Matthew Lerner of 500 Startups (and previously 10 years at PayPal) spoke at Econsultancy’s recent Future of Digital Marketing conference, asking the question ‘Is growth hacking bullshit?’.

I’ve embedded Matt’s slides at the bottom of the post, but here’s some of his talk in more detail.

Famous growth hacks 

Some of the most famous growth hacks all have one thing in common – as ingenious as they were at the time, none of them would work any more (given changes to the digital platforms they exploited).

Nevertheless, let’s have a look at four of them.


Airbnb realised that although it was building a more personal platform than Craigslist, a lot of its target market still used the classified ads website.

So, around 2010, Airbnb began to offer its hosts the ability to also post a listing on Craigslist with just one click.

This wasn’t simple, particularly because of the regional differences between Craigslist. Airbnb built a bot to create Craigslist listings, input information and return the unique URL to their hosts.

This hack generated more traffic to Airbnb properties and, along with some Craigslist user poaching, was instrumental in Airbnb’s growth.

airbnb and craiglist 


When early instagram users posted their filtered photographs to Facebook, these posts automatically included a link to download the Instagram app, tempting others to sign up.


PayPal knew it was a good match for eBay, back when there was still lots of buyer-seller friction around cheques or even cash sent in the mail.

PayPal wrote a bot to start bidding on low value auctions, then sending the seller a message saying ‘I only want to buy if you use PayPal’.

So, sellers started offering PayPal, which in turn led buyers to consider signing up.


Nowadays email platforms have built-in tools to allow large file transfer.

But when Dropbox started, this wasn’t the case. Dropbox exploited this by making recipients open a link in an email then create an account in order to download the received file.

Users could also gain extra storage by inviting their friends or completing a range of actions.

get more space

The growth hacking process

Lerner kindly gave an overview of what he sees as the key steps in the growth hacking process.

1. Set your KPIs.

2. Develop personas and your message. What is it that your customers need help with? Are they time poor but need more traffic (in the case of Airbnb hack)?. This isn’t pie in the sky, it should be task-oriented customer insight.

3. Generate ideas. There are many methods for this, from brainstorms to surveys, UX audits to question exercises.

4. Put the ideas in a backlog. Score them all. Prioritise the ‘impactful and easy to do’. Work on the ‘impactful and not easy to do’. Fit the ‘not impactful and easy to do’ in between sprints. Make a list of the ‘not impactful and not easy to do’, to remind yourself never to do them.

5. Create a pipeline. Don’t work on more than three things in a week. or you will lose focus.

6. Produce experiment documents. Changes must be designed as experiments, because you need to know they work. Form hypotheses and methods of production, bet on outcome and be public with your predictions (and comfortable with being wrong).

Take risks – limited traffic means not everything can be an experiment, so don’t waste an experiment – if something seems obvious just do it.

7. Execute.

8. Measure and document learning.

9. The growth meeting. Share what you have learned and decide what you’ll work on next. 

The growth hacking mindset

The growth hacking mindset is arguably more important than the process.

1. Humble: two-thirds of tests fail. Failure is learning.

2. Tenacious: persistent with a bias towards action (do’ers).

3. It’s a science: systematic thinkers.

4. It’s an art: obsessed with simplifying the customer journey.

5. Systems thinking: find the lever points, the feedback loops, look for 80/20s.

6. Intensely curious: asks a lot of questions.

7. Optimistic: comfortable with ambiguity.

8. Diverse: a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.

9. Relationship builders: help involve the whole organisation.

10. Driven: knows what success is and won’t settle.

For more from this year’s conference, read: The future of video is vertical, texted and emotional.