The other day, I was approached by a startup founder, “looking for a growth hacker.” Trying not to choke on my laughter I asked, “what is a growth hacker?” He said, “I have no idea, my investors told me to find one.”

I couldn’t help thinking of Dorothy, Toto, and crew skipping down the yellow brick road to meet the Wizard of Oz. (Dog irony intended, remember Zynga?)

Kudos to him for admitting what is true for many startup founders, yet few are willing to admit. But play the movie out people, he’s not a Wizard!

Usually, founders hear the term at Buzzword Bingo, an incubator Meet Up, or an investor boondoggle. Often engineers themselves, he/she/they assumes that once their Valuable, Appealing, Irresistible, New (VAIN) product is ready to launch, marketing it will be easy. Customer insights, research, and logic be damned, let’s put this Stanford MBA to work!

What does the term Growth Hacker even mean? For simplicity, I’ll distil the 100+ definitions to this — someone with 3–5 years experience who has earned their stripes working with popular digital tools, technology and platforms at Company X. Sometimes these coveted youngins’ write code, sometimes not.

So what’s the problem? The title, and underlying assumptions attempt to solve a unique, complex problem with a simple, low-cost solution. It’s Startup-Marketing-In-A-Box. But startups are messy and marketing is an art.

Having personally launched over 100 startups, founded two companies and sold one, I’ve learned no two startups are the same. Each company operates with vastly different circumstances — product, engineering, financing, customers, unit economics, team, competition and more. Even serial entrepreneurs must approach marketing with curiosity and humility. As my daughter’s vocal teacher says, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

But if not the Wizard, then what? Start with the basics.

  1. Hire marketing experts, with a proven process, give them access and get out of their way.
  2. Focus on your customers’ pain, not your solution.
  3. Practice lean startup principals — build, measure, learn, repeat.

What do you think about the term Growth Hacker? I’d love to hear.

Marissa Verson Harrison is a strategic marketer, growth expert and brand builder. At Lean Startup Strategies, we help companies achieve their business objectives in record time. Whether you’re a startup company testing product market fit or a public company developing a new product, we find ways to put a $1 into marketing and get $5 out.