Neil Patel

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How 9 SaaS Companies Hacked Their Growth

I’m a huge fan of growth hacking.

I’ve built several companies on the principles of growth hacking. Heck, I might just build several more and put growth hacking to work again.

Traditional growth methods don’t work like they used to. I would argue that unless you have insane amounts of funding, traditional growth marketing is not even possible. Growth hacking is popular because it is essential. The businesses who are best positioned to use growth hacking are SaaS companies.

These growth hacking techniques have been proven to be successful by other companies. They could help power your SaaS business to the next level.

1. Build a big email list.

Who did it? AppSumo (Noah Kagan)

Noah Kagan built an email list of over 700,000 addresses.

That, by the way, is a lot of email addresses. And email addresses are money.

A lot of money.

Kagan built AppSumo, an enormously successful business, by using his thousands of email subscribers.

How did he get so many email addresses? First of all, he was obsessive about it. Here’s what he wrote on his blog:

When setting up my website I had one goal in mind: Get email signups. It has been my singular focus from day one. I am constantly looking for new ways to do this without being an annoying jerk.

The methods are simple and straightforward, and come straight from Kagan’s guide to getting your first 100 subscribers. Here are his techniques for getting email addresses:

  1. Give something away.
  2. Use the by-line
  3. Sticky widget
  4. Popup
  5. Header opt-in
  6. Exit popup
  7. Bonuses on posts
  8. Welcome gate
  9. Landing page
  10. Contest

Kagan did all those things, and killed it. As his email list grew, so did his site visits, and his revenue.

appsumo traffic

2. Go referral crazy.

Who did it? Dropbox

If you’ve ever used Dropbox, you’ve probably also referred a friend? Why? Because Dropbox gave you gobs of extra storage space for every friend you bring on board.

Dropbox followed a typical method of marketing: Get your customers to market your product. But Dropbox also upped the game by increasing the rewards and by putting their “Refer a Friend” message everywhere.

It worked, and now Dropbox is basically synonymous with cloud-based storage.

We wrote a pretty detailed article on this monumental growth hack a while back called: The 7 Ways Dropbox Hacked Growth to Become a $4 Billion Company.

3. Piggyback on free marketing platforms.

Who did it? Airbnb.

Airbnb wanted to sell a product that Craigslist also sold — vacation homes and rentals.

How can you compete with something as massive as Craigslist?

There’s an expression “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” So, Airbnb growth hacked their way into Craigslist, using the massive platform’s huge reach to expand their own reach.

When a user added a listing to Airbnb, they were prompted to add the listing to Craigslist, too. Of course, this required a bit of coding ninja skills. (Craigslist doesn’t have an API.) But Airbnb did it and jumped on a mega platform to boost their growth.

They couldn’t beat Craigslist, but they could use Craigslist to their advantage. So they did.

4. Be exclusive.

Who did it? LinkedIn.

Want to attract the right kind of people to your startup? Be exclusive.

Exclusivity has an odd appeal to it. We want to be part of an exclusive group — the clique, the country club, the billionaires, etc. Even if we don’t like the people or what they stand for, we still want to have an in.

LinkedIn did it the right way. They catered only to “professionals.” Calling themselves “The World’s Largest Professional Network,” they developed a culture that was only for the “professionals” of the world.

Good for LinkedIn, there are millions of professionals — 300 million at least. That slight air of exclusivity drew people by droves. Not everyone can pull off a social media upstart, especially right around the same time that Twitter and Facebook were experiencing meteoric growth. But LinkedIn did because LinkedIn was a special club.

By the way, you might want to check out a great post called: LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman’s Advice for Entrepreneurs. There are a lot of good tips and hacks you can learn from Reid in that article.

5. Give people money.

Who did it? Paypal.

If you’re a financial SaaS, can you afford to give away money?

PayPal did. Back in their early days, they gave $10 if you referred a friend.

Who wouldn’t want a free ten bucks? PayPal gave away money, but they were rewarded with a growth hack that wouldn’t quit. Now PayPal is a fixture of the modern web.

Although not strictly a SaaS, ING Bank grew on the same principles. Though later acquired by Capital One, they experienced incredible initial growth by depositing cash in the bank accounts of users who successfully referred their friends.

Think you can’t afford to give away money? Maybe you can’t afford not to. Dropping a few bucks for a new customer could really pay off.

You might want to figure out your customer lifetime value first before you start a referral program.

6. Make a waitlist.

Who did it? Mailbox.

The Mailbox app—since acquired and discontinued by Dropbox—helped revolutionize mobile mail management. Their viral growth wasn’t accidental.

When they were just getting started, they created a waiting list. You had to sign up on the waiting list before getting the official summons.

Future users signed up by the droves. Somehow, the idea of a “waiting list” and a drip release was enticing. Users wanted to get in early on the mail revolution, giving Mailbox a major leg up on their full release.

Eventually, the team eliminated the waiting list, but it probably wouldn’t have achieved the same success without one.

7. Dominate content marketing.

Who did it? Buffer.

When Buffer rolled into town, they were just one of hundreds of other social media tools.

Everyone wanted to make a social media tool, tracker, monitor, scheduler, or whatever. Why? Because everyone is on social media. Might as well jump on the bandwagon and make a buck or three.

Buffer made their software, but they didn’t stop there. They made content, too. Lots and lots of content.

But not just random, useless, silly content. Buffer made killer content. Really long posts, charts, graphs, studies, data, etc. Since they were kind of good at social media, Buffer knew how to spread their message across social media, too.

Before long, Buffer was just as much about content marketing as they were about software.

Content marketing isn’t easy. You have to grow your blog, maximize your reach, and do all the SEO that’s required to make an impact. Buffer did it, and their growth hack totally paid off.

8. Be free.

Who did it? Evernote.

One of the most classic SaaS growth hacking moves is the freemium software model. By giving away something for free, you get tons of users, lots of buzz, and some people who will potentially pay you for your product.

Evernote is one example of a company who pulled it off. They had some hiccups along the way, got really depressed, and basically closed down when funding crashed.

What did they do? Evernote didn’t raise prices, didn’t change their model, and didn’t close down. Instead, they kept their freemium model going strong, and a lot of people started getting the idea.

Combined with some product-savvy, Evernote really started to take off. Now, a lot of people that I know claim Evernote as their digital brain.

9. Give your customers a killer customer experience.

Who did it? Help Scout.

The cool thing about Help Scout is that they are focused on the customer experience. That’s their whole deal.

As a SaaS, they also know a thing or two about growth hacking. They insist that growth hacking needs to be focused on the customer experience.

Judging by their own track record, that’s a pretty good goal to shoot for. Their article, “Don’t Let Growth Hacking Ruin the Customer Experience” summed up this policy with brilliant simplicity.

There’s more to growth hacking than the growth. In fact, as one TechCrunch article put it, “to succeed, growth hacking has to focus more on product development than marketing.”

This provides a good place to end this article. Even though growth hacking is awesome, cool, sexy, and possible, don’t trash your customer experience just to pull off some growth hacking technique.

Maybe one of the best forms of growth hacking is to treat your customers like royalty.


There are more ways to growth hack. Lars Lofgren has a simple rule — just double your price. Maybe you have some simple but powerful hacks, too.

Growth hacking isn’t about following a set of rules or copying other companies, although you can certainly try. Growth hacking is about innovating, reworking, hustling, and innovating again.

What are your favorite growth hacks for SaaS?

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Neil Patel