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What is Growth Hacking?

Key Takeaways

Growth hacking is marketing + coding. It includes things like: landing page optimization, SEO, public relations, advertising, and copywriting.

Three things that a Growth Hacker might do in a typical day:

  1. A/B testing landing pages
  2. Capturing emails before you launch your product
  3. Optimizing the virality of your product so that more people use your product.

How to Learn Growth Hacking Today

  1. Read “Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing” by Andrew Chen (5 minutes)
  2. Read “Find a Growth Hacker for your Startup” by Sean Ellis (5 minutes)

Additional Resources

  • Growth Hacker TV — Over 100 episodes where the experts on startup growth reveal their secrets. Multiple new episodes released every week.
  • One Month Growth Hacking — learn growth hacking in 30 days or less with Mattan Griffel

7 Quick Ways To Step Up Your Email Design Today

How many emails do you receive a day? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? Now, how many of those emails do you quickly skim and immediately delete? In today’s on-the-go, instant gratification world, we want to get the information quickly and make sure it serves a purpose in our lives. We tend to fill more and more of our time connected to our devices, and we want to make sure that our time is being used wisely.

This means that the likelihood of your email being read from start to finish by readers may be slim to none. Don’t be disheartened; email marketing is still one of the most valuable, not to mention free, resources at your disposal. Before the email you are getting ready to send ends up in the junk folder, make sure your email design has been carefully crafted.

Make sure your message is clear. You may only get one shot to connect with a potential customer, influencer, or colleague before they’re already on to the next message in their inbox. Once you have their attention, you need to make sure your email is designed to convert and engage.

You don’t have to be a graphic designer or an expert to put together an email with a high open and click-through rate, but you should put enough energy behind your campaigns to ensure their success. Rework your current email design by taking the following ideas and applying them to your brand and messaging.

Break Up Blocks of Text With Imagery

No one wants to wade through large blocks of text, especially in an email. The majority of people will be reading your email on their mobile device and will quickly lose interest if there is not something eye-catching. It can also be difficult to read long drawn-out paragraphs on your phone so breaking things up into digestible blocks of text can work wonder on your user’s experience.

Go Mobile Friendly

With about 50 percent of emails read on smart phones you can really miss the mark when you ignore users on mobile devices. While we love to see the rise in responsive email design, it is important to remember that not all mail apps, namely the Gmail app, support it and this can result in a pretty sloppy looking email. Instead of going full-on responsive designers can use mobile-friendly design elements such as easy to read text, appropriately designed buttons, and minimal layouts into their email design.

Have a Clear Call to Action

Nothing is more frustrating than sending out an awesome email, seeing that a good amount of people opened it but few people click through to your site. Often, we have a tendency to squeeze everything into one email making it hard for readers to sort through all the information at hand. Instead, lay everything out nice and clean making it nearly impossible for them to miss the mark. Think of each email as a landing page and pay attention to the flow of the design being careful not to oversaturate the user with content.

Select a Good Typography

If you are already have a specific font that you use for your branding, keep with the theme and use as part of all your email campaigns. However, if you haven’t chosen one, select a font that is reflective of your brand, but is also easily readable. Also, if you add banners and or call-to-action boxes in different colors, make sure that the text is legible. Less is typically more when it comes to email when things get too busy readers tend to lose interest. Remember that most readers are on a mobile device so a font that is hard to read when scaled down to size is a clear red flag.

Choose an Appealing Layout

Email marketing services, such as MailChimp, create easy step-by-step tutorials for setting up email templates. Scroll through their templates and examples when you’re in need of a little email design inspiration. Then, take the time to create a few to use whenever you are sending a new campaign.

When the time comes to send an email, it’s easier to build when you only have to swap out content and images and an email design from the ground up. You can use a newsletter format for weekly or monthly emails with snippets of information in different sections or you can use a more basic template for when you want to blast out a brief announcement. Think about the kind of content you’re creating and what makes the most sense for your brand.

Send a Test Email

Just as you would proofread any professional email before you send it, run your email campaign through a QA across all browsers and mail applications before hitting the send to all button. Email a formatted test, so you can see how it appears in your browsers. Did the text become skewed? Is the image populating correctly? Did it grab your attention? To avoid looking like spam, make sure all features of your email are functioning and the spacing is aligned.

Let the Numbers do the Talking

The key to any successful email campaign is to continue to iterate and run tests to see which subject line, content, design, etc. is resonating best with your users. Don’t just go with your gut, run some clear split tests that play around with different layouts and designs to see which one is truly generating the most engagement.

