Lean Startup thinking is the most important addition to business thought in the last 20 years. What Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and many others have uncovered is a way to manage the biggest issue in a new venture– uncertainty. There is so much uncertainty about so much (customer base, value proposition, business model) that the tools of traditional marketing (e.g., spend money on media) are comically inappropriate. The Lean Startup method allows you to rapidly try many different versions of your idea cheaply to see what gets traction. If the market ignores it, you have data. If the market loves it, you have data. And the data is what tells you where to go. It is humbling, exhilarating, and might lead to nothing at all.
The Marketing role at a Lean Startup ends up being part of the whole fail-fast-and-pivot model, and doesn’t look much like marketing at a mature company. When done correctly, customer acquisition (what we normally called marketing) is baked into the product itself. (Think about Hotmail, Dropbox, and AirBnB—if you use the product correctly, you help it acquire new customers.) It’s the very opposite of what most marketers do all day. When Johnson & Johnson want to launch a new line of Band-Aids, they put in years of research and work in product development, and when it’s done, they throw it over the wall to Marketing and say “go generate demand.” (I simplify, of course. They don’t throw it over a wall—they send an email.)
This is a great summary of how Growth Hacking is different from traditional marketing. And why growth hacking is all about cheap or free tools rather than giving money to ad agencies. Startups by definition are about extreme uncertainty. Nobody knows what will work, so why bother spending a lot of money on media? A big bang is irrelevant—in most cases, startups can’t handle a million customers, so why would you want to even think about TV? (Moment of silence for pets.com.) Growth hacking is all about experimenting, gathering data, and abandoning things that don’t work.
In a way, it’s a similar insight to what William Goldman said about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” We don’t know if any idea is going to work. So we dumb things down to be inoffensive. This fear of offending makes most marketing safe and mediocre. When it fails, you can always shift the blame away from yourself. You can blame the product, you can blame the economy, you can blame the weather. For the last 100 years, marketing was about guessing, not about knowing. Why? Because there was no feedback loop, so you had to wait until your work hit the street before you knew if it worked. You could use your best judgment, and maybe even test it with audience samples, but you never knew what was going to work.
Today, you can create as many different messages as you want, release them into the wild, and see what the market likes. This is a fundamental difference with the pre-Internet era. Now we can see what dog food the dogs like before we commit to buying a big batch of it.
This feedback loop is being leveraged all over the economy. My personal favorite is the work Amazon Studios is doing. Rather than present finished products with hidden flaws, it exposes projects at their early stages and asks the audience to find the flaws. Before money is spent. It makes a huge difference not so much in the number of hits, but in the number of misses.
Amazon are real growth hackers, because they are putting data from the audience into the design of the product itself—if the audience hates it or is just meh, they know they have to abandon it or fix it. But most companies aren’t pure growth hackers. They throw you a completed product over the wall and say “go find me leads.”
While you don’t have the freedom to revamp the product itself, you certainly can revamp the marketing. Experiment, fail, and learn. Instead of Product-Market Fit, search for Message-Market fit. Try multiple approaches and see which, if any, stick. You’ve got essentially free message production and message distribution, so why don’t you see what people actually respond to? As I said at the start—it’s humiliating. Most of your ideas are bad. (That’s OK, most of my ideas are bad too.) But it’s much better to find out your idea sucks before you make the company spend $100,000 on it. Denial is a lot safer psychologically, but denial doesn’t make you better or smarter or more valuable. Denial keeps you on the same treadmill of mediocre work.
Take the blindfold off. You might learn something.
Photo Credit: Flickr
Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.
Adrian Blake. Strategy. Social Media.