Tech Didn’t Invent Growth Hacking—It Just Popularized It

Though it might have been called something different back in the day, growth hacking has been around for quite some time. A lot of us just mistakenly pair the term with today’s tech ethos.


Despite what you might think, growth hacking has been an integral part of business for at least four decades—and probably a lot longer.


How do I know that?


Over the July 4th weekend, I was able to spend time with my family, including an uncle I have not seen but a handful of times, as traveling with infant twins is not the most fun for me. He has great stories and life experiences.


I love listening to stories from different generations because there always seems to be a parallel that spurs thought. And it turns out that through this conversation with my uncle, I ended up finding out about some unexpected truths of growth hacking, or as I now define it, the process of investing time and energy to produce non-linear yields.


Growth Hacking in the Past

My uncle had to attend college at night in order to support his ill parents, my paternal grandparents whom I never met. He ended up turning a family tchotchke shop run out of their garage into a 27,000 square foot fine china store and the go-to place in town for high end offerings. The business and brand became so strong that he ultimately sold it.


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my uncle’s shop was collocated with a jeweler. At the time, my uncle knew a sales rep who worked for a now-well-known brand that was struggling back then. Jewelers didn’t want to carry the, at the time, unknown and presumably unpopular brand.


Rather than giving up, the rep devised a pretty slick scheme to make sure jewelry stores started carrying his watches. He hired a bunch of people to pretend to be customers and call area jewelry stores telling them they saw people wearing the brand’s watches and asking whether they carried them.


The stores told the faux customers they didn’t carry the brand. But eventually, shop owners asked the rep whether they could indeed sell the brand.


Today, we’d call this growth hacking.


Growth Hacking Isn’t New

As mentioned at the start of this piece, we tend to think of growth hacking as internet-driven phenomenon. But it’s really not. If anything, an understanding of tech helps, e.g., the watch sales rep leveraged phones and understood caller ID workarounds.


But it wasn’t the primary driver.


Growth hacking, in the truest sense, is not an internet or tech mechanism. It’s not about a viral coefficient. To drive business, you need to understand your market, your product, and growth. You also need an innate understanding of how people react.


Once you realize your product isn’t seeing success on the market, turn to growth hacking to try and figure out how to make it work. But you need to remember that no growth hack is going to catapult a terrible product to the top. You need to have a solid product in the first place.


Back to the watch sales rep: The watches weren’t in stores, but the rep knew they were great. Thanks to his growth hacks, stores started carrying them and they took off. But that never would have happened, on any sustained basis, if the watches were terrible products.


Real Growth Hacking is Timeless

In the end, there is a timeless to growth hacking. But it also means we need to get beyond the term “growth hacking”—which is often associated with quick wins and unscalable models. I had that connotation, which meant I missed that perhaps growth hacking is so popular is because it’s been going on forever.


The tech industry just decided to give it a name.


It bears repeating: Growth hacking will only work if the product deserves the fit. You can’t hit scale with a bad product. The only reason the term is so sticky is due to the fact it describes smart, savvy people building businesses. It is about more than “grit” and “hustle.” It is also about market insight and strategy.


So, while technology didn’t create growth hacking, it certainly made it more accessible by lowering the bar—which is both a blessing and a curse. That is why, today, anyone can become a “growth hacker.” But, not everyone has implemented any real growth hacks.