A good design aesthetic immediately captures the user’s attention and lays out your message in an appealing way. Gauge your analytics to determine what kind of emails your subscriber list tends to open most. Switch up your design, even if they are small changes, according to the audience feedback you are receiving. It can seem like trial and error for a while before you find the right formula. As long as you keep your audience in mind, you’ll have success in connecting with them and increasing engagement with your brand.

Does Your Startup Need A Growth Hacker

Does every startup need a growth hacker?

Most startups find themselves facing the same problem: they build a product that very few people end up using.

Let’s say that your startup, Startuply has an idea for a new photo-sharing app. You assemble a team and start building it.

At first it’s awful, it’s simply embarrassing. Your team encounters bugs and it takes much longer than you expected. Finally, six months later, you have a product you’re happy releasing.

In the days leading up to your launch, you get more and more excited. You figure that your app has all the features that the mainstream photo-sharing apps are missing — the ability to edit photos on the fly, more filters, Foursquare-integration, and the ability to easily curate and share other people’s photos.

This is going to change everything.

When that day finally comes, you launch and… nothing happens.

Okay that’s a slight understatement. You get a writeup in TechCrunch and several thousand users, but most of them stop using it after a few days. Nothing like the tremendous viral growth you were anticipating.

What do you do? Do you pivot? Do you keep releasing new features? Do you experiment with other marketing channels? Try to target a different demographic?

This is the problem most startups find themselves facing. It what Paul Graham calls the “Trough of Sorrow”:

You know you need to change something, but the question is what? This is a dangerous situation. It’s dangerous because the inclination most startups have is to keep developing and shipping new features.

There’s a feeling that something is missing and once that thing is added, your users really will start to come.

Continuing to ship new features is probably the worst thing you can do at this point.

Why? Because it just compounds what the real problem was in the first place, which is that you don’t know what’s wrong. Are people not interested in your product? Is your product good, but missing an important feature? Are people just not hearing about your product? Are you targeting the wrong audience?

Most startups that fail don’t know the answer to any of these questions because they were in too much of a rush to release their product in the first place.

A proper growth hacker looks at any decision that is being considered at a company and asks the following question: How will we know if it’s working?

Of all the improvements in technology over the last few decades, I would argue that the one that has had the biggest business impact is the ability to collect data in real-time and make decisions based on that data in real-time. As Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, said at the Mashable Media Summit, people are really bad at making predictions more than a few weeks out.

The ability to get data and respond to it quickly was what revolutionized the car industry when it came to lean manufacturing, and it’s now revolutionizing are products are developed. It baffles me that most companies waste so much time and money blindly releasing new products and features. They don’t know how to measure the impact of what they’re doing and how it affects customers.

Most people want to jump right in because they assume that they’re right and that measuring is a waste of time. The problem is that there are at least a few hundred potential failure points along the way to building a successful product. Maybe users like the way your product looks, but they don’t like the signup process, or the features listed on your homepage are unconvincing.

Let’s say that, at best, the decisions you make at your startup (in both product and marketing) are right 75% of the time — trust me, that’s incredibly optimistic and you’re probably not even close. The problem is that with no feedback system in place, you don’t know which 25% is wrong. (As the old advertising saying goes “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted… I just don’t know which half.”)

Growth hacking introduces a system for measuring the effect that startup business decisions have on product usage. Growth hacker can be a position at a startup, or it can be a mindset.

I think that even if you don’t want to hire a full-time growth hacker, you’ll want to train someone at your startup on growth hacking methodologies. This could be your head of engineering or your CEO. Your growth hacker helps ensure your company is actually making progress.

At the end of the day, it’s the only way to get out of the trough of sorrow besides pure luck.

How to Raise Money for Your Startup

I wanted to follow up one of my previous posts about How to Get into Y Combinator — in which I talk about the four kinds of risks investors look at when deciding to invest in your company — with a much more practical post about how to raise money from investors.

I’ll caveat here that in my own experience with One Month, we were fairly fortunately to have been accepted into Y Combinator, and so the process of fundraising was significantly easier than it would have been otherwise. That being said, I truly believe that’s because the partners at Y Combinator, including Paul Graham, have distilled some important truths about fundraising that they were able to pass along.

The first lesson is that the first investment is the hardest.

