“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

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Napoleon said this of war and defeat while the biggest test of his political and military career raged on in the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon’s battle hardened, the superior military was outmatched and outmaneuvered in every way by the allied forces of Spain, Britain, and Portugal. The Napoleonic Wars were the first time guerrilla warfare was deployed at such a large scale. Not only did it prove its worth for the winners, it demonstrated how the greatest of war historians and scholars like Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli were right in every word they’d written about the tactics of war, victory, and defeat.

Napoleon’s biggest mistake was that he greatly underestimated the impact of well-deployed guerrilla warfare tactics. His generals relied on their knowledge of traditional warfare even while the enemy improvised at each step of the way. They gathered intelligence on troop movements, deployments, rations and weapons by capturing French couriers. This knowledge allowed them to disrupt supplies, leaving the frontline troops vulnerable to Spanish advances. The entire French army’s might could not arrest these small defeats with their eyes fixed on the bigger prize – defeating Spain and her allies – while Spain focused on “delivering death with a thousand cuts” strategy.

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History is rife with examples where large, organized armies have been defeated by small armies that relied on guerrilla warfare – the David vs. Goliath stories of war. Experts and scholars have decisively concluded that when applied appropriately, and supported by an excellent network of intelligence gathering, guerrilla warfare is extremely effective on the battlefield. While all these lessons in battle tactics from history are still of great use to the modern day soldiers and generals, they also teach a lot to the modern day business professionals in strategy and tactics.

Innovation is more than just a buzzword for the David’s of the business world who are up against their own Goliath every day. Since this innovation often comes at the steep price of a resource-crunch, the way out can be sought in these guerrilla warfare tactics – or, what we also call Growth Hacking.

Enemy is the competitor, and market research is the military intelligence

“Know your enemy and know yourself, and in 100 battles you will never be in peril.” – The Art of War

Within the startup business environment, these words can be applied to competitors and target audience. The word enemy is a little too harsh, but the fact of the matter is that both you and your competitor are after the same objective – growth in business. The battle you have to fight is for the attention of your target audience so they listen to what you offer and make a decision in your favor.

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Intercepting messengers like the Spaniards did to the French may not be necessary to achieve that objective – this is the 21st century. But you do need to communicate with your target audience to find out what real world problems are bothering them. Thanks to social media, all you have to do is define your target audience, and approach them on the right platform. Consider the example of what Airbnb did when they needed to reach out to the right audience to grab a bigger share of the marketplace. They focused on where their target audience was and reached out to them before competitors did, which in this case was Craigslist. So they hacked their own growth channels to deliver more by utilizing an existing platform to gain popularity among their target audience. And things do not get more guerrilla than that.

Get a grip on your strengths, and others weaknesses

Sun Tzu recommends avoiding the enemy’s stronghold and attacking his weak points for victory.

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While the conventional warfare wisdom of western world has been focused entirely on the enemy’s strengths, it leads towards a very costly proposition. When faced with a price-war with a competitor, to gain a decisive victory, you need to maintain your undivided focus on your strengths and the competitor’s weaknesses. If they are spending too much money to acquire customers, you need to think of ways to reduce your costs to do the same, something like what Dropbox did.

Dropbox initially focused its attention on paid ads to acquire users. So instead of spending more on ads, they started a referral program that awarded 500MB of free storage space to each party when one user referred Dropbox to anyone. “Free” data is the weakness of the user and they give Dropbox the opportunity to infiltrate their contacts for it.

War, chaos, and opportunity

Sun Tzu says, “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.”

Growth hacking is not limited to the online world. In a fledgling post-war economy in 1938, De Beers was facing the challenge of dwindling diamond sales. Instead of accepting defeat, De Beers set out on an ambitious trail to target people planning to get married. The concept of the ‘engagement ring’ soon became ingrained in the western culture as the de facto symbol of love and every young man on the verge of popping the question started saving money to buy the biggest diamond he could afford.

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A similar example is Listerine. While people previously just had bad breath, Listerine focused on the keyword “Halitosis” and campaigned on the same so people now had a medical condition and not just bad breath.

Gain and utilize strategic insights

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night. And when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

The growth of your business depends on strategic insights into your competition to gain an edge. WhatRunsWhere, an online advertising service allows you to look up everything your competitors are doing online – their ad inventory buying, running schedules, and creatives. It has been called unethical, but everything is indeed fair in love and war.

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Another example if from digital marketing academies in India. Big players like Digital Vidya target keywords like DSIM and WMA which are other academies for their landing pages, Google Adwords and put in all their efforts on marketing campaigns when the other academies are putting in least resources in marketing. This gives the extra edge and people register for Digital Vidya’s course even when they’re actually looking for other academies.

Strategy is the key to success

When Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is won before it is ever fought,” what he is really emphasizing on is the need for robust strategy. Nothing can replace a good strategy.

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PayPal’s strategy to target eBay Powersellers and increase its own user base through an influential set of users paid off well. At the core of it, PayPal used the network effect to hack its own growth – the more people use its services, the more people would want to use it. The strategy created quite a buzz and soon enough, PayPal’s user base exploded to millions of users.

This was not just an incidental growth hack but backed by strategy and planning. It involved finding where most of the potential target persona’s of PayPal can be captured, and how to capture them.

Be swift, be decisive, experiment fast

“What is essential in war is VICTORY, not prolonged operations.”

Using the intelligence gathered against competitors, and aiming for a swift victory instead of wearing them out is yet another example of eastern battle wisdom.

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Pre-Facebook Instagram saw an opportunity when it listened to the users’ complaints about not being able to post pictures directly from mobile phones to social media platforms. Instagram gave them a quick solution. Users could cross-post on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr and more with just one click. This was a big achievement in the early days of social media when posting photos from mobile devices was a nightmare. Soon, the distinct photos with filters and embellishments gave Instagram the edge it needed in the crowded social media platforms space, acting as a free advertisement for the photo sharing app.

In conclusion

The Art of War has much to teach a startup entrepreneur in the art of growth hacking. It is just as applicable in the business world as it is in the battlefield. Just a quick look at the examples above gives a telling story about the efficacy of growth hacking. Sure, some of these were dependent on direct transactions between the brand and the user or potential user. But regardless, everyone involved registers a win, and that’s why growth hacking works. In the end, it is all about strategy and banking on that strategy to get the most viable results, and herein lies the essence of winning that is common between war and a startup enterprise.