Eight startup growth hacks that actually work

The startup revolution is in full swing. 

In 2021, some 80 businesses were created every hour across the UK, bringing the country’s total to 5.6m. Meanwhile, one in seven people are planning on becoming entrepreneurs in the immediate future, according to NatWest.

Creating a startup is one thing, but growing it is another. Startup founders are hungry for growth which traditional marketing doesn’t necessarily deliver - or at least not quickly enough. 

To describe his methods for turbocharging businesses like Dropbox, Lookout and Eventbrite, Silicon Valley veteran and angel investor Sean Ellis coined the term ‘growth hack’ in 2010. 

If growth hacking worked for these multi-billion dollar companies, there’s a good chance they’ll work for you too. 

So, without further ado, here are startup growth hacks that actually work. 

1. Identify your true audience

Customers are the lifeblood of any business, but do you know who they really are? It’s a simple question, but the answer is not always as straightforward as it seems.

A staggering $37bn is reportedly wasted on ads that fail to engage their target audience. When you know who your customers are, you can effectively target your hacks and marketing efforts.

For example, Think With Google found that almost half of B2B buyers are aged between 18 and 34, 81% of non-C-suite employees contribute to B2B purchasing decisions and 24% sign off the final decision.

So, think again if you’re operating in a B2B space and automatically assume you’re solely targeting older C-suite executives.

The solution? Take a data-driven approach to identify your audience. Do your market research.

If you haven’t already, set up Google Analytics on your website now. You’ll find three essential tabs for identifying your audience:

  1. Demographics: Contains demographic data such as gender and age.

  2. Geo: Provides geographical and location data.

  3. Interests: Broken down into Affinity Category, In-market Segment and Other Category, the Interests tab tells you what your users have in common for different interests, sectors and other categories.

Another effective way to identify your audience is via social media, which brings us to the next point. 

2. Start social media early

55% of customers learn about new brands through social media, and 68% agree that social media enables them to communicate and interact with brands, according to SproutSocial.

There’s no doubt that social media is vital to modern business, but managing multiple channels is time-consuming. As a result, social media often gets thrown on the back burner.

But building a strong social media content calendar automated with a scheduling app like Buffer is crucial for long-term growth.

Take advantage of the main channels (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and LinkedIn) and engage with comments regularly.

For example, nutrition brand Huel has become well known for its highly engaged social media presence, which founder Julian Hearn part-attributes to their success:

“We love hearing from customers because you find out what is going wrong. You can’t fix everything, but you can fix a lot”.

TikTok is worth paying special attention to. Gymshark’s viral TikTok challenges, such as their ‘66-day challenge’ and ‘standing challenge’, brought in a combined 300m views.

It only takes one viral video to hack some serious growth.

3. The "Coming Soon" hack

Here’s a real ‘hack’ that any business can implement ahead of a new product release. 

HBO chief executive Chris Albrecht highlighted how their churn dropped and retention increased once they started publishing content stating that their series Rome was ‘coming soon’.

Once the series aired, the viewing figures weren’t spectacular, but Albrecht said that the near-zero churn created by the suspense pretty much paid for the production costs. 

If your startup has released a version 1.0 product, consider holding back features to create suspense ahead of new releases. As the HBO example shows, this is particularly effective for subscription-based business models. 

4. Gamification 

The psychologist Robert Cialdini discusses gamification in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini’s studies showed that after completing an action, people were more likely to complete the following action. 

Game designers took advantage of this by forgoing instruction manuals in favour of in-game tutorials that instruct users to perform smaller actions in sequence, building commitment to the game. 

Businesses can use gamification creatively to onboard, engage and retain customers. 

For example, Adobe released LevelUp for Photoshop on their Photoshop free trial. LevelUp turned boring tutorials into ‘missions’ that had users ‘level up’ their ability, leading to a fourfold increase in trial conversions. 

Another excellent example is the Starbucks Card. This digital loyalty program enables Starbucks customers to top up their cards and collect stars for each Starbucks purchase.

Since its launch in 2010, Starbucks has amassed a phenomenal $1.6bn in customer cash stored on their cards - more than some banks. 

Here are three ways to gamify your products and services: 

  1. Modify tutorials and onboarding so they’re more like ‘levels’ that users can progress through.
  2. Loyalty programs offered through apps and websites should provide loyal users with status, unique benefits and access to limited products.
  3. Provide users with a means to share their achievements. For example, Bike Fuel fitness goals are shareable to the Nike+ community and provide users with tailor-made offers and recommendations.

