10 Growth Hacking Lessons from Dodgeball

growth-hacking-dodgeballI hit Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, right in the gut.

And then I took a hard shot to the chest by Gainsight’s New Business director.

Working in a startup is rough, lemme tell ya.

As Nick and I stood on the sidelines during this company outing – battered, exhausted and laughing – watching the remaining players trying mercilessly to eliminate each other (and have fun at the same time), Nick turned to me and said:

“You should write a blog post on what Dodgeball can teach us about Growth Hacking.”

So, looking for any excuse to rest – this wasn’t just dodgeball but TRAMPOLINE dodgeball – I came up with a list of 10 lessons (5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts) you can, in fact, take from Dodgeball and apply to Growth Hacking.

Okay, here we go.

1. Don’t Take your Eye Off the Ball

This one is fairly obvious in Dodgeball; there are five or six balls in play and they may all be deployed right at you. You need to be able to see where each one is, where they may be deployed, and take the appropriate action to evade. But you must do this while keeping the goal of the game in mind.

In Growth Hacking, you always want to make sure you know what growth you’re hacking. What’s your goal? How do you know if you’re successful? What metrics are you tracking? What’s your goal and what are the key results along the way that indicate whether you’re making the right progress. In Growth Hacking as in Dodgeball… never take your eye off the ball.

2. Don’t Make Illegal Throws

In Dodgeball (at least the rules we played by) you weren’t allowed to hit your opponent in the head. So you could throw the ball at someones head all day long, but you wouldn’t eliminate them (your goal) and you would probably start to make them – and everyone else – mad if you ignored the rules and kept making illegal throws.

The same thing goes for Growth Hacking… don’t be a jerk. You can be as creative as you want, but don’t cross that line and start full-on spamming or using illegal and unethical tactics to attempt to get the results you want.

3. Don’t Hide Behind Other People

One way to keep from being eliminated in Dodgeball is to hide behind your teammates… but you end up putting the burden on them and, really, you’re not actually playing the game. Oh, and eventually they’ll get eliminated and you won’t have anyone to hide behind. Oh, and when that happens, because all you’ve been doing is hiding and not really playing… you won’t know how to play and you’ll get eliminated. Your hiding was just prolonging the inevitable, really.

In Growth Hacking this is what happens when you’re not as aggressive as you need to be to make whatever is is you’re attempting to do actually work. I say “aggressive” a lot and its often met with, if not pushback, a bit of a head tilt. In this case, I mean aggressive in terms of cadence of messaging, channels leveraged, tacts attempted, etc. Sometimes we get shy. Sometimes we lose faith. Sometimes we just want to hide… and that’s just prolonging the inevitable.. in Growth Hacking tha means not reaching your goals.

4. Don’t Play to Not Lose

In Dodgeball, as in business… and life in general, you can choose to play to win… or just play to not lose. In Dodgeball you can be passive (hiding behind people as in the example above), hold on to the ball when you get it rather than throwing it, being defensive and evading the other team rather than actively engaging them. That’s just not as fun and you’re never going to achieve your goal of winning. I believe there’s a saying about trying and failing being better than not trying at all.

This idea of playing not to lose vs. playing to win is huge in Growth Hacking. If you look back at the greatest growth hacks in history (or that are happening now) – things like Hotmail, Paypal, Airbnb, Uber vs. Lyft, Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood, etc. – you know these Growth Hacks were 100% driven by a “play to win” mentality.

Perhaps they bordered on (or crossed into) “making illegal throws” territory, but they were 100% playing to win. I can’t think of a company that ever made history (or a ton of money) simply playing not to lose.

5. Don’t Reach too far

In Dodgeball, a quick way to get eliminated is to reach for a ball that’s heading your way. Whether you have a ball in your hands and you’re wanting to deflect or you’re trying to catch a ball that’s flying near you, you have to understand your surroundings and be aware of where you are in relation to the ball.

If the ball is too far away, you may reach and miss, exposing yourself to a follow-up shot from the other side. Or, as I did, if you reach to catch the ball and it’s too far away, you may deflect the ball with your hand instead of catching it (cue my older brother when we’d play catch saying “if you can touch it you can catch it” when I was little) causing you to be eliminated.

In Growth Hacking, this idea of not over-reaching is super-important. You want to have a very specific goal (what growth are you hacking) and be clear on the tactics to execute on that goal. You need to be laser focused and not trying scatter shot tactics to reach a wider audience.

Growth Hacking isn’t brand marketing. It isn’t casting a wide net. It’s about being targeted, focused, and specific. As soon as you reach too far, you’ll take your eye off the ball and either not get the results you want, miss a competitor coming in and disrupting your plans,… or both.

Okay… here are some things that you should do.

6. Do Deflect Your Opponent’s Shots

In Dodgeball, the goal is to take out your opponents. To do this, you must avoid being hit. A great tactic is to catch a ball, and then use that ball to deflect the other balls that are being thrown at you with that ball so that your teammates can pick up the balls and retaliate. Then, once your opponents are out of ammo and your team has all the balls… you take the ball you were deflecting with and join your teammates to go on the offense. Simple, but effective.

