what we normally do. This seems to be the standard formula:

– Post to Product Hunt
– Post to Hacker News
– Post to Reddit
– Post to ‘New App’ Sites
– Talk to Reporters
– TechCrunch
– VentureBeat
– PandoDaily
– Mashable

– Pay-Per-Install
– Youtube AdRoll Marketing
– Facebook App Installs
– Niche Ad Buys
– Setup Booth at College Campus

Now, these are all great, but they don’t count for anything unless you have a strong foundation to build on top of.

You don’t want your funnels to be full of holes, because you’ll throw users into it, and it’s just going leak all over the place. Funnel, not strainer.

You want to make sure that once you start ‘acquiring’ new users, everything will convert as expected.

This is also important because you don’t want to think your product is crap and start building features to fix something that was really a self-engineered problem stemming from poor retention basics.

So, what’s this magical base that we NEED if our startup isn’t going to suck.

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1. Acquisition – bring new users into the system.
2. Activation – new users ‘get it’, and sign up.
3. Retention – users continue to use your product, become part of community.

These three things are key components to any growth mechanism.

Retention is the ultimate key in your growth calculations. If you’re not retaining your users, your business will not work. You can’t pay to acquire new users forever.

So, the basic equation for viral growth is:

k = i * c

k = growth
i = invites sent (per user)
c = conversion of invites

If each user invites 5 new friends (avg), and 1 of them sign up (avg)(1/5), i = 5, and c = .2, the total growth factor of this system would be 1.

When your ‘k factor’ is one, it indicates a steady state – neither growth nor decline.

When your k-factor is above 1, it indicates exponential growth.

This is the same equation used to calculate how ‘infectious’ viruses are (biological ones, not computer ones, but probably works for both).


How do you retain users? It’s not that hard with a good retention framework.

The first thing you should implement is a lifecycle email marketing campaign.

This is a no-brainer, but tons of companies don’t do it, and miss out on a bunch of opportunities.

When a new users signs up, you should have several email campaigns setup to send at various triggers.

One popular retention email is either 20 minutes after signing up, or 12 hours after – a quick note from the CEO reaching out and welcoming you to the app, asking for feedback, etc.

These messages are automated, but make the company feel more proactive and personable. You remember them because they’re in your inbox in the morning.

Not in an annoying way, because you provide value, but you have to stay relevant or people will absolutely forget about you.

These little reminders will do wonders for retention – it’s more effective than any cool feature you could ever build into your app – so stop reading and go add it in if you haven’t already.

You’ll notice, magically, people will begin to engage more on twitter, they’ll use your app more, they’ll talk about it more.

Your goal is to acquire as much mindshare as possible, and quick emails are the simplest and least intrusive way to do that on a recurring basis.



Re-Marketing… It’s Amazing:

This is key, and I don’t know why more companies aren’t using this to the full potential.

Before you send any traffic to your site, add a google re-marketing pixel right above the </body></html>.

These are the only users you should spend money advertising to.

They’ve already seen your company once – now you need to convince them that you’re everywhere, and that they should sign up because if they don’t they’re going to be late to the party. Infact, they’re already late.

With retargeting, instead of getting 100,000 views targeted towards ‘fashion’ (random users), you get 10,000 views, 10 times each, to people who already know your brand (retain users).

That’s huge.

Not only is retargeting less expensive because you have a smaller audience, but it’s also hyper targeted, so you know the value of each of these eyes is tremendous.

In addition, you get them to view your ad 10 times each — this means as they’re browsing and reading a random blog, your ad pops up.

They’re watching a youtube video, again, that same ad comes up.

You’re starting to re-enforce the fact that your company is ‘real’. Even though they know its real, it doesn’t seem real until you’re able to capture their attention through what seems like random chance.

These people will be thinking ‘Wow, I just saw that company yesterday. Weird, they must be blowing up, I’ve seen them 3 times today’.

Once you have that, you’ve won advertising.


Building a Community: 

You can do all the online advertising you want, but without people who truly care about your product, you won’t get anywhere.

The best way to get people to truly care is to make a human connection. Tell a story.

This isn’t globally scalable, but street team and ground level marketing bring real people who care. These people become active participants that want to see you succeed. This is important for momentum, and it will help re-enforce all the other things you do online that will scale globally.

If you acquire a new user and they look at your twitter which has no activity, they’re going to leave.

If you app has no reviews, not a great chance.

However, if a new user see’s a vibrant community, they’re more likely to join in themselves.

People want to join things others are already using, most don’t want to be the first to try some experiment.

So in addition to simple remarketing and emails for ‘pumping up’ your online presence, having ground level street-team marketing is essential in building human relationships and a community of people who want to see you succeed.



The above strategies are some low hanging fruit that cover acquisition and retention nicely.

Activation is another extremely important part of your growth funnel.

On it’s face, this would seem to be simply A/B testing your website and making sure people are downloading the app, but most times i’ve found that it’s not the actual interface tweaks that change the conversions, but the meaning behind them.

You can move a button, but the ‘reason’ why a conversion change occurs is because people then perceive your site differently. Tapping into this core understanding of your users is where you can truly understand how to optimize your activation funnel.

I break activation down into two main steps:

1. Customer Research
2. Optimize Interface Design

For customer research, you want to understand who your users are, what motivates them, and how they interact with your product.

An easy way to do customer research is to post a craigslist ad for people who fit your ideal demographic, bring them in, and record them using your product.

You want to have this be as unbiased as possible, and not lead the users through your product in any particular way. You want to see how they use it naturally – them having problems / being confused is what you want.

You want to watch them struggle, so you can understand what they were thinking, and then use that knowledge to build a solution.

Swap out craigslist for a local hot-spot (venice beach), and hold up a sign that says “$5 for 5 minutes… Test our App!”

You can also do surveys on mechanical turk, or sites like Peek, but these tend to not be as good as actually getting your hands dirty.

The second step after understanding what your users are thinking, is to tailor your product to push them along the funnel with the least amount of friction.

If you’re targeting older people, maybe consider building a system that works without a login, so they can start right away. These are all things you’ll learn in the research process.


Once you have these things nailed, you should have a pretty good basis for doing more growth-hacking experiments. These are usually custom to your niche / product, and will super-charge your growth if you can get one to work in tandem with your solid base framework.

Questions / Comments / Disagree? Let’s chat!

– J