Intro to Growth Engineering

September 16, 2020
Michael Taylor

This post is the first in a series on Growth Engineering:


In my previous company, a growth marketing agency, we were hiring our first engineer to work on client projects. I thought it’d sound cool to call the role ‘growth engineer’ (we already had ‘growth strategists’ and ‘growth analysts’) — little did I know this was a legitimate job title with a meetup group totalling 2,600+ members in San Francisco alone.

Growth Hacking

Since Growth Hacking was only coined in 2010 by Sean Ellis, you can be forgiven for not being familiar with Growth Engineering as a discipline. The term encapsulated a trend where engineers at companies like AirBnB, Dropbox and Facebook were being tasked with responsibilities traditionally reserved for the marketing team — acquiring and retaining users. 

For technical marketers, it was a way of differentiating from traditional marketers — promising digital ads, conversion optimization and viral loops, rather than TV ads, billboards and brand campaigns. Marketing is a commonly disliked profession, with a bad reputation for convincing people to buy things they don’t need. Business leaders also often look down on marketers, with the CMO having the shortest tenure in the C-Suite, especially startup founders who see marketing as a tax you pay for having a bad product.

But the methods of a ‘Growth Hacker’ were completely different from what you’d get from the typical marketer at the time — data-driven, digitally-native and tech-fluent; a person, “whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.” The growth team was not a tax, but part of the product: shipping features to generate lasting, sometimes exponential impacts on performance. The whole mindset was different — these were not guys in suits, but hoodies, with a dislike of authority and respect for science.

AirBnB didn’t run superbowl ads, they reverse engineered the Craigslist API to allow cross-posting of listings. Dropbox didn’t hire celebrity sponsors, they built a referral mechanism into the product to incentivise sharing. Facebook didn’t rent billboards, they built an internationalization engine making the site available globally. 

Popular amongst early-stage startups who need massive growth in a short time on small budgets, Andrew Chen pronounced "Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing". It wasn’t long until bigger corporates became curious, as these tech startups became the new Fortune 500. With luminaries like Bryan Balfour, Dave McClure and Noah Kagan providing the operating system for this new discipline, the trend took off amongst ambitious marketers.

Growth Engineering

What is Growth Engineering and when is it relevant to a business trying to grow? It’s a broad topic — essentially any developer tasked with marketing (or marketer writing code) is doing some form of Growth Engineering, even if they might not call it that. 

Although companies vary in terms of preference for automation, and understanding of engineering concepts applied to marketing, there is a specific inflection point where almost all marketing organizations start investing in technology. This comes when you start to hit ‘diminishing marginal returns’. Meaning you have exhausted the ‘quick wins’ in a channel, and are starting to see efficiency decline as you increase spend.

Decreasing efficiency at scale is inevitable across almost all marketing channels, because by definition you’re targeting the ‘low hanging fruit’ first. As these easy gains get used up, and you’re reaching all the people most likely to need your product, you have to expand to tactics that bring in less relevant people, and that’s where efficiency decreases.

To counteract an exponential decline in performance, you need an exponential increase — that’s where investing in technology can help. No matter how good your team, they will only ever be able to bring in linear or sub-linear performance gains. With investment in technology you’re rolling the dice on potentially finding an exponential increase, maybe even opening up opportunities that wouldn’t be possible with manual work alone.

It’s because of this potential, that the number of software tools available to marketers has exploded in the past 6 years, going from just shy of 1,000 vendors to over 8,000 distinct marketing technology brands in 2020. Even knowing what’s possible with a subset of these tools is a complex task, and despite all this innovation, most off-the-shelf tools don’t suit your business’s unique needs — especially if you’re a fast-growing startup innovating in your space.

Therefore the World’s fastest growing companies have identified the potential of Growth Engineering, and are increasingly embedding developers in the marketing team to configure existing solutions in a unique way, or to invent their own proprietary tools for a sustained competitive advantage. More traditional companies struggle to get headcount approved for developer roles in marketing, as usually engineers are reserved for product initiatives.

Even marketing teams with developer head count to fill, struggle to find good quality developers who are experienced with and motivated to work on marketing problems. So many ambitious marketers are learning how to code in evenings and weekends to help solve their own problems. Growth Engineering is the discipline arising from the combination of these forces — whether a developer in the marketing department, or a marketer who learned to code, the combination of these two functions is what makes a Growth Engineer.


If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series: