I can’t browse job boards today without coming across a few dreaded phrases over and over again. One of the worst? “We’re looking for a growth hacker.” Born in the bootstrapped basements of tech startup culture, this insidious buzzword has spread well beyond.
The concept of growth hacks is to grow your business as quickly as possible while spending as little as necessary. George Deeb writing for Forbes says that growth hacking, a relatively recent term coined in 2010, represents the intersection of marketing and technology. Whereas traditional marketing channels are costly, the digital age has opened up alternative routes that enable cheaper, faster growth.
But why are we so obsessed with growth? Where does it lead?
Increasingly, it seems that the dream of many startup founders is not to run a successful company that provides valuable goods and services that drive the economy—it’s to amplify the hype to get investors excited with multiple rounds of funding, to continually elevate valuation, and ultimately to get acquired by a giant company who may simply dissolve the entire venture and absorb employees to further fuel their monopolizing engine.
Douglas Rushkoff writing for Fortune warns, “Investors don’t invest in order to own a company; they invest in order to sell it.” And thus a perpetual focus on growth for growth’s sake has begun to dominate. The sky-high valuations of tech companies such as Twitter are prime examples of this house of cards that’s ready to collapse as soon as investment outpaces the company’s ability to deliver the returns their investors expect (despite delivering over half a billion dollars per quarter in revenue).
“The startup scene may be a tragedy in terms of lost opportunities and irreparably disrupted markets. But it’s just a technologically amplified version of what we see happening to pretty much every member of the S&P 500.” says Rushkoff. “Growth is the core command of corporate America . . . [and it’s] killing our economy, our job market, and our planet.”
The problem with our obsession with perpetual growth is that it is, ironically, rather short-sighted. Alana Semuels writing for the Atlantic calls the syndrome “short-termism.” She says: “There’s a growing culture of analysts and traders obsessing over a company’s quarterly performance . . . This culture has been enabled by the availability of information about companies on the Internet and television, but it has also arisen because traders’ compensation is tied to how their holdings perform every year . . . CEOs and other executives often have their pay tied to annual performance, meaning they personally benefit from short-term profits too.”
Image attribution: Vitaly
Aside from the need for corporate tax reform to better incentivize long-term thinking by investors, Semuels says individual companies can attempt to change their short-term growth-obsessed culture too, such as giving better shareholder voting rights to those who hold onto stocks long term.
In a recent talk at Google, Simon Sinek expounds upon the important difference between the finite and infinite games of leadership. Applying game theory to business, Sinek suggests that most businesses in their obsession to one-up each other on the stock market are missing the big picture, and that that big picture is the key to long-term success. The finite game that most businesses get stuck in is all about the tangible realm of climbing stock price and competing products. But it’s the infinite game—the intangible one that asks, what are we really doing and why are we doing it, what is the purpose, what are our values?—that drives and maintains stable, sustainable companies. Sinek argues that because business is an infinite game where the players and the rules are continually changing, there’s no such thing as being first or surpassing the competition.
“If you listen to the language that companies use, they don’t know what game they’re in. They talk about being number one, talk about beating their competition. Based on what agreed upon criteria? Based on what agreed upon time frame?” says Sinek. Whereas finite game players make reactionary decisions in a vacuum, great businesses (infinite players) are constantly making values-based decisions, which are drawn from a company’s identifiable purpose. This, Sinek says, is the genesis of long-term loyalty from both employees and customers; they can align themselves with your business’s sense of purpose.
Image attribution: rawpixel.com
Day-to-day marketing activities revolve around the finite realm of action. It’s all about measurement and ROI and continually performing better than you did last time. While these things are obviously important, marketing is one key function of business that can easily suffer from the growth obsession. Many marketers are feeling the telltale signs of burnout that are indicating we’re in need of a marketing transformation.
Marketing leaders need to make an explicit effort to reconnect their teams with the vision outlined by the company’s core values. Remind employees why they’re doing the work they’re doing. Use purposeful leadership to inspire your teams beyond the day-to-day requirements of project completion and ROI analysis. Make sure your teams understand how they are serving society and what their work and the company stands for. These small steps towards a marketing transformation that shifts the focus from short-term gains to long-term goals can have much larger ramifications. Loyalty, productivity, shareholder returns, and a thriving economy and society will follow.
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Featured image attribution: William Iven