How Sean Ellis Built GrowthHackers to 100K Members and Skyrocketed the Growth Hacking Movement

What is the biggest challenge that all companies face?

Getting customers in the door.

Finding and retaining high-quality customers is always at the forefront of any business strategy, and with the acquisition channels constantly changing it can be difficult to know what to do and when. Over the past couple of years, there has been a movement among high-tech companies to focus more on growth hacking than on typical customer acquisition strategies.

Although most of you probably have heard of growth hacking before, do you know what it means? I know I didn’t know before this episode with Sean Ellis, founder of GrowthHackers.com. I just thought growth hacking was a cooler term for marketing at a tech company, but man was I wrong.

In this eye-opening conversation with one of the leaders of the Growth Hacking movement, you will learn the ins-and-outs of running effective growth experiments, why growth hacking is critical to growing a business, and an exact strategy to discover if you have a product market fit.

If you are looking to attract and retain more customers, then put on your seatbelt and get ready for a great ride with Sean Ellis.

Free Bonus Download: Get this valuable resource of 29 Growth Hacking Quick Wins you can use to grow your user base (even without a marketing budget)! Click here to download for free right now.

Q: What is your story?

A: I spent the first ten years of my career working at two startups that I came in on the ground floor, zero users on them, and built them up, in the VP Marketing role, to successful IPOs. Then I decided I was going to spend the next few years trying to just work in that upfront stage.

That's when I went to Dropbox and spent six months with them, six months with Eventbrite, Lookout, and a bunch of companies where I could just get it down to a systematic process of figuring out what matters, when does it matter, sequencing, and bringing those companies to market.

Then I launched my own business, Qualaroo, which I sold before starting GrowthHackers.

Q: Seems like the trend for you has always been speed, regarding “let's grow this company quickly and let's move onto the next thing.”

A: I didn't see the headroom in Qualaroo. We got it to a point where it was profitable for us, but I just didn't see the headroom in that business the way I did in GrowthHackers. I think the focus is such a valuable asset for any founder. I felt like I needed to make a choice on one versus the other, and GrowthHackers was where my passion was and where I saw the potential to build a really big, interesting business.

Q: Can you talk about what GrowthHackers is, what it means, and where you're at with the company today?

A: GrowthHackers is trying to help with the movement that's already been happening with growth hacking of the fastest growing companies out there. We do everything from creating a community of practitioners to education to help people learn how to do it better to a conference.

Long term I think our value is going to be in the software that we've built for helping cross-functional teams manage growth. It's all of those things working together.

Q: What does that community look like today? How many members? How many visitors a month?

A: Right now, our visitors are in the hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, but it is a pretty specialized audience at this point. Our members are in the hundreds of thousands as well. I think for us if we can do a better job with retention we can probably grow it even faster.

Initially, we didn't have a business model with it. It was a passion project. It grew pretty quickly, but I've been focused on leveraging the platform with these different companies and have been less focused on trying to build the overall platform.

Q: What is the monthly fee for being a member?

A: Long term, we need to make this thing sustainable, so we've increased the price quite a bit to $850 per month. We grandfathered people in, and now we are doing a lot more hands-on help to help people be successful with it. It's all about trying to create a valuable business around it. What we figured is that if people implement it in the right way, it's worth the price.

Q: One thing that leads up to GrowthHackers projects that I think would be helpful for people to know is the concept of running growth experiments. Can you speak to that a little bit?

A: Experimentation is the way you learn how to grow a business. It's about the quality and velocity of experiments, and it's based on the scientific process. You're running analysis. You're trying to find leverage within your overall customer acquisition and retention conversion model. When you find an area where some focus should help, you run a set of tests and build a backlog of ideas of things that you could do to improve that point within the funnel or tap into that channel. Each test is written as an experiment doc, similar to the scientific method.

Much like in the scientific process way, you've got a hypothesis, you've got any of your evidence on why it might work, and then details of how you would run that experiment. Then ultimately, each week it's about deciding which tests – based on the resources that you have and what you think are going to work – which experiments should you be running.

Q: You've worked with so many companies. What's the one thing that's like “this is the same thing I see every time?”

A: I do think that the product dictates a lot the potential of business. If it's a valuable product, then it's about figuring out who is passionate about the product, why are they passionate about the product, and then who externally – who hasn't tried it yet – could benefit from that same experience?

It starts with understanding, very deeply within the funnel, who are the people who can't live without the product? I uncover that with a survey question. I ask, “How would you feel if you could no longer use this product?” I'm focusing on people who say they would be very disappointed. Essentially reverse engineering the creation of those people.

How do they use the product? What path did they go down? How do I expose a much bigger group to that same experience? Ultimately getting people to a great, valuable experience leads to retaining people, which is required for growth. If you can't retain, you can't grow. It all starts with understanding the experience that leads to retention.

Free Bonus Download: Get this valuable resource of 29 Growth Hacking Quick Wins you can use to grow your user base (even without a marketing budget)! Click here to download for free right now.

Q: When you ask that question, what percentage of people are you expecting to answer “very disappointed,” to know that you've reached product/market fit?

A: Long term what I've seen is that once you've optimized the business, if you have about 40% or more of the users coming in who say they would be very disappointed without the product, once they've tried the product, then I've found that those are pretty growable businesses.

Essentially, if you can retain people in the long term, you have product/market fit for those people. The survey question is a predictive metric for long-term churn. If they say they would be very disappointed without the product, then they're likely going to stay on the product. The critical metric is, can you retain them or not?

Q: What if a company only has 10% of customers responded that they are very disappointed? What could that business owner do to grow their business?

A: What's interesting is that I have gone into companies where it's less than 10% of the users say they'd be very disappointed without the product. Then I focus on understanding that 10% of users.

One company, I was able to go from a 7% to a 40% in just a couple of weeks by building a funnel based on how the 7% who said they'd be very disappointed were using the product and the benefit they were getting and then streamlining the onboarding process to that experience.

The next cohort of people who signed up was over 40%. By the time I left that company, six months later, we were at 60% of the people.

Q: You guys have the community, what's the most effective thing that you're doing right now regarding customer acquisition?

A: We built our initial community off the back of Twitter, which is a very natural loop with the community. That worked well, but Twitter as a channel is kind of on the decline now. As that declines, we've got other things going.

For us, it is all about having a good cadence. We do two AMAs per week. AMAs start to get people in the rhythm of coming back. We have our weekly top posts lists on Mondays. Mondays end up being our best days, so we take the very best posts of the week, send them out in an email. That brings people back for more discussion.

In a six month period we have a million plus people come through there, so for us, the acquisition is not as much of a challenge. Our challenge is much more retention. That's why things like the email, things that drive that ongoing engagement are pretty important for us.

Q: What's one big change you made in the last year that has impacted either you or your business in a big way?

A: Selling Qualaroo was the biggest change because it allowed me to focus on where I have the most passion.

Q: Smart. That's a growth hack for learning right there. Sean, this has been awesome. Excellent second interview. What's the best way for people to find you online?

A: Twitter, @seanellis. Obviously, if you have any questions, post them on GrowthHackers because we have Q&A on there. I like to jump in and answer them as often as I can.

Free Bonus Download: Get this valuable resource of 29 Growth Hacking Quick Wins you can use to grow your user base (even without a marketing budget)! Click here to download for free right now.

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