But beware: evidence suggests that trivial gamification is off-putting. Ensure that rewards are sparse and genuine, and make the value benefit of participation clear. 

5. Innovative collaboration

Collaborating with other businesses can fuel growth and spark new ideas.

There are many ways to collaborate with other businesses by cross-promoting on social media, exchanging guest posts, co-hosting meetings and seminars, running giveaways of each other’s products and swapping coupons.

Here’s a high-profile example of innovative business collaboration:

Airbnb partnered with Flipboard, a social magazine, inviting users onto the Flipboard platform to read and interact with stories that featured Airbnb experiences.

Flipboard created a microsite called Airbnb Experience Magazines specifically for the collaboration, enabling them to measure campaign activity.

Flipboard interactions were incentivised by competitions to win free Airbnb trips. The magazines generated 4.2m page flips, gaining 29,000 followers in the process, creating a platform for future content marketing.

The collaboration spawned a second campaign called Airbnb Experiences, where users embark on curated, personalised trips with hosts. Experiences allowed Airbnb to branch out into a new, innovative and growing market.

6. Offer equity

65% fail due to tension or poor cohesion between founders (Noam T. Wasserman, The Founder's Dilemmas). A further 23% fail due to poor team cohesion and loss of talent.

Replacing an employee can cost more than that employee's annual salary; employee retention is critical to balance the books and grow.

Offering equity to team members through employee share schemes is a philosophically sound way to run a collaborative team, but it’s also proven to retain talent during critical growth stages.

Moreover, tax-efficient share schemes such as the UK’s EMI option scheme help businesses save money and boost cash flow. 

Here are six benefits of share schemes:

  • Attract top talent
  • Retention
  • Productivity
  • Engagement
  • Enhance cash flow
  • Increase value and growth

A sense of ownership can stop startups from becoming one of the above statistics. Find out more about employee share schemes.

Offering equity to employees and non-employees was formally long-winded and time-consuming. So we decided to change that and make it easier for startup founders to share equity. Learn more.

7. Get out and about

Etsy is a household name, and its success is partly attributable to some growth hacks it employed as a startup.

Rather than spending all of their time engrossed in digital research, the Etsy team understood the human component of their business - the makers themselves.

So, they assembled a research team and sent them to hundreds of craft fairs across the USA.

By identifying and interviewing key players in the craft scene, Etsy was able to target publications that resonated with their target audience, such as the feminist publication Bust.

The feedback Etsy gained also helped them create resonant marketing collateral such as the Etsy Seller’s Handbook. Etsy reportedly spent "next to nothing" on the customer acquisition that took them to an initial public offering (IPO).

8. Commit to building email lists

Email lists are crucial for growth in both B2C and B2B spaces. According to Hubspot, 81% of B2B marketers state that email is their most-used content type, and 64% say email is effective for meeting business goals.

All startups should look to build an email list early on in their startup journey. If you want to try growth hacks like the 'coming soon' hack, you’ll need an email list to notify prospects and customers.

There are many white hat hacks for building email lists, including:

  • Outreach
  • Product giveaways and competitions
  • Gated content
  • Conducting a break-even sale
  • Free trials and demos

In terms of outreach, manually curating leads is still the go-to for most B2B businesses, but it’s possible to semi-automate the process. Some CRMs synchronise public email addresses from LinkedIn and automatically add them to the platform. 

As for giveaways, brands like Adidas and Nike now offer limited edition products on a raffle basis. The raffle requires users to sign up for an account, enabling them to create massive email lists. 

Consulting firms such as McKinsey and Deloitte rely on gated content, which is any content placed behind a lead capture form.

A break-even sale is when companies lower the prices of products until they're breaking even or making a loss. While this is an excellent strategy for collecting email addresses, it requires some serious thought and cost analysis to implement correctly. 

Finally, consider free trials. A perfect combination with the 'coming soon' hack. Most subscription businesses offer free trials, and higher-ticket B2B products can instead be offered as demos.

Implementing growth hacks

Your hacks of choice will depend on your business, industry, audience, budget and pain points.

Most of these hacks are straightforward, and you might find yourself gravitating to a few that you can implement immediately.

There are plenty of low-cost methods for growing a startup without forking out loads of cash for traditional paid marketing and expensive campaigns.

And remember, the fundamental point of growth hacks is to think outside the traditional marketing box.

Best of luck!