Growth is not magic.

There’s been lots of hype lately about growth and growth hacking. I’ve even heard such nonsense as “we can turn on virality whenever we want to.” (Um, if it were that easy….. never mind.)

The truth about user acquisition is that while there are some fundamental principles at work, there is no substitute for having a valuable product and delivering it in a great user experience. This truth is both refreshing and stabilizing. It’s about the product, people. Growth comes from delivering the core product value to users as early and often as possible. (This was my biggest take-away from the Growth Hackers Conference a few months ago.) To do deliver the core product value (or core user experience), you must identify who your ideal users are and talking to them. Listen to what they say. Then read between the lines to find out what they want.

Then decide how to design the product experience so that you can shape your users’ behavior in ways that achieve your business goals.

A weird tension in acquiring your first 1000 users is that growth (user acquisition and marketing) is not as important as strategic learning (as in validating your assumptions) and community building. (At Britley I do all of these things and it’s a delicate balance, but what holds all of these disciplines together is DATA about users).

In an early stage startup, your early users are like your parents in their importance.

  • You learn everything about what you ARE through them
  • Your way of being is shaped by their feedback and behavior
  • You get invited into their social circles and your own social life revolves around theirs

You don’t get to pick your parents, but you do get to strategically target your first users. That’s why we decided to be very conscious about who we invite to our private beta. (We were inspired a lot by Sandi MacPherson’s great post on building the early community at Quibb.) At this stage, while we’re trying to reach product-market fit, every user will teach us a lot about how the site is used and experienced. We know who our target market is, so we’re targeting them. Pretty old school. It sounds simple, but it does require some patience about growth.

At Britely we are not running any ads (historically we’ve only ran AdWords when we’re split-testing different value propositions or trying to analyze how new visitors will engage with a new product feature). We don’t spam the Facebook Open Graph. We aren’t doing any press releases. We are actually restricting our growth by operating on an invite-only basis.

We aren’t restraining ourselves to be polite (though it’s a good idea). We are growing selectively because it helps us learn. It keeps our data clean, clear, and meaningful. And when you don’t have a lot of data to work with, minimizing noise is critical. Until we have product-market fit, learning is our job. That’s what a startup is: an organization whose purpose is to search for and discover a sustainable business model (see Steve Blank for more on this).

Growth is not a hack. Sustainable, resilient growth is a natural effect of delivering a product that provides real value. The job of a growth hacker at an early stage startup is often to grow strategically, selectively, and sometimes even…. slowly.