First posted on October 14th, 2019.
This blog post recounts the successful “hacking” stories of 12 leaders in their fields. This is a story about how they went from low traction to scaling. Some ended up taking days, some months, and some years. But in the end, it’s how they hacked their way to the top that counts.
No one said that you should copy them to reach a certain success. Instead, take them as inspiration. These examples should inspire you to think differently and dare to experiment. As you know, in Growth hacking, there is no perfect recipe, only a never-ending circle of testing and learning. That’s what all growth hackers strive for, do you too?
Each of the examples below leveraged classic growth hacking principles. Can you identify some of them?
In our opinion, these are some of the best growth hacks the world has seen:
- Dollar Shave Club
- Uber Eats
Read on to find out how they pulled that off!
Best growth hacks of all time
This company worth now more than 10 billion dollars started like any other, as a small startup which marketing budget was peanuts. Yet, they got there without spending any money on advertisement, and created the most successful referral program ever.
How? By improving the product for the users, whenever they shared it. In other words, Dropbox offered 250mb of extra storage space to any user who invited a friend — if said friend created an account. This incentive got the signups to soar by 60% almost overnight. Each new user cost Dropbox only 500mb of disk space. Talk about a low cost of acquisition!
Instead of paying for expensive online ads, Dropbox used simple incentives:
- First, they integrated the referral program into the onboarding process. By connecting it to Google and Facebook, people could invite their contacts with just a few clicks.
- Then, they bet on the retention element of this hack. The more the user’s space increased, the more they felt committed and were less likely to go somewhere else.
Key Takeaway: Dropbox is still one of the most famous cases of referral marketing. The key value of the program was that both sides were rewarded (the customer as well as the person they recommend Dropbox to).
Fun Fact: Dropbox turned down a 9-digit acquisition offer from Steve Jobs.
Airbnb started as a team of broke guys in San Francisco, letting strangers crash at their place when hotels were sold out. That’s how they came up with this disruptive idea.
At first, they used a traditional promotion strategy that combined word of mouth and PR coverage to gain exposure. They reached out to their target audience by attending tech events where there was likely to be a shortage of housing, and a pool of early adopters of new ideas.
While still in the early stages, they found out another simple solution to drastically increase the number of bookings: improving the photos listing on their site. To improve the image quality, they first started traveling to photograph hosts' apartments themselves. Later on, they were able to hire a horde of photographers all over the world to do the job on demand.
And now... the cherry on the pie, the horn to the unicorn, the almighty hack that fired up Airbnb’s growth: the genius Craigslist API reverse engineering hack. In other words, this solution allowed Airbnb users to cross-post their listings on Craigslist, giving them access to the huge user base already existing.
Key Takeaway: Some growth hacks, like taking better pictures, are so simple that it’s hard to believe how powerful they can be. Other ones can be tremendously complex (like reverse-engineering an API). There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Creativity and innovation are fundamental components of growth hacking.
Fun Fact: Craigslist, eventually, shut Airbnb out… but it was already too late. The non-traditional hack already triggered their exponential growth. The rest is history.
One of the big early free web-based e-mail providers, Hotmail, found that advertising was too expensive. Instead, they came up with one of the very first growth hacks — long before the term was coined in 2010, that skyrocketed their sign-up rates almost for free.
At the time, an investor suggested putting the text “PS I love you. Get your free E-mail at Hotmail” at the bottom of every e-mail sent from their platform — it may seem corny, but it was the first of a now very common practice. Take the examples of “Sent from my iPhone” or “Sent from my Blackberry”.
Hotmail essentially turned every single user into a free advertisement for their services, and soon began acquiring 3,000 new signups per day. They achieved a jaw-dropping 1 million users in 6 months, and five weeks later, they hit the 2 million mark.
Key Takeaway: This is one of the best examples of turning your customers into your (unpaid) salespeople. The personal sounding nature of the message, along with the fact that it came from a friend and not the company itself, made clicking the link almost irresistible.
Source: Neil Patel
PayPal, now a giant in online payment, also began their exponential growth journey using a referral system. By doing so, they achieved 10% daily growth and acquired a userbase reaching over 100 million people.
Instead of handing out free storage, PayPal used a mind-blowing hack... They actually paid users to sign up. Every time a friend you referred created an account, both you and your friend would receive $10. As they understood that their customer lifetime value was greater than $20, so it made perfect sense to invest in their own referral system.
In addition, PayPal also partnered with eBay, which resulted in paving their way to success:
First, the deal allowed them to place their payment badge alongside other payment options. This vastly boosted their perceived credibility and placed them as competitors with big players like Visa and Mastercard.
- But also, in order to buy on eBay from a seller who only accepted PayPal (as it was becoming increasingly common), one had to create their own account.
Key Takeaway: Growth hacking is not only about creativity and innovation. Good old-school economics play a big role too... the combination of the three always does the trick.
Fun Fact: PayPal spent close to $60 million on this referral system before it was phased out. Talk about investment!
