Growth hacking is outrageously popular. Sort of.

Most people are good at using the term rather than doing the deed. As trendy as it sounds, it's not easy to truly hack your growth. Some of the techniques passed of as growth hacking are just worn out business conventions.

As a student and proponent of growth hacking, I admire the companies who have been able to implement true hacks and who possess the success to prove it. Here are five such companies and their hacks.

1. Buffer promoted transparency.

If you visit Buffer's website, you can find out exactly how much money each employee makes--their names and salaries.

HR common sense says that's a big no-no. So why did Buffer do it?

Buffer believed in radical transparency because it was good for business. Transparency, as Quartz pointed out, builds trust, strengthens teamwork, builds empathy, and grows gratitude. Plus, it contributes to growth.

After their publication of employee salaries, Buffer doubled the amount of resumes it received for open positions. They got more people; they got better people.

Now, as they continue to get bigger, they probably wish they had thought of the whole transparency thing sooner.

2. Airbnb hacked Craigslist.

Airbnb is one of Silicon Valley's favorite success stories. In its seven-year history, Airbnb has mushroomed to a gargantuan $13B valuation.

Not bad for a couple of guys who just wanted to lower their rent.

Today, Airbnb has more than half a million homes on its list, making a positive economic impact around the world.

To what does Airbnb owe its virality? Maybe they cheated. Or maybe they hacked. Whatever they did, it was genius. They used an existing platform, Craigslist, to do their marketing for them. Why reinvent the posting portal when someone else already did?

Using the existing reach of Craigslist, Airbnb allowed their hosts to post listings to Craigslist, thus leveraging growth in an exponential way.

3. Groupon got share-happy.

People love to share. Why? Because humans are innately and highly social. Sharing is part of our DNA.

Groupon understood this. In the course of 12 months, they grew by 228%, a rate which is attributable to their genius growth hacking.

Much of Groupon's success is due to sharing. Sharing is at the core of growth. Human A tells Human B, who tells Human C and D, each of whom tell even more humans--E, F, G, H until the exponential growth hands you something like a 228% rate.

Here's how Groupon does sharing:

  • Tell your friends when you buy a coupon.
  • Only get the deal when enough people also get it.
  • Buy Groupon events for more than one person.
  • Forward emails to your friends.
  • Refer a friend and earn Groupon bucks.
  • Buy a Groupon deal for a friend

It's all about sharing, and it works.

4. Zappos delivered happiness.

Tony Hsieh is famous for promoting happiness or Delivering Happiness according to his book title. What does "happiness" have to do with workplace success?

A few years ago, the mashup of happiness and workplace success would have been scoffed as some pie-in-the-sky imagination. Today, with the rise of positive psychology, happiness is serious business.

The field of positive psychology is the study of happiness. Scientists have found that smiling is correlated with a longer life (source), exposure to fast food logos makes people feel impatient (source), and gratitude improves social integration (source).

Science says it's so, but Hsieh turned it into a growth hack. His idea of happiness was focused on customers. He was determined to give customers the things that would improve their wellbeing in life -- "a mission to make you happy."

It worked. And it's still working. Amazon acquired Zappos with a $1 billion deal, and the company kept right on wowing people with their service.

Hsieh has become a champion of the happiness growth hack. He once participated in a panel discussion before the UK Parliament. The discussion, titled "Happy Workers = Business Growth," allowed Hsieh to explain that passionate employees led directly to sustained revenue growth. In other words, he hacked growth by being happy and encouraging others to be happy, too.

Happiness doesn't track very well on line graphs or represent well in pie charts. It does, however, create growth.

5. Stutterheim smiled at the gloom.

The opposite of happiness is sadness. Would sadness work as a growth hack?

Stutterheim says yes. Stutterheim is a Swedish company that celebrates melancholy. They also sell raincoats.

When you visit their website for the first time, you'll be greeted by the message, "Embrace Swedish melancholy."

Stutterheim's Stockholm store plays melancholy jazz, gives awards to melancholy people, sells raincoats worldwide. The store's website explains, "Being melancholic is an essential part of being a human being. If we try too hard to get rid of melancholy it's almost like we're settling for a half-life. To embrace melancholy is ultimately to embrace joy."

Whatever its meaning, the melancholy has given Stutterheim a reason to smile. Maybe it's because celebs like Jay-Z and Kate Moss are sporting their rainwear. But maybe it's because they discovered a growth hack that works. Despite a sad revenue stream early on ($180k in 2011), the raincoat maker is projected to soar near the $5 million mark in 2015.

Final thoughts...

To growth hack is to defy the ordinary. The challenge of growth hacking is that techniques are transitory. Once Airbnb hacked Craigslist, that growth hack was used. Groupon hacked sharing and now everyone's into sharing.

But there is still room for growth. There are still hacks to be had, progress to be made, and growth to be enjoyed.

Growth hacking isn't dead. In fact, it's still the beginning.

What are you going to growth hack, and how are you going to do it?

Published on: Apr 9, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.