An interview with Sean Ellis, creator of growth hacking, and Morgan Brown, co-author of “Hacking Growth.”

I know, I know. You’ve heard all about “growth hacking”. And you’re not into short-term thinking or get-rich-quick schemes.

I thought exactly the same way until a few weeks ago, when I interviewed Sean Ellis (who created growth hacking) and Morgan Brown (a co-pioneer).

Why did I change my mind? I realised that I was wrongly conflating growth quacks with growth hacks.

That’s partly because Sean and Morgan have been mostly silent (compared to everybody else) about this concept. I guess they’ve been busy, you know, growing companies.

In fact, when I entered “What is growth hacking?” into Google, I found nothing by Sean and Morgan on page 1. There are references to them… but nothing they’ve actually authored.

Here’s what I did find:

“A growth hacker is a hacker whose objective is to grow the number of users for a specific product.”

Mattan Griffl 

“…the power of a growth hacker is in their obsessive focus on a singular goal. By ignoring almost everything, they can achieve the one task that matters most…”

Neil Patel

“[A growth hacker is] One whose passion and focus is pushing a metric through use of a testable and scalable methodology.”

Aaron Ginn

I now realise that these are all critically incomplete and inaccurate definitions of growth hacking… even though they are the definitions by which I too judged the concept.

For one, they all overlook one factor both Sean and Morgan say is critical for true growth hacking—a good user experience.

“I think one of the biggest levers for a growth hacker is improving the user experience… at the root of sustainable growth is delivering a valuable experience. A valuable experience is what leads to retention. Without retention, there is no growth.”

Sean Ellis, creator of the “growth hacking” school of thought

Check out all 4 parts of my interview with Sean and Morgan


This tendency to leave users out of the equation—or as Neil Patel says, “ignore almost everything…” to achieve one goal—is, in my opinion, why growth hacking is so misunderstood.

I use these marketers as examples not to malign them (I’m sure they were only trying to share their interest in the concept), but to enhance the clarity of my point.

More fundamentally, their definitions all make the common mistake of suggesting growth hacking is an unbalanced fixation on one outcome (usually money).

In fact, growth hacking is a way of thinking, manifested as a pattern of behaviour—the outcome of which is, more often than not, commercial growth.

The difference is subtle but the effect is exponential.

“Growth quacks chase money at any cost. Growth hacks attract money at a lesser cost.”

And when I say “cost”, I mean it in both human and financial terms.

So, what does growth hacking actually mean? How does it actually work? And why is it the perfect methodology for unleashing the combined powers of product, marketing and user experience?

Sean and Morgan explain all this and more in their first ever book on the subject, ‘Hacking Growth‘.

They were also kind enough to share some of their insights with me, during a 40-minute interview. In this article, I share those same insights with you.

You keep using that term ‘growth hacking’… I do not think it means what you think it means

“I think what compelled us to write it [Hacking Growth] is that we kind of looked around at how everyone was defining growth hacking or you know, attaching it to almost every marketing tactic and strategy out there… and said, ‘This isn’t really how I understand it.’”

Morgan Brown, co-author of “Hacking Growth

“…at the essence of the process [growth hacking], it’s about understanding the value that customers receive from a product or a service, and getting really good at expanding the distribution and amplification of that value…”

Sean Ellis, creator of growth hacking

You can probably tell that the creator of growth hacking has a more holistic view of his methodology than the gurus who peddle one-dimensional versions of it.

But what makes growth hacking different from any other marketing school of thought? What gives it merit?

Growth hacking was created, while Sean worked at Dropbox, to empower a new kind of business for a new kind of challenge.

As Sean explained, it would’ve been suicide for Dropbox (in its early days) to try and play the “brand awareness” game through mass media advertising… against much bigger and well-established competition:

“I used to have a lot of founders and CEOs who would grab me and say, ‘Hey, can you come and help us build awareness?’ and I’d say, ‘You have a budget that’s you know, maybe $50,000 for the next year. The average person sees 3,000 advertisements a day. There’s no way we’re gonna go out and just build awareness.”

These new companies (software companies typically) were trying to win a game designed for old companies, and do so from a position of great disadvantage. This made no sense to Sean… and rightly so, in my opinion.

He decided to turn Dropbox’s “disadvantages” (being young, small and intangible) into strengths.

At the time, most companies were pouring their marketing resources into tactics and methods:[color-box]

  1. Whose direct impact on revenue was difficult to isolate and measure
  2. Which were difficult to modify and improve in real time, as soon as you learned from sub-optimal decisions
  3. Which required lots of time, money and bureaucracy to launch and validate[/color-box]

For example, before the mainstream adoption of software and the Internet, Coca Cola sold physical products through the power of a brand which was built on mass media advertising.

Did Dropbox and other small software companies have to use the same model? Did it make sense for them to do so? Sean thought not.

As an antithesis to the traditional approach to marketing, Sean built something for his employers which was based on 3 principles:

  1. Marketing designed to have a direct and measurable impact on a meaningful, commercial goal [MEASURABLE]

  2. Decision-making informed by first-hand customer research [EXPERIENCE-DRIVEN]

  3. Hypotheses which can be quickly tested without huge, upfront investments in time, money and bureaucracy [AGILE]

And thus, growth hacking was born.

If you’re not doing number 1, you’re a swindler.

If you’re not doing number 2, you’re a gambler.

If you’re not doing number 3, you’re a cadaver.

Sean and Morgan consider all 3 parts of the equation essential. The problem is that almost everybody else focusses on only one part.

Growth hacking also leads to marketing that is less cost-exclusionary (unlike most traditional marketing strategies and tactics ), and inherently designed to prioritise effectiveness. This probably explains why it’s so attractive to businesses of all sizes.

Halfway through my conversation with Sean and Morgan, I realised that even we at WhatUsersDo have been applying all of the principles he uses to define growth hacking—it’s just we’ve never called ourselves growth hackers.

Growth hacking is the natural, optimal synthesis of product, UX and marketing

If you work in the fields of product management or user experience, you’ve probably noticed some parallels between growth hacking and your job.

I’m mostly talking about the necessity for customer (or user) research and the focus on rapid experimentation (or iteration).

So, what’s different about growth hacking? Perspective. It’s like looking at different sides of the same Rubik’s Cube.

The objective is the same.

The method is the same.

You just see a different side of the same challenge.

Within growth hacking:

  1. Product managers see things from an angle of product adoption
  2. User experience professionals see things from an angle of user satisfaction
  3. Marketers see things from an angle of business growth [/color-box]

It doesn’t take a genius to see that all of these depend on each other… yet, the challenges faced in achieving them can have subtle differences. Hence, they’ve been split into different disciplines.

Growth hacking believes they all become stronger when we bring them back together, to learn from and enhance each other.

Imagine a marketer who knows as much as the product manager about who uses an app and how.

Or a product manager who knows as much as the marketer about what makes people buy (and keep buying) or not.

Or a user experience professional who knows as much as both about where the sweet spot lies between what users want and what the business needs.

Those are the makings of an unstoppable company.

And, at its core, that’s what growth hacking is—making a company greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s not about brute-force marketing. It’s not about being sly and underhanded. It’s not about turning off your brain and just doing what Internet gurus tell you to do.

Growth hacking is the beautiful lovechild of product, UX and marketing genius.

Check out the “Hacking Growth” book for UX, product and marketing professionals