Four Definitive Real-World Examples Of Growth Hacking

Gary Green
Gary Green
December 28, 2021

There are some seriously impressive examples of growth hacking out there, executed by some leading organizations. Here, we take a closer look at four definitive examples to see what these companies did right.


It’s fair to say that our first example, Hotmail, is pretty old. Dating all the way back to 1996, Hotmail was founded by Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia and it was a surprisingly pioneering service at that time. It offered users their own email account along with 2MB of space free of charge. To put that in context, a regular floppy disc – one of the mid-90’s main storage mediums – only offered 1.5MB of storage.

Within 18 months, Hotmail had over 12,000,000 subscribers – pretty impressive when you consider that there were only around 70,000,000 internet users in total at that time. The big question is how Hotmail managed to accrue that number of users?

The answer lies in every email’s signature in which a message appeared with a link. This signature was shown at the bottom of each Hotmail email and this turned each and every user into a brand ambassador. This led to Hotmail acquiring three thousand new users every day, and by December 1997 it had been sold to Microsoft for $400 million.

What can we learn from this growth hacking example? Word of mouth represents the centre-point of referral marketing, but when that word of mouth is automated, that’s even better.


During the mid-2000s, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, the founders of Airbnb, decided to do something about the high costs of staying in accommodation in San Francisco. Inspired by traditional B&Bs, they put down an air mattress in their own living room and allowed anybody who needed somewhere to stay to rent it out.

After making their own website to advertise what they had to offer, their project began to gain traction and in  2009, they were the recipient of a Y Combinator investment. To find a way to grow their business, they began to combine PR with word of mouth and began going to tech events where they could connect with a target audience. They also improved the photograph listings on their site.

A year later, they found ways of leveraging Craigslist – the top leasing and subletting website at that time. Airbnb offered anybody submitting their rental on the Airbnb platform the opportunity to post the listing on Craigslist too. In that listing, there would be a link redirecting the user back to Airbnb’s original posting.

Furthermore, Airbnb began scraping Craigslist.com, sending emails to every user seeking to rent out a place asking them if they would add their listing on the Airbnb platform since it would boost their opportunities to find a tenant.

What can be learned from Airbnb’s growth hack? Innovation and creativity are key. Stealing the audience of your competitor while also reverse-engineering an API is a great solution.


Interestingly, Pinterest stands out from the growth hacking crowd in the fact that its early users weren’t media-related or tech-savvy. Actually, it started life in Iowa, in the founder’s hometown of Des Moines.

The locals there were interested in handcrafting hobbies and with word-of-mouth being natural in such a tight-knit local community, when Pinterest was sent out by email, they were the first ones to open the mail and adopt it.

A few months later, once the first three thousand users had been obtained, the Pinterest founder, Ben Silbermann, began to arrange meet-ups at boutiques in the local area where he would hand out invites to Pinterest in person. Then came the clever growth hack – launching an open invite-only beta. These certainly weren’t the norm back then and it was this exclusivity that made Pinterest such a success.

New users were able to request their own invitation and this made them feel part of the exclusive club. Furthermore, an additional growth hack involved the “sign up using Facebook” option which was relatively new at that time and which made registering for the site simple.

He also launched a “pin it forward” campaign in partnership with Victoria Smith, a popular female blogger. She, in turn, collaborated with 300 more female bloggers allowing Pinterest to reach whole communities through targeting of their leaders and turning them into ambassadors.

The takeaway from this growth hack is that gaining the involvement of community leaders paired with word-of-mouth can make an enormous difference.


The owner and founder of Shutterstock, Jon Oringer, had already established a number of other startups before setting up the digital image website. At that time, during the early 2000s, the only option that people had when finding and using commercial images was to personally contact people for copyright permission or to pay $500. Browsing for a digital image and legally purchasing it was non-existent. That was the gap in the market that Oringer sought to fill.

After buying a digital camera, he went out to take his own photos. After six months, and after having taking 100,000 images himself, he chose 30,000 before putting them on the website. Next, he introduced a subscription model with unlimited images available for purchase from just $49 per month.

When the company’s popularity grew, Oringer decided to stop taking photographs himself and hand the job over to other photographers. To this end, he made a system through which professional photographers were able to upload images and get 25% of the revenue generated by the downloads their images received.

The next step was a la carte pricing. By introducing an On-Demand service, daily download limits for images were removed and anybody could choose to pay per download, with prices beginning at $4 for a smaller size image up to $10 for the biggest images. By the time Shutterstock launched itself on the stock market, it had more than 18,000,000 stock royalty-free images for users to choose from.

The takeaway from this growth hack is simple – find a major unsatisfied demand then come up with the perfect solution to it!

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