Organic Growth Hacking: how to build quality customers from seed stage

Image It’s really fascinating going from a company with a few thousand users (SoFi) to one with over eight million (Scribd) – the skills required to be a marketer – or a growth hacker – at these two companies – are sometimes very different. As Director of Acquisition at SoFi, I took the company from a few dozen customers to a few thousand in less than a year. That required some really scrappy tactics that no one is talking about. Uunfortunately I think today the challenges of early stage growth aren’t being talked about enough – and growth hacking focuses too much on tactics that are primarily going to help companies that already have millions of users. I think that’s a misrepresentation of what will truly help budding marketers at early-to-mid stage companies that aren’t lucky enough to have millions of MAUs.
Semil Shah wrote a recent guest post in TechCrunch, and spoke specifically about distinguishing between inorganic growth-hacking tactics and more organic, qualitative, often-offline tactics. This begins to drive toward the question of what are these early-stage-growth things that startups should be doing? One example: at one startup when we wanted to get students to finish signing-up, we actually called them and asked if they had any questions we could answer. Imagine the CFO of a startup calling a 22 year old on their cell, answering a question, or walking the question over to customer support to find an answer. A lot of startups tell stories about this. But I don’t see anyone in the marketing community embracing these practices. They are more than a publicity stunt – they imbue your company with a sense of substance and quality that is hard to measure but perhaps crucial to establishing organic growth.

At the Growth Hackers Conference, there were talks by from YouTube, Elliot Shmuckler from LinkedIn, and Mike Greenfield from Circle of Moms. In those three cases, these companies had tens of millions of users before those three speakers ever joined the company. And therefore, the types of growth hacking being deployed was all specific to companies that already have a huge reach. Examples of tactics discussed: optimizing the onboarding flow for new users, driving better engagement and site visits through email subject line optimization, or a/b testing landing pages. These are all great when it comes to taking a million users and making it 1.1 million. Or perhaps they took 1 million and made it 2 million. But with just 1000 site visitors per month, a new user signup flow optimization that increases conversion from 5% to 10% is still just 100 new users.
Here’s one such strategy – I think it strikes the balance between being authentic, offline, and at the same time highly scalable.
At Kno, BookRenter, and SoFi, I developed partnerships through campus organizations. The insight was that clubs constantly need events – which means they need speakers – and they constantly need money – which means sponsorships. I reached out to try to kindle a few sponsorships or guest speaking events. Straightforward, so far. Here’s where it gets interesting: The hack was that I hired someone on ODesk to spend hours combing club directories, finding contacts, and then emailing them a customized template email on my behalf, asking them to partner.  The ones who responded got a meeting setup with me, and I spent 30 hours a week in phone calls developing real human-to-human relationships with club organizers, even taking a number of them out for lunch or drinks when they eventually visited San Francisco. In turn, the startups I worked for got tremendous mind-share at these campuses and in a much more authentic way.
Most importantly, II was able to make that quality contact scale across 50 campuses x 5 clubs per campus x 5 officers = 1250 influencers. Of those, perhaps only 5% forwarded something onto their club mailing lists, which lets say average 100 members each, so – for free – we were able to reach 1250 * 5% * 100 = 6,250 potential customers. And do it through personal email – a trusted channel – rather than through paid advertising – a channel the Millennial brain has learned to all but ignore.
I recently joined Scribd as interim Director of Marketing to help them through the launch of a new product. It’s going to be an entirely different challenge – a site with 80MM active users. I’m excited to try out more of the standard growth hacking, ecommerce performance marketing, and funnel optimization that I’ve learned at BookRenter and from the Growth Hacker community. Wish me luck.

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