Instagram is a supreme example of what growth hackers like to call product-market fit (or PMF). It is not exactly a hack, but it is vital for success. They came up with their offering at the right time, in the right place and under the right circumstances. Market desires and needs were perfectly aligned, it’s a dream scenario!
They gave customers something they unconsciously were already looking for: social interaction and a place to share their photos rather than canny tweets.
For the first time since the rise of smartphones, everyone had a decent digital camera in their pocket, and the tools to become a master photographer. With the emergence of Web 2.0. came the increasing urge to share their lives and experiences.
The first picture ever posted on Instagram by
co-founder Kevin Systrom. Source: Instagram
The great thing about Instagram was that it was a product that improved with social interaction – meaning people were eager to spread the word. The fun of it was in people’s ability to see and interact with your photos. Later on, new integrations allowed users to push photos to Facebook and Twitter, increasing their reach.
Ironically, Influencer marketing also became a reliable tool for the founders of Instagram. By sending their app to journalists and tech enthusiasts they knew, they stacked up positive reviews in diverse news outlets such as Techcrunch – helping their app go viral.
Key Takeaway: The foundation for growth is product-market fit. If you don’t have it, no promotions or growth hacks are going to get your business to soar. Figuring out your customers' desires and expectations are key to create a product that people will be eager to share. By doing in-depth market research you'll be able to get those insights.
Fun Fact: over 50 billion pictures have been shared in the history of Instagram, and it all started with the picture of a dog...
Uber has been incredibly smart in the way they enter new markets; taking a local approach to each new city they target:
- They chose a new location-based on elements such as nightlife, events, weather, and the current availability of taxi services. By doing so, they guaranteed that there was a market need such as in San Francisco and Chicago where hailing a cab at night could be a big pain.
- They built their whole appeal strategy off of addressing the pain points associated with traditional/local taxi services; from making payment easy, to lowering prices, and removing the need to hail one down.
As they realized early on that almost everyone who used the service once, would likely do it again, they quickly began to offer $20 to new users to take their first rides. Actually, they knew that their customer lifetime value would far exceed that later on.
This incentive removed lots of the barriers that first time Uber users faced, and made them extremely likely to become long-term customers.
They relied almost completely on word-of-mouth advertising, promoting the simplicity of their service over traditional taxi services. On top of that, Uber made great use of PR by using their legal battles as free publicity to gain loyalty and advocacy from customers.
Key Takeaway: Traditional marketing channels with expensive advertising are not always the most effective way to promote your offerings. Uber has shown that unconventional channels, even negative PR, can have enormous potential to grow a business.
Fun Fact: Uber once hired a nuclear physicist, a computational neuroscientist, and a machinery expert. Together, they ended up creating a mechanism to help Uber predict cab needs and the areas with the highest pikes in the demand.
Besides offering a great product for networking and finding jobs that resonated with professionals right away, LinkedIn enabled users to create public profiles that search engines would index. In other words, users would show up organically in search results and could get listed on the front page of Google without having to pay for it.
As it increases the users’ potential visibility beyond the platform, this was and still is a great reason for people to sign-up on the platform. Thanks to this hack, LinkedIn was able to grow their users from 2 million to 200 million within a few years.
Key Takeaway: By paying attention to how people were using their service, LinkedIn discovered there were benefits to using their platform that extended beyond their primary value proposition, and then capitalised on that.
Fun Fact: LinkedIn now counts more than 645 million members in over 200 countries and territories.
YouTube implemented one of the greatest hacks: they created a system simple enough for average people to upload and embed videos wherever they wanted. The platform quickly became the place of choice for people to host videos they displayed on other sites. And, of course, each of these videos linked back to their platform.
In the past, the process required you to convert videos to an internet-friendly format (and have an appropriate plugin), before you could upload it to your website. It could also require lots of bandwidth from your server. This is why this clever feature contributed towards YouTube now having over 1 billion unique visitors each month.
Key Takeaway: YouTube was able to think outside of the box. Rather than only being a destination for watching videos, they realised they had the capability to host videos for the entire Internet and thus gave an ever-expanding audience reason to sign up.
Fun Fact: Approximately 72 hours of video are being uploaded every minute on YouTube.
Dollar Shave Club
When founder Michael Dubin decided to launch Dollar Shave Club in 2012, Gillette has been dominating the market in the USA for already decades. So how can you compete with such an established competitor? How did they prove a market fit when the market was already (supposedly) saturated? A few things happened.
It all started with a video. Yep. A video. Not any video, though. A viral video. A video that has been viewed over 26 million times and propelled them to be the new leaders on the market. The video triggered over 12.000 orders within two days.
First thing first, the Dollar Shave Club offered an affordable solution to a problem people were sharing without even realizing it. This is what we call: Product Market Fit.
What else? They invested in video marketing. This is a smart move considering that almost half of the online activities involve videos (they're also the format the most shared on social media). The video received multiple awards and transformed a boring topic: shaving, into a hilarious story using sarcasm, stereotypes, and other brand references.
Last but not least, the Dollar Shave Club offers a unique customer experience. Focusing their efforts on the retention of their current customers over acquiring new ones, they knew that word of mouth is one of the strongest powers of persuasion.