When you start fundraising, if you’re lucky you’re going to get a lot of “soft” commitments. These sound something like, “I really like the company and I’d like to invest, let me know when the round’s about to close.” In some cases, they may even say that they’re in, but they’re just putting up a little resistance to actually giving you the money.

You need to recognize that it’s not an investment until you actually have their money.

And it’s also in their interests as investors to wait as long as possible to actually invest. If they believe they can commit now, and put the money in later, they will always do that. Why? Because sometimes more information will come up and investors will back out. It happens all the time.

As an entrepreneur you need to apply a strong pressure here.

One of the advantages to using a convertible note or Y Combinator’s SAFE financing document as your fundraising tool in the seed stage is that you can collect money immediately as it comes in instead of all at once at the end. This is called a “rolling close.” It alleviates some of the risk of having to get buy-in from a bunch of people simultaneously and then having one person or problem fuck it all up.

The strategy that I learned at Y Combinator was that as soon as I got a soft commit from an investor, I wrote up a convertible note (using Clerky) for the highest amount they mentioned they might invest and sent it to the investor with the following email:

Our round is getting pretty tight, be we should have room.

I’ve sent over the standard YC convertible note docs using Clerky for a $100k investment at a $6M cap. Take a look and let me know if you have any questions and either [lawyer’s name] (legal counsel) or I can get back to you. Otherwise, just sign and we can guarantee your spot in the round.

So you really have to do whatever you can to close the first investment in a round. The first $25k or $50k or $100k. In terms of focusing your energy, don’t spend a ton of time on small investments like $5k or $10k (we actually didn’t accept any investment under $20k in our first round).

The momentum builds after you get your first investor, because it’s likely that investor will introduce you to other investors, and so on. Like a chain reaction. Sometimes that doesn’t happen but in a large enough round it will.

The second lesson I learned was don’t create a pitch deck or a business plan.

You’ll hear, “do you have a deck?” from investors all the time. The stock response that the YC partners told us to give was (roughly):

We’ve been too busy running the company to prepare a pitch deck. I’m happy to meet in person to tell you more about the company.

In the early stages, if an investor asks for a pitch deck, he or she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It just turns out it’s not really necessary. And it saves you a ton of time doing something that isn’t important.

Instead of a pitch deck, prepare whatever short document you think the investor will need to see in order to invest (a simple Google doc will do), but only send it to the investor after your first meeting.

The later in stages you get, the more documents you’ll need to prepare, but in the seed stages you may not need to do any.

The third lesson is that with a “rolling close” you can change the amount you say you’re raising.

This can be helpful for applying pressure to investors that are on the fence.

At first we told investors we were only looking to raise about $250,000, and we had already gotten $150,000, so if they wanted to guarantee a spot in our round they would have to do it immediately.

This helps counter that investor feeling of, “I can still wait it out and get into the round right before it closes. I have time.”

The major caveat here is that it’s important to know how much the person or fund you’re talking to needs to be able to invest. This is a major mistake we made. We said we were raising the same number ($250,000) for angel investors and funds initially, but that essentially ruled out the funds.

Many funds have to be able to invest large amounts of money (anywhere from $500–750k to $3–5 million) for it to even be worth considering you as an investment. If you say you’re only raising $500k and you already have $250k, that essentially rules you out as an investment.

Find out what terms the fund typically invests in, the size of the fund, and how far through the fund they are. Almost all VCs are willing to tell you that information almost immediately.

But you don’t really need a lead in a seed round. It can be helpful for filling up the round faster, convincing others to get on board, and later for strategic stuff like introductions and advice, but it’s not really necessary. You can raise the entire round in checks like $50k or $100k if you need to.

And as time goes on, you up the amount you’re raising. You can even theoretically up the valuation cap on the note as you get more interest.

Take easy money.

If someone wants to invest, and you like the terms, take it. But be discerning. Talk to some of the companies they’ve already invested in, especially the ones that didn’t succeed, to see how the investor relationship worked (you may have to reach out to these companies yourself).

The last thing you want is an investor that’s going to cause trouble or be difficult to work with. (For example, we had one investor who asked for his money back after three months and didn’t want to sign a standard convertible note extension even after all our other investors had.)

At the end of the day, investors often aren’t as helpful as you’d like them to be. Their helpfulness comes in waves. If you reach out, they may offer a hand, but most of the time the intros they’ll make come right after they invest, and trails off as the excitement wears off. That’s okay. Money is money. And you wouldn’t want them too involved anyway.

