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What they don’t teach you in business school: the art of growth hacking

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: the marketing knowledge you need for rapid growth on slim budgets simply isn’t taught in business school.

The reason is simple: marketing management from business school tends to be more operational than creative/organic.

But the essence of growth hacking is creativity. So, you may need to unlearn some of the more “management” style systems B school taught you. Or, learn to fit them into a creative mental framework.

I am confident that any business or entrepreneur can benefit from a growth hacking attitude – something sorely missing from a business school curriculum.

Every business can be grown rapidly in today’s competitive landscape. Even if you’re a roofing contractor, a coffee shop owner or a freelance designer, there’s a way to magnify your sales through creative, growth tactics and thinking. Take a recent example from my own experience.

My recent growth hacking experience: exceeding my goal by 169%

A recent client at Kale Pahoho’s and my business, K&J Growth Hackers – is the University of Delaware (UD), specifically their young entrepreneur venture contest “The Diamond Challenge”. They came to us looking to amplify their contest submissions.

High school students starting businesses were encouraged to apply for over $100K in business grants and prizes.

Together, with UD’s brilliant minds, and help from some interns, we came up with a plan in 2 days, built the assets over the next 5 and ran the promo campaign for about 20 days.

Objective: 500 contest submissions

The Campaign:

  • $500 gift card giveaway on Instagram
  • Growth hack Instagram, Twitter (12 scheduled Quote-on-Image posts)
  • Custom landing page using Bit.ly links to track clicks
  • Reach out to 130 HS business clubs & ~20 incubators & ask them to share with members
  • Instagram Stories “Founder’s Tip of the Day”
  • Email to partner’s list of ~20K college students


  • 845 contest submissions (or, 169% of our goal)
  • Grew Instagram from 300 to 2,800 followers & ~50 likes/post to ~90

There are other growth metrics, but these were most salient.

My remarks

It was a huge success to all of us involved. The Instagram contest drove the most submissions.

The HS business clubs were handy, but had much a slower turnaround for sharing.

On Instagram, and our own channels, content was published immediately, and gave us more time to gather entries.

A few other examples of growth hacking.

  •      UberFresh teams up with Snap Kitchen in Austin, TX to deliver free, healthy food on international hangover day, January 1 of 2016 – the day after New Years Eve parties. They capitalized on nearly everyone in town being exhausted and hungry. Then, they shared good will, great food and their own awesome brand. Talking to Snap Kitchen’s marketing manager, she explained “It was a huge success” and they planned to do it again. (marketing hack)
  •      VYRL (a new mobile platform): only allows influencers with 5,000+ Instagram followers on their platform. Then, encourages its members to help co-promote. Talk about exponential growth. They claim 550M+ reach, and are less than a 1 year old. (product hack)
  •      Nathan Chan, CEO of Foundr Mag invited a small, select group of readers to a private Facebook group and gave them early access to resources, and made himself available as a resource. He used his most passionate readers to share Foundr’s book launch and raised $205K for his Kickstarter in the process. (marketing hack)

Remember, growth hacking is more a way of thinking than a marketing tactic or strategy.

This frame of mind is usually embodied by those who didn’t have any other option, i.e. a startup with no marketing budget.

If you’re in a cushy marketing manager position, with a confident budget, it tends to be more difficult to conjure up fresh, unique ideas for growth.

Author Dan Pink studied the impact of finances on creative thinking in his book Drive. (Sidebar: amazing read). Large budgets / compensation can have negative effects on creative thinking.

So, it’s important to remove yourself from the financial aspect: if your budget is slim: don’t think of “what can I afford?If you have a big budget – the expansive, but indistinct “possibilities” can harm action. Both cloud creative thinking.

Only use your budget as needed, rather than as a starting point.

Decide on the vision for your growth hacking campaign, then figure out a way to pay for it.

When it comes to growth hacking your business, it comes down to these five tools.

what they don't teach you in business school - barista growth hacking

1. A niche

Hone your target to a small, dense group of passionate people. You can start by reading “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly. Use your customers as advocates for your product.

By focusing on the top customers or prospects, they’re most likely to share your brand (even if just for their own benefit in some distant way).

People naturally have good will and want to help other good people – or brands. Leverage that.

With growth hacking, you’re often asking your customers to do something like share with each other and their friends.

2. A loudspeaker

Now that you’ve selected a tight-knit community, you need a way to broadcast far and wide within that group. Finding a marketing method for reaching these consumers is open ended – it could be a digital marketing channel, or it could be hosting a meetup.

As mentioned earlier, I emailed 130 student-run entrepreneur clubs for UD.

Another, I targeted Instagram accounts who “liked” motivational quote posts, and followed/engaged with them.

3. A helper

Get someone in the community on your side. Find either an influencer, partner brand or a community organizer.

For my fitness app, I linked up with the leader of a running group with 8,000+ members on Facebook. Be mindful, these people are tough to get a hold of, to get time with and usually have full content calendars, so have a clear ask when you approach them.

Also, it’s better to have someone recommend you to them or introduce you than to cold pitch.

Have this figurehead shout out your campaign to their members, and offer the influencers some incentive, like co-promotion or access to your platform/products free – or even just great friendship/partnership.

4. Control over your own product

It’s important when you design a growth campaign to have control over your product features, because you may need to build social or sharing functionality.

For Uber, every user gets a coupon code to give friends $20 toward rides, as well as $20 in their own pocket.

Think about how to add value by rewarding your customers for sharing with their friends.

5. A brilliant mind

This campaign doesn’t necessarily need to be designed by you, but it absolutely requires your input. You can do a few things to get the creative juices flowing.

I prefer to whiteboard a flow chart of how the campaign works. Then show it off to a friend for feedback and revisions.

Or, you can get professional help from a company like KJ Growth Hackers, my partner and I’s growth marketing agency. We design custom campaigns on shoestring budgets. As mentioned, our recent client reached 169% of their sales goal using an Instagram Giveaway.

If you hire help, make sure that person has variable experience that demonstrates their ability to come up with creative growth strategies, regardless the product or vertical.

Remember, growth hacking is a way of thinking more than it is a single tool or method.