Key Takeaway: Invest in your Customer Lifetime Value. Nurturing your current customers will bring you new ones, with minimal efforts. You basically would transform your customers into free advertisement. Oh and use the power of videos. Transform the most boring topic into a comical story will make it worth the share.
FunFact: Dollar Shave Club now became the most popular shaving company garnering 51% of the market, while Gilette was claiming approximately 70% initially.
Slack reinvented the way companies did internal communication. The early growth came from creating a market and a need where there initially wasn’t one. If you know us at least a little bit, you probably know that we keep repeating the same thing: “Product Market Fit! Product Market Fit! Product Market Fit!”
They were (still are) not selling a software solution. Slack is selling a promise: “a reduction in information overload”, “relief from stress”, “better organizations and better teams”, “all your team communication, instantly available wherever you go”, etc.
For product development purposes, Slack puts the accent on customer satisfaction. Since its launch, the company has been progressively releasing to larger groups to observe how it functioned, adapt, and improve the software. As well, they invest resources in responding to customer feedback with around 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and over 10,000 tweets per month. I
On the first day of "Preview Release", Slack received 8,000 invitation requests. Within two weeks, that number had grown to 15,000. Talk about growth!
Key Takeaway: So for Slack, early growth came primarily through creating a market where there really wasn’t one. They decided to sell a solution to a problem people didn’t know they had. With scalable releases, they insured the development of a product that was needed.
Funfact: When Twitter's magic number is 30 people followed, Facebook's 10 friend requests, Slack’s magic number is 2,000. 2,000 messages sent by users means they are hooked!
While Uber Eats is delivering on average $10 billion worth of food per year, they are now among the world’s largest food-delivery services. But it didn’t start that easily. Indeed, the driving service started with a pretty significant challenge: when your explosive growth shows signs of weakness, how do you recycle a taxi service to boost the growth curve again?
Uber did what they do best: they started small and listened to their market.
Indeed, they established test markets in one city at a time, with Toronto as their first test-city. Later on, came Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco. By targeting towns one by one, Uber Eats took the time to receive reactions in real-time and adjust their service to the local demand. This technic allowed them to validate multiple things:
- Test the standalone app and respond in real-time to issues,
- Customize the food delivery service per city, according to the demand,
- Launch the new feature in the Uber app in cities where there was proven success.
Key Takeaway: Listening to the market has proven to be the leading strategy for Uber (Eats). Once again, the slow but scalable release gave them the guarantee that there was a market ready for them.
FunFact: Four out of ten people who initially used the Uber Eats app never made use of the Uber, which allowed them to regain an exciting wave of new customers.
Tesla as we know it has produced over 600.000 cars since it’s creation. Pretty high numbers for a luxury car brand uh. How did they accomplish such incredible numbers with a $0 marketing strategy?
When other car brands turn towards TV advertisements and billboards, Tesla doesn’t market traditionally. Instead, they turned their customers into marketers.
They leveraged a couple of tactics:
- Personal approach
- Referral programs
- Selling a lifestyle, not a product
Source: Talk Walker.
What does a unique customer experience usually do? It makes people want to share it. So, when Tesla decided to focus their car production on made-to-order only, they ensured highly personalised vehicles people would like to talk about. Scarcity and exclusivity. Two factors that are effective marketing tactics to make products seem more desirable.
Also, Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla – uses social media as a strength. He is well-known for spending time on social channels answering consumers’ feedback and complaints. Later on, those will be used to improve his luxury cars. Way to make people feel special!
Concerning referral programs, the company always ensures that the referral program remains noteworthy enough to generate word of mouth promotion. From giving $1.000 of credit towards a new Tesla to exclusive services or accessories, and more recently, unique access to the latest showcases.
Finally, let’s talk about marketing through a mission. Tesla cars are electric cars. Ooooh you didn’t know, did you? ;) More seriously, the luxury brand is selling to customers a lifestyle. They are selling them a way to contribute to environmental sustainability and fight climate change. With a website full of content about sustainability and car production reports, Tesla gives their customers an exclusive spot in a lifelong fight for the planet.
Key Takeaway: There is a lot to take away from Tesla’s ingenious and low cost marketing strategy. Focusing on customer experience became Tesla’s marketing force. They turned their customers into their best (free) marketers. And once again, marketing a lifestyle rather than a product seems to work like a charm.
FunFact: The Tesla Model S reached the best safety score of any car in history. So how safe you’re gonna ask? Well… It broke one of the testing machines. Mic drop.
So… Iconic, right?
Growth hacking almost always involves features that are built into the product more than it involves the actual marketing process. A common feature of growth hacking is that the value a customer gets out of a product becomes greater with sharing and social interaction.
Another common feature is the ability to think beyond traditional marketing channels and use creative ways to spread the word about a product offering.
While sensational examples like these are typically few and far between, they do serve to inspire growth hackers constantly. They drive them to think outside of the box, try new and untested ideas, and look for what other unmet needs their products have the potential to fulfill.