Finally, don’t talk to associates.

It’s a waste of time. Insist on communicating with partners and getting partners involved early on. If you’re talking to an associate at a fund you like, ask which partner would really be interested in a company like yours and then ask if they can put you in touch with that partner.

Because some firms know this, Associates often go by the name of “Investor,” or “Venture Partner” instead.

Do You Want a Bigger Audience?

I recently gave a talk on audience growth, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know a few things. I’ve learned both from my own experience and that of the people I work with (some of whom have much larger audiences than mine).

The common thread between people who hire me to do websites, consulting, buy my books, listen to my podcast, or take my courses is this: they want a bigger audience. Hell, I too wouldn’t mind a bigger audience of rat people sometimes.

First things first, this information falls entirely short if you do not start with the audience you’ve already got.

“Your current audience — the people who are already listening, buying, engaging — these should be the most important people to you.”

Your current audience — the people who are already listening, buying, engaging — these should be the most important people to you. Far above anyone you wish you were reaching. If it’s 10 people, 100 people, or even 1,000 people — if you’re not doing right by them, right now, none of this will make a lick of difference (aside: do differences lick?). Make sure you’re listening, communicating, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you.

The next thing to think about is your message.

This isn’t what you’re selling or what you’re writing about. It’s not even who you are. Your message is what you stand for. It is bigger than any single thing you do or say. It’s not some fancy content marketing strategic plan. It’s like a rallying flag that you use to direct your forward motion. It’s what makes you stand out beyond anyone else who has similar skills as yours.

“Your message is what you stand for.”

Your message helps craft what makes your unique voice cut through the noise. It’s what draws people to you (even if many other people are talking about the same topic or building similar products).

Unless your message is interesting to both you and your audience, one of you will get bored and drop off.

You may think that developing your own unique voice is easy, since, hell, it’s your voice. Sadly, this is not the case, especially in writing. Finding your voice takes work. It’s part internalization, part confidence, and part a damn lot of practice. I’m not sure developing your voice as a creator is something you can ever completely win at — you have to continually check in with yourself to see if it consistently aligns.

Your current audience, your message, and your voice are the groundwork. Next, you need to consider why audiences grow. Why do some people build sizeable groups of people who pay attention to them, and some people aren’t able to?

Growth happens when your audience shares what you do with their own audience.

Think about it. In order for your numbers to grow, people need to first hear about you. How do they do that? By listening to people they already listen to. If those people they’re already listening to mention you, you’ve got a good chance of adding them to your audience ranks.

Growth hacking isn’t always fancy tests and cool gadgets: in order for someone to want to share you with their own people, think about why you would share someone else’s work. Chances are, they said something smart, interesting, entertaining, or useful. You feel good about learning from them, you align with their message, so you want to tell others (and you do). Now you’re helping them grow their audience.

At the heart of it, audience growth requires each of the following things to be present:

  • Value: if someone is not getting value from you, they’re not going to pay attention. So value must to be present in order for your audience to grow. How do you figure out what’s valuable to your audience? You listen to them.
  • Message: what makes what you have to say unique? What do you stand for? An audience needs to react with, “Yes! This!” or there’s no hope they’ll tell their own people.
  • Consistency: want to show your audience you give a damn about them? Show up for them. Regularly. This is why I write and share every Sunday. And it’s why other creators set schedules for sharing, because if it’s not a schedule somewhere, chances are it won’t happen.
  • Generosity: trust and gratitude are built when you do something nice for someone else, with no strings attached. Do enough genuinely nice and helpful things for people, and they’ll start talking. You should want to do good things for your audience, because they are your audience.
  • Evolution: one trick ponies never see audience growth because they’re one-trick ponies. It might be exciting to watch the trick the first time, but by the 1,547th time, it’s kind of boring. Unless there’s newness, change, and exploration on your end, there’ll never be growth in your numbers. Creators can’t sit on their past work and coast for every long. Especially not online where our attention spans barely eclipse that of goldfish.

Your audience is not made up of numbers or stats or metrics.

Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar. It’s easy to overlook the humanity when staring at numbers on a screen, but there are people on the other end of each of those numbers. People, each with their own lives, struggles, and satisfactions.

“Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar.”

Looking merely for growth is not enough, and frankly, it’s a horrible goal. You can’t just wish it into being. You need to take lots and lots of small steps towards it: test ideas, analyze results, and adapt/change as necessary. Save the magic bullet for infomercials (they’re awful blenders at any rate).

