Sean Ellis, the accepted Godfather of Growth Hacking, defines a growth hacker as “a person whose true north is growth”. In other words, they are focused on growth, beyond all else. They are consumed with finding hacks to achieve explosive, short-term gains, rather than following tried and tested methodologies. They tirelessly seek the needle in the haystack opportunity to propel their startup forward by a huge leap, then seek the next needle.

Ellis explains that growth hackers are like marketers, but they also need to understand technology to a level where they can comprehend how engineering and marketing can work together seamlessly. Lipstick, hockey pucks, and Coca-Cola can be marketed, but the social nature of Facebook, Snapchat, and AirBnB means that marketing for the product is baked into the product itself.

The AirBnB growth hacking case study is legendary. Their growth team was able to conceive that by reverse engineering Craigslist they could enable AirBnB hosts to automatically advertise on the platform. At the time Craigslist was a place (online) where a large number of target hosts and guests already congregated. The Craigslist API was not open and the company eventually shut this loophole, but not before AirBnB had worked their magic and hit a critical mass of traffic to propel them to the next stage.

By baking shareability and therefore discoverability into the actual product Airbnb was able to achieve a speed of growth that normal marketers simply could not have.

There’s a convincing case for the engineer-marketer to be named a growth hacker, worshiped as if he or she was a magician… and paid a lot of money.

However, the cases of true growth hacking, on the scale of AirBnB are extremely rare. So rare that I call into question if there is a genuine job market for Sean Ellis protege growth hackers.

In the most recent TechInAsia City Chapter event in Seoul, I had the opportunity to interview three entrepreneurs whose startups have all enjoyed extremely rapid growth. This discussion would have made growth hackers shudder, but most startup marketers sigh with relief.

Here’s what the panel uncovered, along with actual examples from our discussion.

On the panel:

Simon Lee, CEO of Flitto. Flitto is a crowdsourced translation app that garnered over 1.7 million MAUs within the first three years and raised over USD 1.4 million investment within the same time period (total investment currently stands at circa USD 10 million). Flitto was also Korea’s first TechStars entrant in 2014.

Joon Oh, CEO of MangoPlate. MangoPlate is essentially the Yelp of Korea.  Within two years of launch, MangoPlate had become the market leader, serving 2 million monthly users with more than 3 million cumulative downloads and had raised USD $6 million in VC funding. Currently available in Korean and English, MangoPlate is gearing up for launch in Chinese within the next few months.

Seung June Oh, from SK Holdings and an Investor in Socar. Socar is a social car rental service that enables anyone to locate, book and pay for a car from most Korean cities on a per-hour basis, all through an app. They launched on Korea’s sub-tropical Jeju Island for tourists and quickly expanded across Korea. Within three years of launch, they’d raised USD 15.5 million in funding and had expanded to a fleet of over 5,000 cars delivering around 50,000 rides per month.

Nathan Millard, Moderator and CEO of G3 Partners. G3 Partners provide marketing and growth support to startups in Asia that are looking to break out of their home markets. Headquartered in Singapore and with operations in Korea, they have worked with a number of the fastest growing companies in Asia.

Growth tactics:

Flitto used the cult of celebrity as their primary tactic to achieve massive growth, quickly. At the time that Flitto needed a rapid surge in growth, Psy was the global voice of Korea and had millions of fans around the world. He was also social and frequently tweeted to his fans, but only in Korean. Simon bated translators on his platform with prizes from Psy in exchange for translating his tweets into other languages. Once a large number of tweets had aired, providing Psy with a huge bump in popularity around the world in multiple languages, Simon approached Pys’s agency to request the prizes. They were obviously happy to part with a few signed albums and posters in exchange for this free, ongoing publicity.

Simon took a risk. There was a possibility that Psy’s agency would not have coughed up the swag and he’d have had to procure it himself. He certainly thought outside the box. Critically he also leveraged a global fad, Gangnam Style, to propel his startup forward. Ultimately the explosive growth this tactic yielded helped him secure series A funding.

While this tactic bares some of the hallmarks of growth hacking, Simon staked opportunism, creativity and guts as the critical factors. Those are traits any startup marketer worth their salt should possess.

Socar also leveraged the opportunity presented by a current event to propel growth.

