Growth hacking isn't just a marketing concept. And it's more than just trying ideas until one goes viral. Growth hacking is a process that starts with your product development and ends with a larger customer base.

It sounds like magic. So how do you do it?

I've taken the lessons learned from successful growth hacking stories like AirBnB, Hubspot, and DropBox, and applied them with my own startups. Over time, I've defined a three-stage "growth hacking" process that's both actionable and repeatable. 

The key to executing these "hacks" is one of the growth concepts I hammer on a lot. You have to learn to engage both your Sales Brain and your Build Brain. 

Your Build Brain is thoughtful. Your Sales Brain is aggressive.

The Build Brain is the creator. When you engage your Build Brain, you need time to focus on clarifying your vision, making your solution maximum useful, and building maximum value into your product. 

The Sales Brain closes the deal. When you engage your Sales Brain, you need to act much more quickly, and without much thinking. The results from the actions you take using your Sales Brain need to happen immediately. Time kills deals.

When you try to engage both sides of your brain at the same time, that's when things like paralysis, stagnation, overbuilding, and chasing perfection creep in to take your business down.

After learning this lesson repeatedly, I've developed a three-stage process to introduce perpetual growth cycles into my startups. I'll use three known growth hacking examples and how I used them at each stage of the process. 

Stage 1 is all Build Brain.

One of the most well-known growth hacks is when AirBnB realized that potential renters often searched on Craigslist for accommodations, so they built a feature for their customers to automatically copy their AirBnB listing to Craigslist. 

Lesson: Get customers where they congregate.

I applied this to Teaching Startup in a little different manner. The plan was to create a partner program using invite codes to reach our customers where they already were.

One of Hubspot's better growth hacks is its free website grader tool, which also offers tips on how to improve website effectiveness. This free information gets their customer prospects thinking about marketing funnel performance, which Hubspot can then help them maximize. 

Lesson: Get over the learning curve.

I used this same hack but built it into the product itself. When you offer a new concept to an established market, the sales process always includes a learning curve. So my product is built to offer a lot of free looks with access limited at various points.

Dropbox has a great take on a referral program hack, gamifying their onboarding process to offer existing users more free storage for linking their Dropbox account to social media accounts, which promotes sharing and spreads the Dropbox brand.

Lesson: Get more  by giving more.

I took a different twist on this hack, resulting in a two-tier free trial. Getting a prospect to give up their credit card information is the biggest blocker. So while anyone can use my product for free, all the limits of the free trial come off just by adding a credit card. 

Stage 2 is when the Build Brain informs the Sales Brain.

The Sales Brain needs to engage without thinking, so this stage is when I build, test, and second-guess. I'll walk through my partner program example from above.

  • Survey and research. I brought the program idea to every partner type I could think of, and did one-on-one calls and surveys to understand what they needed.

  • Prototype. I applied the learnings from my research, built a prototype, and revised it based on partner feedback. 

  • Beta test. Once I narrowed down to the simplest prototype that worked the best, I built a beta and tested that.

  • Minimum Viable Product. Once the beta worked well, I ran a pilot with those partners who were interested, and measured the results.

Then it's time for a go-or-no-go decision.

Stage 3 is all Sales Brain.

If the hack is a go, it's time to engage your Sales Brain. This is the execution stage, so don't look back, don't re-evaluate, don't hesitate, just close deals. If you do any second-guessing here (and your Build Brain will be screaming at you to let it be more involved), it'll just slow down the process and maybe force you to change course mid-flight, which will result in bad data. 

Let Stage 3 play out until the end. If the hack resulted in acceptable growth, accelerate your efforts. If the hack didn't result in growth, ditch it completely. And if the results were somewhere in the middle, which is where a lot of them land, weigh the ongoing costs and decide if you should merge it into your offering or not. 

I'm actually going through Stage 3 myself right now. And every day I remind my Sales Brain not to think, just trust what my Build Brain came up with and execute.