Why do you even need growth?

When I was doing just web design, I only needed a few dozen clients a year. That was the perfect number of people paying attention for me to make a living.

For smaller products or services (like $5–10 ebooks), more are required. But, there’s also enough. Enough people where it still feels like a friendly small town and not a hostile city. Enough people where you can make a difference, and moreover, help them succeed. Because if you can help your audience truly succeed, they’ll reward you for it.

So when you’re thinking about what you can do to grow your own audience, consider these points we’ve just covered. I don’t have “5 easy tips to get the numbers you want, guaranteed,” but these ideas are worth thinking about if you want more people to pay attention to your work.

Confessions of a Growth Hacker

I want to come clean.

I don’t always practice what I preach when it comes to growth hacking. It’s easy to say test everything. In the growth hacking community, testing is dogma. At One Month, we can’t possible test everything that we’re doing. The reality of a startup hits you hard: whether you do it explicitly or not, you have to decide what you’re going to test, because you can’t do it all.

Instead of doing another post about all the things you could and should be doing to growth hack your startup, I want to talk about some of the problems you’re going to run into trying to follow the techniques that growth hackers (like myself) have talked about.

Implementing tracking systems is hard. Like, really hard. Your data is going to be off from the real numbers, no matter how hard you try. If you’re running Javascript-based tracking, it’s going to fail to load in some cases (because people are using adblockers, broken browser extensions, and some just disable Javascript). All a result, the numbers you see in various dashboards will be off from what you see internally in your own logs.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Which system should you trust?

To this day, the conversion rate that we see in Mixpanel is different from the conversion rate that we see in Optimizely, by about 0.5%. That may not seem like a lot but it is when you’re talking about the difference between 2% and 2.5%.

Consistency is key here. Of course, try to get your data to match up as much as possible, but once you’ve gotten close enough, just pick one data source for your experiments and stick with it.

Building and automating a process around these systems is hard.

It turns out that the more data you’re tracking, the harder it is to keep up with each one. Eventually you reach a point where you’re spending all your time analyzing data and not actually acting on it.

Which brings me to another point:

Who’s responsible for monitoring the data?

For a long time, we were tracking a lot of stuff but never looking at most of it. Even today, there are some metrics that we only check monthly or even less frequently.

Acting on the data.

I wish I could say we’re running multiple A/B tests and have a running log of tests to run once those are done and validated. We’re not. We haven’t tested our homepage in weeks, because we’re testing paid ads, course landing pages, and our new learning library.

Tracking your validations and learning.

Your experiments take place across all these different tools from Optimizely to Customer.io. After a while, you lose track of what you’ve actually tested. And how do you make sure your learnings actually gets distributed to the rest of the team, so that they learn from your experiments? Just managing your data — the systems, process, and evaluation — becomes a whole ordeal, which is hard to justify spending time on when you’re already trying to build one company.

We try to do this with a Google document archiving all of our experiments, but it’s a pain to keep up to date and other people don’t always refer to it to see what they can learn. I know a few companies are trying to build solutions to this problem but I haven’t seen one that is very compelling.

Doing the real A/B testing that matters is extremely technical.

Sure, tools like Optimizely and Unbounce make it relatively easy to test superficial stuff on your pages by manipulating the page itself with Javascript. But what about that new feature you’re thinking of releasing? How do you make sure half the users keep seeing that new feature? How do you track the results of that over a long time? That test actually has to be written into your code, which can be quite difficult.

Prioritizing tests.

You can’t test all the things. Some people argue about whether you should even test most things. Should you only test optimizations? What about changes that are obviously going to make the product better? We regularly roll out changes that we strongly believe in without testing them in advance. There are only so many things you’ll have the time and resources to test.

Getting caught up in the stupid shit.

I know that there’s a method for identifying the problem in your bottleneck (I’ve written about it before). I also know that companies should focus on engagement and activation when building up traction, not acquisition. But I still end up getting caught up in the buzz of PR articles, social media, and driving traffic to our site. I still crave those small spikes in traffic because they feel good.

Taking big risks is hard.

We know it’s good for us, but there’s a temptation to just do the safe thing and not try the crazy stuff. It takes courage. We follow the conventional methods far more than we should, and we often assume we’re more likely to be right than we actually are (see confirmation bias).

Having one person manage the entire growth process is almost impossible.

