How to read growth hacking posts like an enlightened reader

by | Jun 4, 2018 | Marketing | 0 comments

In this post:

I know you’ve seen them.

You saw the sexy title about insane growth over some short period of time, clicked with excitement and awe, and you thought, “I want to know exactly how they did this”.

You’re hoping this post will give you some kind of shortcut. Some kind of answer.


The startup journey is hard enough, so if there’s free wisdom just floating around out there, hell? Why not give it a shot?

“We could drop everything, copy their exact strategy and steps, and boom! We’ll see success!” you thought to yourself, hoping to catch some piece of that success for your own.

“After all, these guys did it.”

Except without the proper understanding of marketing, growth, what it takes to hit traction, and even the market you’re in, reading those growth posts without context might actually be hurting your business.

Add to that the mix of feelings that comes after reading posts about massive growth and growth-hacking.

You start to wonder if maybe you’re doing something wrong (or if there’s maybe even something wrong with you).

You begin to question your strategy, your goals, and sometimes even your team.

It’s a vicious cycle: the stories of other founders and startups shed some incredibly valuable light and wisdom on how they achieved their successes, and at the same time, internally rattle us with doubt, frustration, or worse: inaction.


Why startups (actually) fail

Here’s the truth: startups don’t fail because they didn’t read a blog post or properly implement the strategies and insights from it.

According to CB Insights, the top 5 reasons startups fail are because:

  1. No market needed – a whopping 42% of startups
  2. Ran out of cash
  3. Not the right team
  4. Get outcompeted
  5. Pricing & cost issues

Growth posts are attractive because they look and feel like shortcuts that could bypass the risks of losing cash, getting outcompeted, or poor marketing.

Logically, our brains make the connection that if we follow the same path as the authors, we can achieve similar or exact results.


Or, it could waste a lot of time, cash, and the confidence and energy to keep pushing and building great products.


Experimentation is key

The thing we must keep in mind about growth (and growth posts) is that it’s never just one thing that leads to success.

It’s many things culminating and building on top of each other over time—and much of it we don’t see as the reader.

Success is rarely linear or predictable, but focusing on growth forces us to ask what the fastest path to success looks like.

And the only way to do that is to test and execute priority ideas until we find something that works.

To borrow from Sean Ellis, whom I consider to be the father of growth hacking, “An effective growth hacker also needs to be disciplined to follow a growth hacking process of prioritizing ideas (their own and others in the company), testing the ideas, and being analytical enough to know which tested growth drivers to keep and which ones to cut.”

According to Wikipedia, the definition of growth hacking also highlights the need for experimentation:

Growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing funnel, product development, sales segments, and other areas of the business to identify the most efficient ways to grow a business. A growth hacking team is made up of marketers, developers, engineers and product managers that specifically focus on building and engaging the user base of a business.

So as we read posts about growth and growth hacking, we have to keep in mind that dozens of experiments happened leading up to the hockey-stick growth (and most of them were probably duds).

We’ll see an example of this later in the post.


How to read growth posts like an enlightened reader

For the rest of this post, I’m going to teach you exactly how to:

  • Identify the context of every single growth post you come across,
  • Get the most value out of the growth post without falling into the copy-cat trap
  • How to confidently stand on the shoulders of giants

By the time you’re done with this, you’ll have an actionable framework and mental checklist for everything you read from here on out.

You’ll be able to analyze and “teardown” every post with confidence, and walk away from it with the most applicable insights for your business.

(You might even learn how to spot the fake growth posts, too.) 😬

These are the exact steps I use when reading about growth:

  • Step 1: Reading with context
  • Step 2: Reading for prerequisites and gaps
  • Step 3: Reading for application

We will cover each in intimate detail—complete with examples and actionable takeaways.

Before we dig into this, I want to make a disclaimer: I absolutely love growth posts.

I love reading about other people’s successes and the steps they took to achieve them. They’re always thrilling, and when they’re really good, applicable to many different business situations and strategies.

But I’m also a marketer, and I read these posts with one key element that many technical founders don’t quite know how to exercise: context.

The purpose of this post is not to diminish the successes of the growth hackers, marketers, and founders who publish growth-related content, but to equip you, the reader, with a few key concepts to help you make every growth post you read actionable, applicable, and insights-driven.


Step 1: Reading with context

With every post you read, I want you to consider one big facet of the story you’re about to dig into: what is the context of the post I’m about to read?

Understanding the context of the post is about as fundamental as understanding where you are in the world right this very second.

For example, if I were to ask you where you are, what are you doing, why are you doing it, and what are you about to do next, you’d be able to give me a fairly clear answer.

We should be able to do that for the growth post as well.

To define context, we have to define the past, the present, and the growth of the story:

  • The Past
    • When was the company started?
    • What events took place that led up to this growth?
    • How has the product / service pivoted or changed over the years?
    • What were the challenges prior to this growth?
  • The Present
    • What is the product / service now?
    • Who is the product / service for? B2B or B2C?
    • What marketing channels are mentioned in the post?
    • Did the market exist before this product / service entered?
    • Is the market fairly large or more niche?
    • Is this a simple or complex product?
    • Is this a cheap or expensive product?
  • The Growth
    • What was the north star KPI they followed?
    • What were the other metrics they used to support the KPI?

