“As one very wise person once said, growth hacking is the art of not knowing – but of finding out,” says Mari Luukkainen, a self-taught marketing and growth specialist who at the age of 12 began coding fan pages for her favourite video games.
Luukkainen started placing banners on her websites in the late 90s, learning enough about affiliate marketing, web design, SEO and more to land jobs with a bunch of different start-ups and agencies. She saw then how the marketing function often bears the responsibility for growth, yet does not always have the mandate to drive it.
“Marketing pushes clients in. But they will churn if they hate the product and there is absolutely nothing a marketing person can do about it. Growth hacking is aimed at fixing this by making talent acquisition, operations, product and marketing all work together,” says Luukkainen.
“The growth hacker needs to be a certain type of person – not afraid of learning, taking risks and sharing information. You also need to give the impression that everything is under control, even when it may not be,” she says.
The importance of KPIs
From 2017, Luukkainen was able to put her ideas into action as Head of Growth at cleaning-services company Freska. When she joined Freska, its annual revenues were EUR 700K and just 30 people worked there. The following year – thanks largely to Luukkainen’s work – Freska made EUR 13 million and had grown to more than 800 employees.
“At Freska I was in the middle of everything: client acquisition, recruiting cleaners, optimizing logistics, and managing customer care. It’s a constant loop where everything impacts everything else. You’re using analytics and interviews to discover ways to improve so you can keep customers and employees happy. This is growth hacking in a nutshell,” says Luukkainen.
“Growth hacking worked at Freska because my KPI was revenue,” she says. “The KPI can be anything, but usually what I recommend is that it’s something meaningful for your company in achieving its next goal. Unless you have a VC-backed startup, then profit may be your best KPI. It could also be the quality of your talent pipeline, the size of the waiting list for your product, number of demos performed, net-promoter score, positive ratings, or even global PR impressions.”
Luukkainen recommends that companies perform a weekly test to figure out the most appropriate KPI, then draw hypotheses on the actions that should be taken in order to reach the goals. A company’s priorities in setting the KPI should be resource effectiveness, the probability of success, and scalability. Companies also need to constantly test that their hypotheses are correct.
“People are naturally very afraid of new things, but with growth hacking you need to push yourself to do the test so you can learn,” says Luukkainen.
“Growth is always context dependant. When we started building Freska in Finland, there was no appetite for cleaning services here like there was in Sweden and Norway. If we had Googled the likely conversion rate for Finland, we would not have set up the business here at all. So do your thing well and don’t compare yourself to others too much,” she says.
Owning the growth
Luukkainen says successful growth hacking requires dedicated ownership within a company. The designated growth hacker should have the freedom to experiment across functions, as well as the mandate to hire and fire. In Luukkainen’s experience, a company’s founders are not the best people for this role.
“I’ve never seen successful growth hacking when the responsibility is put on the plate of the founders,” she says. “They’re usually too focused on other things, including building and communicating a narrative, fundraising, and hiring new employees. All these things take a lot of time.”
When growth hacking fails, Luukkainen says it’s typically due to the lack of a guiding KPI, or the growth hacker not having a strong enough mandate. Sometimes companies also lack the patience to follow through on their objectives, or fail to perform meaningful tests to see if a KPI has been reached. Poor internal communication is another potential pitfall.
“Growth hacking needs really good internal communication, as you have to involve lots of different functions,” she says. “You must document and report your tests to the company each week. This is vital for the credibility of the growth hacking function.”
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She’s also a partner in an early-stage investment company called Icebreaker.vc.