It’s too massive. The whole thing ends up getting split and different people focus on different parts. But when you’re small you have to monitor both acquisition and retention at the same time. And then your attention is divided.

Growth hacking is like spinning plates. If you take your eye off of one for too long, it starts to wobble.

But that’s okay.

That’s the reality of growth hacking. It’s not always as clean and easy as people say it is. The truth is, you’re going to fuck up a lot.

You won’t be able to measure everything you do. Finding the right data and the right things to measure is sometimes way harder than people say it is. Organizing the systems to keep everyone looped in and to take action after you run experiments takes a significant amount of energy.

Just try to do more good than bad. As long as you do more good than bad, you’ll probably be fine. And make mistakes. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right?What have you learned about growth hacking? What’s working well — and how’s reality treating you?

Thanks to Justin Mares and Sarah Kathleen Peck for reading drafts of this

9 Great Lessons on Learning From Ancient Philosophers

Give a man a program, frustrate him for a day. Teach a man to program, frustrate him for a lifetime.” — Chris Oliver

“Son of a …!” — Alex Miles Younger

“…Welcome to programming!” — Lee Matos

Have you ever been frustrated by something beyond belief? Wanted to quit, give up, or walk away? You’re not alone. This is the plight of learners everywhere.

Programming, coding, and problem solving are all very similar in nature: get into a frustrating pickle, and figure out how to get out of it. The art of learning involves becoming very familiar with the process of figuring it out when things go wrong.

Our Python course kicked off last week, and we’ve had students in the office working night and day to solve problems and figure out technical issues for the first round of students taking the class. The first month of a course launch is always the hardest, because no matter what you do — no matter how much we prepare as teachers and as educators — there are always hundreds of student questions beyond what we expect.

Yet as teachers and learners both, we see this process happen time and time again. In fact, it’s how this company started in the first place.

Late-night jam sessions with students working on our latest Python course.

One Month Rails was born out of a deep frustration

One Month was born out of a deep frustration in learning how to code — Mattan was frustrated at what was available in coding education, and wanted to be able to build his project himself. So, he sat himself in a room for 30 days and muscled through the code, eventually teaching himself the basics of rails and figuring out how to become a developer on his own. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, and there were days when he had no idea if what he was learning would help him actually build something that he wanted to build.

As lifelong learners, it’s our job to strike a balance between staying motivated and sticking through the frustration to solve the puzzle. Ryan Holiday, in his recent book The Obstacle is The Way, reminds us of both Buddhist and Stoic philosophers that embrace obstacles as our greatest teachers. By changing what feels difficult or arduous into a metaphor of our greatest teacher, we can become great learners.

The obstacle is the way: 9 reminders about lifelong learning

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic Philosopher, reminds us that obstacles are beneficial to our learning and growth across all areas of our lives:

“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aeralius

From this, there are several key reminders on our own quests for learning — whether we’re learning how to built startups, create projects, or write our first line of code. This philosophy created the foundation for the book The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday — a great book to read if you’re ever frustrated or stuck. Here are nine key lessons from Ryan Holiday about how obstacles can actually become instrumental in our quest for learning:

1: Failure can be a benefit.

Failing at first forces us to pursue different paths and consider different alternatives. This increases our diversity and flexibility as builders and coders, making us more resilient in the long term.

2: There is often more than one way to solve a problem.

Problems can be addressed in many different ways, it’s up to us to figure out how to approach problem-solving more broadly, not just know the answers to specific questions. The best way to get better at problem-solving is to continue to tackle problems as part of your everyday life.

“The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.” — Ryan Holiday

3: Obstacles teach us as much about our inner workings as our outer world.

Sometimes the true obstacle isn’t external, but it’s what’s inside of us — our stubbornness, frustration, inflexibility, or fear… The process of embracing challenges teaches us about our own reactions and scripts as much as anything else.

4: Obstacles make you angry… which can be a great thing.

I remember the time someone said I wasn’t good enough to do a particular thing. Boy, did that piss me off … and make me want to prove them wrong. So what did I do? I went out and did it, probably ten times better than I would have done in the first place. That initial obstacle — the person who said I couldn’t do it — actually inspired me to become even greater.

5: Obstacles remind us to stay present.

“Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead,” writes Holiday. When we think too much about the problems piling up in the future, we forget to pay attention to the things immediately in front of us. Problem-solving is a zen practice.

6: We apply meaning to a puzzle, not the other way around.