To help illustrate every step, we’re going to use a growth post from the good ol’ interwebs.

I head on over to Medium, type in the search bar “growth”, and voila!

There’s tons to choose from, but I’m really digging this post about Breather by Julien Smith on Hacker Noon. It’s received applause from 1.2K readers and what I’m assuming are hundreds of comments since they won’t load at once. 🙃


Clearly, this is a popular AF post.

And for good reason—it’s a beautiful story about the low-lows of startup life, the desperation when traction doesn’t happen like you thought it would, and a heroic comeback—the high-highs.

Breather’s growth in reservation hours over time

After reading the post, your gut reaction might be to say, “Wow. We need to be more active on Twitter” or “We need to run Twitter Ads“.

But we’re not going to fall into that trap.


Because you’re an enlightened reader.



The Past

Understanding where a company came from, what the events were leading up to the hockey-stick growth, and even details about how the product changed help us lay the groundwork for all of the context we’ll need.

  • When was the company started?
    • Breather was started sometime around 2013; almost 5 years ago now.
  • What events took place that led up to this growth?
    • They weren’t getting any traction. No real paying customers and the bank account was dwindling. Most of the runway is gone. The author begged his friends on Facebook to use the space. They launched their market in New York as a big strategic move.
  • How has the product / service pivoted or changed over the years?
    • They struggled with some technical things regarding locks (as one does)
  • What were the challenges prior to this growth?
    • They were running out of ideas, and fast. Desperation was sitting in despite their small successes.

We should also put ourselves in the actual time and place of what Breather even looked like back then. Breather has a stunning website, no doubt, but what did they look like in 2014 back when all of this was going down?

Let’s ask Wayback Machine.

Breather’s website circa May 2014.


The Present

We also have to understand the present—what is the product or service, who it’s for, the marketing channels they used, and other details about the market they’re in.

This will help us draw comparisons between their market and our own, and what we might be able to apply to our own business.

  • What is the product / service now?
    • Sounds like it’s mostly the same and never pivoted, but it’s booking conference rooms by the hour for businesses.
  • Who is the product / service for? B2B or B2C?
    • Primarily B2B, but it’s important we remember we’re still selling to people.
  • What marketing channels are mentioned in the post?
    • At first, Facebook—that’s where all of Julien’s friends were. But then he moves on to Twitter afterwards. What’s interesting to note is that Julien mentions he already had 40,000 Twitter followers before he started promoting there. Lastly, he uses Twitter Ads to push it over the edge.
  • Did the market exist before this product / service entered?
    • It did! AirBNB and coworking spaces were some of the pioneers of the market
  • Is the market fairly large or more niche?
    • According to Julien, it’s huge.
  • Is this a simple or complex product?
    • Sounds very simple and straight-forward
  • Is this a cheap or expensive product?
    • Also sounds very affordable – this isn’t a top-dollar product, but it’s reasonably or fairly priced


You don’t want to miss the next one.

Every week or so, I’ll drop a growth marketing knowledge bomb right here on this blog, and I’ve got a feeling if you’re here, you won’t want to miss it. I’ll only send you actionable, relevant advice on marketing and growth for early-stage startups. Whether you’re funded or bootstrapped, B2B or B2C, there’s absolutely something to be learned, gained, and leveraged. Subscribe below.

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The Growth

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a true growth post unless it mentions the primary goal or KPI. We always want to see growth and ultimately revenue, but aiming for pure revenue is daunting. Instead, I recommend founders choose a north star that directly correlates to revenue, is quantitative, and can actually be measured.

  • What was the north star KPI they followed?
    Julien mentions in the post “hours booked per week” and that he would grow it by 8% week over week
  • What were the other metrics they used to support the KPI?
    # of conversations – Julien mentions that conversations were an important metric to sell his product

Woo! Okay. We’ve got the context.

(I’m also super curious what you wrote down and if you got any slightly different takeaways)

Now that we’ve defined the context of the post, we can set the stage for the next big step: reading for prerequisites or what I like to call “gaps”.


Step 2: Reading for prerequisites and gaps

So you’ve learned how to take mental notes for the context of the post—and if you’re a marketer, that might have felt extremely familiar since you probably do this at the speed of light when reading a post anyways.

Now we’re going to sweep the post for “prerequisites” or “gaps”.

Prerequisites are the circumstances in the post that served the author, the company, or even the market in some valuable way.

We’re looking for those “stand on the shoulders of giants” moments throughout the post.

There’s also a good chance you might have completely missed them.

When it comes to crossing chasms, this is where those “gaps” become very misleading if you’re not able to spot them.


I found a few prereqs that help us paint the whole picture:

Julien acknowledged that he had early funding to play around with. I appreciate the transparency here! He got to try something crazy because he started with healthy funding from the get-go. That’s not to undermine how desperate the situation was—his bank account was running low, after all. It’s important to understand, however, that had he much less funding and less supportive VCs, he probably wouldn’t have been able to try it.