Pokemon Go had just launched in Korea, in one small district, on the east coast of the peninsula, around a two-hour drive from Seoul.

As with so many faddy tech launches in Korea, it became an immediate, national obsession. Socar’s growth team speculated that Korean geeks would jump at the opportunity of renting cars for midnight Pokemon hunts. They encouraged this behaviour through ads and special promotions, which attracted new customers and amplified word of mouth. This also put the company’s fleet of cars to use during the most non-peak of hours. The strategy was a massive success. Office workers flooded to the service, hiring cars to take moonlit trips to search for Pokemons, returning to Seoul in time to head back into the office the following morning.

By using a window of opportunity for rapid yet short-term growth Socar was able to reach customers quickly with a very specific remedy for a very unique market need. By the time Pokemon fever had abated they’d gained massive exposure to their target audience and proven the viability of their business.

MangoPlate were also able to use a unique market opportunity to achieve growth early on. They then used sheer determination, along with a community and social marketing approach akin to those developed by Yelp, Uber and WeWork, to keep the ball rolling.

When MangoPlate launched there was a ton of restaurant information online in Korea, but it was fragmented and quality was polluted by influencers who took payment for favorable reviews.

MangoPlate’s first highly successful marketing tactic was simply organising restaurant data into a single location online. They used their own knowledge of local restaurants to present reliable lists of the best restaurants in specific areas of town.That was great for starters and helped get an initial spike of users and their first investment.

For the next spike, they turned to social media. They initially developed many versions of ads (like, 40 or more) and sought to rapidly understand what worked and what didn’t, ditching poorly performing ads while ramping up investment in ones that did well. Over time they used previous data to develop ads that worked out of the box.

MangoPlate’s most impactful current growth tactic is community marketing, something Oh feels isn’t being fully utilised by other Korean startups. They run regular offline events with super fans, who are also usually restaurant bloggers and socially-inclined foodies. The insights gleaned from these meetups help Oh and his team achieve two critical business objectives: Develop a better product based on real and regular feedback and increase exposure through word of mouth and increased online exposure.

MangoPlate also regularly call or visit restaurants to make sure they’re still operating. Oh explained that accuracy of data on their platform is so important that they’re prepared to go to extreme lengths to maintain quality.

Takeaways – What should you do next?

Word of mouth still trumps all. All three panelists firmly agreed on this point, particularly for long-term, sustainable growth. If you can accelerate the reach of word of mouth using tech-centric tactics along with a creative use of new marketing channels like social media, that’s great. But ultimately all marketing efforts must aim to build a genuine customer base.

Growth hacks can definitely help you hit the next milestone, but they won’t secure your business. Hacks typically have short life spans, results cannot be guaranteed, in most cases, the same hack will not work twice and in many cases they simply won’t work at all. This makes a wholly hack-focused marketing strategy extremely risky.

Growth hacks are only useful if they result in or at least lead to sustainable growth.

Startups these days are obsessed with metrics and hockey stick growth, but if those metrics are nothing more than clever statistical manipulations on an excel spreadsheet they are likely worthless in securing your business. In fact, a dogged pursuit of metrics is often a dangerous resource-suck that can lead to long-term paralysis. Zombie startups are often born out of unsustainable growth tactics adopted early on and a reliance on funding secured through twisted stats rather than revenue from paying customers. (None of the startups in this article saw the hockey stick exponential growth. Instead, they worked tirelessly to continue linear growth, managing to attract millions of dollars in funding and millions of users in the process.)

Startup marketing is very different from traditional marketing. It requires a level of creativity, opportunism, and risk that more established companies could not stomach and could not move quickly enough to execute.

Startup marketers, particularly in the early stages, need to be highly adaptable and will preferably be fully up to date with current tech and social trends. If they have computer science degrees to boot that’s awesome! But, they do not need to be managers or strategists. Those marketers are equally important, but they come later once the business is secure.

While a hacker mentality can work well in the early stages – and you should hire marketers who fit that bill when the time is right – startup CMOs need to be mindful of ultimately pursuing marketing tactics that are repeatable and scalable. After all, that’s what a startup is; a for-profit enterprise searching for a repeatable and scalable business model.