Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of the phrase “growth hacker”. It is frequently thrown around to describe people who use a variety of tricks, tools and techniques to drive more sales, users, engagement, etc.

Not surprisingly, there’s an aura around growth hackers. They are regarded as people who can seemingly do it all, much like five-tool baseball players who hit for power, hit for average, field, throw and run. While five-tool players exist (e.g. Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle), these creatures – like magical growth hackers – are rare.

waynegretzkyMy take on growth hacking is it involves people who use a variety of tools or leverage the expertise of others to tactically execute. Their expertise hinges on the ability to get stuff done, period.

Growth hacking is a commonly used term because it means different things to different people, or as Nick Soper says, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

When someone uses a tool or technique to make something happen, it’s called a growth hack. It explains why growth hacking is revered because many positive developments are casually dropped in the growth hacking bucket.

Don’t get me wrong; I think there are people who are excellent growth hackers. They have proven track records for driving results.

At the same time, I would argue the strength of good growth hackers are agility, creativity, and flexibility. They recognize opportunities and apply their skills to achieve successful outcomes. Their “formulas” are not innovative, but they are used effectively and efficiently.

In fact, you could argue the best growth hackers play “the game” the same way as Wayne Gretzky.

The hockey superstar saw the ice differently than most players. He didn’t pass the puck to where players were located; he passed the puck to where he believed they would be going. Call it a sixth sense, intuition, anticipation or an innate skill, but it allowed Gretzky to succeed in situations that other players couldn’t.

It is important to remember that Gretzky wasn’t the biggest hockey player, the fastest skater or someone blessed with the hardest shot. He was a sublime player due to his creativity and recognition of how to exploit opportunities when they arose.

In many respects, growth hacking is a similar activity. Success often depends on growth hackers assessing opportunities (e.g. more newsletter signups), and then looking for ways to capitalize based on how they think target audiences behave. Growth hackers anticipate how someone will think and act, and use creativity, timing and tools to drive desired actions.

The big question is whether growth hacking is an intrinsic skill or something that can be learned. It is probably a combination of both. As important, there are different kinds of growth hackers. Some are good at conversion while others have a knack for usability or design.

While Gretzky was talented, much of his success was grounded in the hours he spent playing and learning hockey on a home-made rink in his backyard in Brantford, Ont. Through repetition and time on the ice, he developed the skills that made him a special player. Good growth hackers emerge in the same way by learning, experimenting and doing it. In time, they discover what works and what doesn’t.

So maybe growth hacking isn’t the right term to use. Maybe it should be something like “Creative Marketer”, “Agile Marketer” or “Marketing Opportunist”.

What do you think? What are the leading characteristics of growth hackers? What makes them so effective?

For more thoughts on growth hacking, check out Jim Gray’s blog post on how to put growth hacking in context. As well, here’s a presentation that I did a Hackology about how to growth hack PR and media coverage.

To learn more about the power of storytelling, my new book, Storytelling for Startups gives entrepreneurs strategic and tactical guidance on how to tell stories to the right people in the right places. I also offer storytelling workshops. For more details, send me email (mark@markevans.ca)