Looking back, I was very, very lucky.

I had a service people actually liked (i.e. product market fit).

There was nobody else really competing in this space.

We had a lot of money from the get go, so we could try crazy shit.We had a great team of people that made sure everything worked along the way.

They built a great product. Perhaps the most worthwhile growth hack is to build something so awesome and addictive, that people can’t help but fall in love.

Julien spent years building an audience on Twitter. You might have missed it, but his original Twitter audience was already 40,000 people since he was an early adopter for Twitter. That’s amazing!

Soon, it began to hit the next level. My original Twitter audience was ~40,000 people (I was in the first 10,000 Twitter users, so my follower count started growing early).

Breather had just launched in New York—and Julien knew it would be key to Breather’s success. This is the kind of event in a company’s history where strategic bets are placed about a product and its market. And right place, right time, yada yada.

Around this time, we launched New York — a market we knew that we had to win, if we were going to be anything at all. This aggressive launch turned out to be prescient; it was a milestone that later helped us raise our Series A.


Step 3: Reading with application

Finally—we’re able to read this post for “application”.

Reading for application means taking parts of the post and the journey and leveraging it for your own business based on the context and gaps.

The chasm to cross between Step 2 and Step 3 are where we learn to stand on the shoulders of giants—of people who’ve been there, done that, and can teach us something.

Perhaps most importantly, this is where we’re preventing jumping to conclusions about what led to success and the assumptions about what will make us successful.

When most people read growth posts, they skip immediately to reading with application and taking the post literally. This is a fatal mistake—one that could cost you the progress you’re already making.

If you fell victim to immediately thinking you needed to start running Twitter Ads, you’re 1) not alone and 2) skipping over context and prerequisites.

That said, here’s some of the lessons learned from Julien’s amazing story about Breather:

  • Build an amazing product.
  • Decide on a north star KPI.
  • Build the right audience in the right channels.
  • When something works, double-down on it.
  • Create a majestic onboarding flow.

Build an amazing product. You’ll hear this over and over again throughout your startup journey: build an amazing product.
The Breather product might not have been perfect, but it was well-built and designed, and provided value from the get-go.

Decide on a north star KPI. And then stick it. The best advice Julien received during the struggle-bus days was to decide on a north star KPI and then make it work.

His CEO friend probably didn’t even know it was called that, but he was right to give that advice.

I remember sitting in a bar, on December 26th over a beer, with another CEO giving me advice.

“Just pick a number and grow it 8% a week,” he said.

“Really? But then how do I actually grow the number?” I asked.

“You’ll figure it out.”🍻

Too many founders try to move the needle in too many directions.

Pick just one—and focus in on it. Never take your eyes away from it.

[Tweet “Too many founders try to move the needle in too many directions. Pick just one—and focus in on it. Never take your eyes away from it.”]

For Julien, it was # of hours booked. That was his north star.

I’m sure there were plenty of other metrics, but that was the only one that mattered.

The only other thing that supported this KPI was # of conversations.

Me: “Nope. I want replies. I want to start a conversation.”

Everything else is a distraction.


Build the right audience in the right channels. If you felt tempted to hop onto Twitter and start running some ads, hold your horses for just a second. Your audience and target market might not even use Twitter. Plus, Julien was able to test this channel organically before putting some paid spend towards it.

He spent the previous years building his Twitter audience—not knowing it would be one of the keys to his success. Thankfully, that’s right where his target market was (until he was able to find marketing help and leverage some better channels and tactics).

The global truth here is this: build your audience in the right channels.

[Tweet “The global truth here is this: build your audience in the right channels.”]

When something works, double-down on it. In line with building the right audience in the right channels, Julien also did something that founders should always do: when it works, double-down.

What started out as begging friends on Facebook to use Breather hours turned into testing his audience on Twitter. When that worked, even to his surprise, he scaled it by purchasing ads and expanding his reach.

It became the playbook they repeated in every city after that—until they had to focus on other channels.

It worked in New York, SF, Canada, and more. Eventually, we found better tactics, and we evolved our team so it had actual marketing people in it (we’re hiring btw), not just some schmuck that had written a few marketing books. 😜

Create a majestic onboarding flow. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but Julien gave you a dope onboarding flow to leverage. If you glossed over it, take a look again. It’s gold, and it’s something you can leverage in your own business.

The enlightened reader

So you’ve gotten the crash course on how to read a growth post without feeling like you need to hop on the bandwagon.
And if you read the above growth post example and gathered completely different insights, that’s perfectly valid.

I hope this post helps you gain a critical eye on everything you read from here on out while also helping you appreciate the truly great growth posts out there.

Because believe me, there’s tons.

As long as you keep in mind the context, the prerequisites, and your own personal application, you can effectively take what you need from a growth post without feeling like you need to copy it to the “T”.

The goal is to be inspired and apply its process and its learnings.

Hold on to that, and you’re already an enlightened reader!