In Growth Hacking, most of the time we’re being offensive… proactively going after new customers, users, revenue, leads, etc. Whatever the growth you’re hacking is, that’s what you focus on. But, sometimes you don’t get to do that without running into another company in your space doing the same thing.

In fact, you may find your competition “making illegal throws” that you have to deal with. They may be spreading rumors, telling lies, using other nefarious techniques to poach your users/customers, etc. How do you deal with that while continuing to move offensively toward your goals?

You have to deflect your opponents. In Growth Hacking (this is really a higher-level business/marketing issue, but still) you have to take the situation you’re presented with and get creative to combat these tactics; it’s a bit more complex than what you do in Dodgeball.

But it’s possible to incorporate that deflection into your proactive Growth Hacking – for instance surfacing the nefarious acts of your competition through 3rd party sources and perhaps not even addressing it directly – and to continue the momentum rather than falling into the trap of defending yourself. This is a topic for an article all on its own!

7. Do Try New Things

In Dodgeball, you have to try things if you want to get better and, frankly, if you want to have fun. For instance, I realized that to save energy – remember, we were on trampolines – I would stop bouncing so much. It worked, and it also allowed me to react faster to balls being thrown at me.

But then I decided to change tactics and bounced really high… and was the first to be eliminated that round! But I tried something. Sure, it didn’t work, but all I had to do was wait until the next round, and then I didn’t do it again… and I stayed in and got to play much longer.

In Growth Hacking, this “try things” mentality is absolutely critical. But you have to be know that not everything you try will work (first you have to be absolutely clear on what “work” means) and you have to be comfortable with this. You often hear that organizations where Growth Hacking works have a primary focus on Growth. Yeah. Obviously. What companies don’t want to grow? (Probably those that play to not lose)

No, the real secret to making Growth Hacking work is having an organization that encourages experimentation and is okay with hypothesis being false (or, said another way, failure). You have to have a culture that encourages and supports trying new things (but not wild, scatter-shot, see-what-sticks randomness) if you want to take advantage of the Growth Hacking mindset.

Trying to fit Growth Hacking into an environment where you play to not lose (or where loss aversion runs rampant) is a recipe for, well, Growth Hacking not working.

8. Do Be Observant

In Dodgeball it is easy to get overwhelmed by, well, a bunch of people throwing balls at you. But if you kind of soften your gaze and don’t look at anyone in particular, but look at all the players, you start to see the balls being thrown almost in slow motion.

It becomes easy, actually, to just move out of the way. The less you panic about getting hit, the less you stare down one person with one ball aimed at you, the more likely you are to not get hit by three other balls flying at you.

In Growth Hacking thoughtful observation is one of the foundational skills. Period. From observing user behavior to exposing organic network effects to exploit, and from surfacing opportunities in different market segments to identifying the best tactics to leverage in a given scenario, without proper observation before you even get started, you’ll waste a lot of time and miss a lot of amazing opportunities.

9. Do Change the Rules As You Go

Guess what? Dodgeball isn’t a real sport. Or, I don’t know… I guess it might be – it actually exists – but there’s not a governing body that regulates Dodgeball and sets the rules under which we must abide. It’s just a game. It’s just something to do for fun. Whatever “rules” exist can be changed. The generally accepted rule around catching a ball thrown at you is that the person who threw it is eliminated.

Sometimes the team that caught the ball can have one of their previously-eliminated players return to the game. Or maybe you don’t want catches to work like that. So change the rules… whatever works for your situation.

The reality around Growth Hacking is that, even though it’s been around for a few years now and everyone is – or has been at some point in the past – a Growth Hacker… there aren’t any actual rules. In fact, to me, the only rule in Growth Hacking is “no head shots” … don’t make illegal throws. Don’t break the law or be unethical (probably both!). That’s it.

So all of the other “rules” around Growth Hacking can be changed, by you, at any given time, on whatever whim you wish. And they should be changed… constantly.

10. Do Have Fun

Dodgeball is just a game – especially when played on trampolines – that should be fun. If it’s not fun, don’t play. Simple.
Growth Hacking is generally not just a game. In fact, Growth Hacking can be tedious, time-and-brain-power-consuming. Growth Hacking can be the end-all-be-all for your business. Growth Hacking can (and probably will be) hard. And to get the results you want will be super-hard. But it should be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing something wrong.

Examine why it’s not fun. Are you not getting the results you want? Don’t get upset… re-evaluate why that is. Add more granular key results and/or time intervals to look at those results that you can use to gauge progress and react/pivot/stop sooner; before it gets not fun. Life is too short (or too long… depends on how you look at things, I guess) to do things that aren’t fun.

I had an awesome time playing Trampoline Dodgeball, and this was just one example of the great culture at Gainsight… we work hard and we play hard.

And it turns out, I was able to take a simple game of Trampoline Dodgeball into a post about Growth Hacking. That is also a lesson of some sort.

About Lincoln Murphy

I am a world-renowned Growth Architect, Consultant, Author, and Keynote Speaker and have helped drive exponential growth across the entire customer lifecycle for more than 1000 companies worldwide I wrote the Customer Success book which you can buy at Amazon. If you need help growing your company or would like me to speak at your event, please contact me. Also, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.