What if There is no Magic Unlock?

February 3, 2020



I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. Those amazing “growth hacking” tall tales where this startup changed their “buy” button from red to blue, and their conversion rate improved 80%. Or that time they included this new referral link in their confirmation e-mail, which improved referrals by over 1000%. Maybe that one startup that, by accessing your contacts and asking you to refer people you know that might like to join this social network, managed to grow to 10M users in just a few short months.


It’s very exciting to believe that there is a magic feature somewhere out there that will help your startup accelerate it’s growth rate 10x. But most of the time, it just doesn’t work that way.


Believing that there is one silver bullet hidden out there in the ether leads many founders and product leaders astray because they believe that finding this mythical magic unlock is the one true way to build their startup to success. But most markets just aren’t that explosive. Many products (even really good ones) won’t inspire that level of deep awe necessary to generate sustained 100+% growth month over month for years. Sometimes that’s just not the way your vertical works.


By comparison to the “magic unlock,” the little day-to-day incremental improvements just aren’t that shiny. So it’s really easy to ignore the stuff that makes your conversion rate just a little better while trying to find the BIG one.


We certainly made this mistake for a while during our time at Choose Energy. But, eventually, we began to realize that tweaking a feature that increases our conversion rate 3–5%, and the customer service improvement that adds a bit to our NPS, compounded over and over again for months on end. This has then summed up to the big improvements we were aiming to see.


The legend of startups is that it magically you find success all at once. The one big break. This same myth is pervasive in the performing arts too. But, we could learn a thing or two from the arts.


I have friends who are ballet dancers, theater and film actors all over the world. Some of them have starring roles in major TV series, or have performed in Tony Award winning productions. It looks like they got a break and then everything changed.


However, if you were to ask them, they would tell you that they did not achieve these feats all at once. They honed their craft for years in tiny theaters so far off Broadway that even Google Maps couldn’t give you directions on how to get there. They hacked away at their skills over and over and over and over again, finding success little by little.


Sometimes you get lucky and get a big break because you met someone waiting in line in a coffee shop who happened to be best friends with JJ Abrams. Sometimes you find just the right shade of orange for your “Buy” button.


But mostly you find a bit of success, then a little more, then a little more on top of that.

That’s what growth hacking really is — you just hack away at the problem every day, repeatedly, until eventually you hit the numbers you need. If there is a magic unlock out there, this is the way you find it. But, in the much more likely case that such a thing doesn’t exist for your business, it’s the best way to guarantee success.


If you enjoyed this piece and want to read more of my musings on venture capital, product management, artificial intelligence and the future in general, please check them out here or follow me on twitter: @jm_crowd


"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood, don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
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