The Democratization of Growth Hacking: Ryan Holiday on the Growth Mindset

While Socrates made a career of sharing ideas on the street-corners of Athens, it was ultimately Plato who recorded Socrates’ words to share with others. Ryan Holiday has similarly been writing the book on the emerging practice of growth hacking by synthesizing and recording many of the conversations happening on the street-corners’ of the blogosphere. In 2013, he released Growth Hacker Marketing, becoming one of the first authors (if not the first) to publish a comprehensive book on this subject. Most recently he created an online Growth Hacker Marketing course, promising to be a “roadmap” to growth hacking for everyone from students to marketing executives.

The Growth Hacker

Though certainly an accomplished growth hacker himself, where Holiday really shines is taking the high-level thought leadership of others and turning it into practical and digestible growth hacking guides for the masses. Whereas growth grandfathers, like Andrew Chen, seem to necessitate a certain level of technical proficiency to become a successful growth hacker, Holiday, who comes from a more traditional marketing background, takes a more democratizing approach to the role.

For most marketers, the thought of spending hundreds of hours learning code to stay relevant in the shifting landscape is daunting. However, Holiday doesn’t see the “growth hacker” as a mutant programmer-marketer-product developer hybrid, but rather as “someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable.” He writes, “Growth hacking isn’t some proprietary technical process shrouded in secrecy.”

The Growth Process

Holiday outlines a simple process for growth hacking both in his book and in the article “The 5 Phases of Growth Hacking”. These five steps are:

  • Achieve Product Market Fit (PMF) through developing “a product perfectly designed to fit a specific and critical need for a well-defined audience”.
  • Find A Growth Hack through testing different traction channels to discover and validate the one that will provide the most growth.
  • Go Viral through enabling customers in whatever way possible to share your product with others.
  • Retain and Optimize through gathering feedback to improve user experience and creating customer loyalty.
  • Start Again through running the growth process again to continue spurring growth.

The Growth Mindset

Holiday’s growth process seems amazingly simple, and could probably be done by any marketer with little technical skill (though whether they are successful or not is a whole other blog post). In fact, it’s almost difficult to distinguish this set of actions from what a traditional marketer might do, leading some to criticize the whole growth hacking movement as a “pretentious” start-up fad.

However, Holiday would point out that what really distinguishes the growth hacker from the traditional marketer is not the process itself, but the mindset in which the individual approaches marketing. He writes, “While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like ‘branding’ and ‘mind share,’ growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth—and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users.”

Though any traditional marketer will probably tell you they pursue growth, they will often have other focuses and responsibilities that don’t directly drive growth. (Think about how many marketing hours and dollars have probably gone into cleaning up Uber’s recent string of PR controversies.) Whereas larger companies have the resources to deal with the marketing and communications complexities that come with size, start-ups need to make sure that they optimize every dollar spent to achieve their primary goal of survival through growth. Thus the singular focus and goal of the growth hacker is measurable and repeatable GROWTH. This mindset is the make or break characteristic of a true growth hacker.

This singular focus forces the growth hacker to adopt a “do whatever it takes” mentality that prevents them from getting bogged down with any tasks that don’t directly drive growth. It also forces them to constantly challenge and validate old ways of doing things, as well as to innovate new, outside-the-box tactics to drive growth. The now commonplace practice of programming or building growth mechanisms directly into the product itself is one of the many innovations that have emerged out of this growth mindset.

Everybody Can Play

The beauty of seeing growth hacking as a mindset over an industry specific methodology or role in a startup is that it enables everybody to play. In his article “How to Market a Boring Business,” Holiday gives examples of seemingly ordinary and “boring” companies that used a growth mindset to achieve significant growth. What ordinary, successful companies like Dollar Shave Club and College Hunks Hauling Junk have in common is not VC backing or an unlimited marketing budget, but rather a do whatever it takes growth mindset which allows this ultimate goal to drive every business decision from messaging to product design and business model. As more industries start adopting this kind of growth mindset, growth hacking will no longer be a practice reserved for “cool” tech startups, but will be used by any entrepreneur to grow their companies.

This democratization of growth hacking is ultimately changing the practice for better and for worse. On one hand, as more practitioners jump into the game, more innovation can occur and the discipline will continue to develop and gain recognition in different industries. On the flip side, as more and more people adopt the title “growth hacker,” there is a threat of diluting the uniqueness of the discipline all together. Moving forward, practitioners of growth must continue to invite others into the trade, while also protecting the growth mindset that made them unique in the first place.

For more on Ryan Holiday visit or follow him at @ryanholiday.