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” When you’re solving a puzzle or working through a problem set, you are not a good or bad person; you’re just a person.

7: Things are worth doing well: it’s not just about getting the right answer.

Getting the right answer is not the same as working through the process well. “Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well.”

8: It is the obstacle that carves out our integrity, not the other way around.

“Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive,” writes Holiday. Building One Month was born out of problem that needed solving, not a simple dream that fell into place one day. Your work deserves your attention, and working through the process will open up more doors and opportunities than avoiding obstacles altogether.

9: Finally, on (not) quitting and frustration:

“It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life — that’s persistence.”

As teachers and educators, we don’t quit when something doesn’t go right — we keep testing, trying, and building until we find the best way to do something. Whether it’s a piece of code, a way for people to get in touch with us, or a new course launch, we’re always learning and growing. We don’t do this in the absence of obstacles; rather, we use all of the problems that come up as ways to keep learning, growing, and getting better.

As students and as teachers, understanding how to learn is about philosophy. The idea that obstacles prevent us from achieving our views fails to account for how valuable obstacles are in shaping who we are and how we approach our work. As we work through challenges, we develop strength, resilience, and even confidence and calm. Through the pursuit itself, you uncover ideas about yourself and the world that will serve you well in the future.

Perhaps, in fact, the obstacle itself is the way, and not the other way around.

Y Combinator and The One Metric that Matters

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about growth hacking and I wanted to write about my experience with growth hacking since going through Y Combinator with One Month.

Y Combinator is known as an accelerator for a very good reason: it accelerates the growth of your startup tremendously.

So what are the things that Y Combinator does to make its startups grow so fast?

They force you to focus on one metric — growth — and look at it week over week.

According to Paul Graham, growth is the only essential thing you need to be a startup. Everything else follows from growth. This is why they don’t really accept companies at the idea stage. Y Combinator isn’t a place for building, it’s a place for growing. This is why every time you meet with Paul Graham, he’ll ask…

“How much did you grow last week?”

When you eliminate all the other factors, things get much simpler. You’re expected to grow at least 7% every week while you’re at Y Combinator. Ideally we’re talking about revenue here, but if you’re pre-revenue then user growth or some sort of engagement metric is fine (ideally as far down the lean marketing funnel as you can get).

This sounds easy enough at first. Just have everyone on your team post to Facebook and you’ve hit your numbers. Time for beers.

The problem is that week after week the bar gets raised and you’ve got to hit consistently higher numbers. On top of that, a few weeks in you’ll start to exhaust easy acquisition channels like friends of friends. That will force you to start thinking long-term and focus on consistent acquisition channels and levers (like increasing your on-site conversion rate).

The stress of having to grow week over week is mitigated by the fact that the end is in sight: Demo day is 12 weeks out and you want to have a growth chart that looks like this:

This is an illusion, because once you’ve gotten the money, you now have to report to investors and there’s an additional level of responsibility. But that’s for another day.

The advantage of focusing on only the growth metric is that it doesn’t lie. You’re either growing or you’re not.

Most startups spin their wheels on things like redesigning their app, building new production features, and other things that don’t really matter. Often t’s because they’re afraid of actually having their dream shattered when they try to grow, so they’re trying to build up the best product possible for launch. Paul Graham says…

“Launch when you have a modicum of value for some people.”

As soon as you start focusing on growth numbers, company decisions start falling into place. Should we take on an intern? Should we release that new product feature? Should we get a new logo? Only if it’s going to help you hit that 7% growth for the week.

On our wall at YC we had a big sign on our wall that said, “Will this help us grow 7%?

It served as a constant reminder and we were always pointing to it when someone had a new feature idea or suggestion.

Admittedly this is short-term thinking, and there’s debate about whether this kind of mentality is healthy for a startup in the long-run, but I think long-term thinking is the luxury of a healthy startup. You can worry about that stuff once you’re certain that growth is under control. There’s no point in thinking about the logo of a startup whose user numbers are going down.

So do you have to be at YC to do this? Obviously not. You can hold yourself accountable, but there’s something about the environment they’ve created that makes it all easier. You’re getting constant reminders from the partners to focus on stuff that really matters. You’re competing with and trying to grow faster than all the other incredibly ambitious startups in your batch. You’re in the middle of nowhere with very few distractions.

So if you’re at a startup, pick a growth metric and focus on that first and foremost. Put it up on a whiteboard for everyone to see, and hold your entire company accountable to it.