Systems, not hacks

Not all growth is created equal. Some growth is temporary, while other growth lasts. Growth marketing is about unlocking structural, compounding growth. To acquire millions of users, marketing needs to become predictable, systematic, automated and repeatable.

Losers are forever attracted to shortcuts, "growth hacks" and ways to game the system. Forget about that. The essence of growth marketing is to build systems that drive user acquisition, activation and retention at scale.


  • Examples of temporary growth are anything that produces spikes in your traffic: launch campaigns, PR & publicity events, stunts, and unsustainable hacks or tricks. While these things can sometimes be helpful, they are to growth what sugar is to nutrition: an immediate bolt of energy, but nothing sustainable or substantial.
  • Since its very early days, growth hacking has been associated with the idea of treating marketing as essentially an engineering problem that can be solved by building user acquisition systems, rather than flashy marketing campaigns.
  • Other forms of growth can be more durable or compounding. You want to look for situations where one dollar invested returns two or three dollars. Where every user invites one or two other users.
  • Network effects play a huge role in driving exponential growth. Growth marketers seek to create mechanisms where each additional user makes the company or the product experience stronger, so that over time it becomes easier and easier to acquire additional users.
  • Curious about what systems are crucial to growth? Fast forward to Law #28, where we explain the crucial role that retention plays, and Law #32, where we introduce our single most important mental model: the concept of growth loops.

In Practice

In 2001 Ben Chestnut’s design agency started a side hustle: a software tool called Mailchimp, that made it easy for their clients to send out well-designed email newsletters. Until 2009, Mailchimp grew slowly and steadily. But in 2009 something crucial changed: Mailchimp added a freemium option, that allowed people to send newsletters to others for free (up to a limit). At the bottom of every free newsletter was a short message “this email newsletter is sent for free, with Mailchimp”. Some people that received the emails would click on the link, and would also start sending out their newsletter via Mailchimp, reaching even more people.

Clearly, Mailchimp had found a system that combined a generous freemium offering with a smart promotional approach that leveraged its free user base. Suddenly, Mailchimp took off. Within a year, its user base ballooned to 450,000 users. By June 2014, Mailchimp was sending over 10 billion emails per month on behalf of its users. In 2021, the company was acquired by Intuit for $12 billion in cash and stock.

Pair with

  • E-myth revisited
  • Brian Balfour
  • Andrew Chen
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