"The fastest way to spread your product is by distributing it on a platform using APIs, not MBAs. Business development is now API-centric, not people-centric." - Andrew Chen in "Growth Hacker is the new VP of Marketing"
In 2006 I went to work for a digital distribution start-up in my home base of New York City. It was a good time to be in that world as there were so many possibilities in the front view window. There was no iPhone yet, iOS apps were non-existent and broadband was still growing. Although Facebook existed, there was no open graph and Twitter was unknown outside of San Francisco.
I remember we were trying to build users for our self-serve digital distribution system. The VP of Marketing at the time wanted to use many traditional methods to build organic word of mouth and thought that a good website and product was all that was needed. It was like “Field of Dreams” in that her thinking was “build it and they will come.” I disagreed with her at the time, explaining that the product landscape was crowded and we needed to be proactive in gaining people’s attention. My recommendation was that we should tap into then popular social networks Friendster and MySpace so that when anyone registered for our service on our landing page, they could easily share that registration experience with their circle of connections to those networks. This was a practice that would later be used by hundreds of start-ups on burgeoning platforms like Facebook and Twitter to build in virality of new product registration around APIs that could broadcast that action.
As a result of that experiment, I moved into a role at a small digital marketing agency where all I did was test and execute growth hacks using APIs for a multitude of products and projects for American Express, Food Network, WWE, The Economist and Netflix. I am still grateful to those agency owners for allowing me to experiment on agency time with how code intersects with marketing.
While all this was happening I was having a debate in my own mind if I should go back and get my MBA. So many companies didn’t want a senior digital marketer without those three letters next to their name. Yet so many of those companies also didn’t know how to tap into networks to build a product. They relied too heavily on classic marketing techniques like PR, events and advertising and not enough on culture jamming or growth hacking. They didn’t know how to hack off another platform’s users to build a product because they didn’t understand how any of this worked. They felt if you needed to use a third party and possibly competing network to grow user demand, well, that was like cheating.
To the MBA, hacking was something computer programmers did to commit illegal activities. Yet to the new hybrids, hacking represented opportunity and execution on the back of another’s network. It reminded me of London pirate radio. Why go through all the trouble of trying to promote your song to a station like Radio One or KISS-FM that would never play it when you could just start your own station in a tower cell block and begin transmitting the music you loved on an open frequency? Or showcase your art ala Banksy who used the best open walls and billboards in high-trafficked urban areas. In the modern world, the way we use media is the new creative. Tapping into APIs allows companies to build off the platforms of others while also collecting data to determine where to pivot or persevere next. This is a difficult concept to grasp if you don’ understand the intersection of social data, user behavior and how platforms integrate with your product. It’s exactly how Foursquare used their connecting API to promote “check-ins” amplification on Facebook and Twitter and how Vimeo and Dropbox utilized their partner APIs to benefit both platforms and customers simultaneously.
When I discuss marketing with people across the world there are two divides being debated. Do you follow tried and true classic marketing techniques learned in MBA programs to land a high profile job? This approach is heavily reliant on traditional communications where the marketing department is made up of other MBAs, less technically savvy folk and is a cost center. Or do you go where marketing is moving using social metrics, open graph APIs and UI design in your product to build scale where the marketing department acts as product developer and revenue generator?
To me, APIs are stronger and more effective than MBAs.
We’ve seen the classic cases studied by MBAs on how to build a company from the ground up using a brand voice broadcasting from the products like P&G, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Disney. But those companies were launched in a different era with different communication and technology systems. I’m sure modern MBA programs also look at case studies of newer companies like Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Zynga, Instagram, Vimeo, Dropbox and countless others involved in growth hacking. But nothing trumps strategy like true experience of simply pulling a Nike and just doing it. From the perspective of the growth hacker, we see a very different way to build. We work with engineering and product to build growth into the product. We also understand code and can talk to an engineer over a glass of wine about the open graph protocol than on classic business revenue per user strategies where incremental growth is more important than rapid fire builds.
The growth hack movement is a disruption of marketing as we knew it and like most ‘Californication' movements, it's not going to stop in Silicon Valley. As Chen noted in his original 2012 blog post: “The process of integrating and optimizing your product to a big platform requires a blurring of lines between marketing, product, and engineering, so that they work together to make the product market itself. Projects like email deliver-ability, page-load times, and Facebook sign-in are no longer technical or design decisions – instead they are offensive weapons to win in the market.”
This now goes beyond the tech world and affects all products from soda pop to retail to mobile phones to politics to biotech to healthcare to gaming systems to advertising technology.
Whereas PR and press used to be the drivers of customer acquisition, instead it’s now a lagging indicator that your social graph integration is working. Understanding APIs and insightful social data and tracking it closely is the only way to be successful today. And an MBA doesn’t teach these skills.
At least not yet.