How to Design Growth: Growth Hacking 101 at Seedcamp in Rome

Introduction: this presentation was performed on the 5th of June 2014, at Seedcamp in Rome. I want to thank Seedcamp, the organisation, Nicola Mattina, Giuliano Iacobelli, Carlos Espinal and my company, Automattic, for giving me the opportunity to speak in front of such a great audience.

Growth Hacking 101

Good afternoon! My name is Luca Sartoni, I work at Automattic, the company behind and many other products and today I’m gonna introduce you to Growth Hacking.

How many of you are from Rome, the eternal city? A couple of hours from here there is a lovely town called Assisi, where many many years ago San Francis used to shock the system with his unorthodox approach to religion.

Many of you, know this prayer, attributed to him:

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

How many of you knew this prayer before?

So, it turned out that this prayer was mistakenly attributed to San Francis, while in reality it was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, an american theologist about 700 years after.

You know, Abraham Lincoln was right when he said:

“The problem with quotes found on the internet is you have no way of confirming their authenticity.”

If the Internet tricks us on simple attribution of quotes, how can we make good decisions as entrepreneurs?
How can we focus on what matters and make the right choices if we don’t know what is right and what is wrong?

How many of you are entrepreneurs? How many of you have a startup?

So I have a question for you: what is a startup?

Paul Graham, Co-founder of Y-combinator seed capital firm defined a startup as a company designed to grow fast.

How to design growth


There are things that we can’t control. We have to deal with it. I know that it’s difficult to accept it as a fact, but this is how reality works. We cannot change how people behave, how people nurture and cultivate their interests, how they interact with devices and interfaces. Of course we can come up with interesting elements of design, we can dramatically change people’s life. Just imagine how Apple impacted our world since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. But they just didn’t show up one day out of the blue. There were years of research and development, a strong vision and hard work.

In a single sentence: “Growth is a matter of culture”.


So first element for a strong growth by design is education. Hire diversity and focus on all the abilities that as a technical team probably you lack of.

At WordPress we say: “code is poetry”. That wants to be an inclusive statement. Everybody should be included in your developmentm process. Every single diverse input is precious and you cannot even imagine to start a global project if you don’t have those elements of contamination in your company’s DNA.

Hire anthropologists, philosophers, artists. Give them a technical platform and education. Teach them code, let them contaminate your company and you’ll have much more chances to succeed. You cannot a afford to have an solid technology company if you just rely on pure technology, you need people to resonate with other people.

Make sure that everybody understands how growth is relevant to their sigle contribution to the company and how they can deliver a better product.

A common misconception is that growth is all about user acquisition or all about revenues. This is dead wrong. It depends and it’s a case to case deal. There are projects that make sense to focus on acquisition only, other project are focused on revenues, other on more strategical indicators. This is something you need to define and then be honest to yourself.

If you jump from one metric to the other depending on what is good this week, you are not going very far. It can work for a few months but it’s not gonna work on the long run. Be honest with yourself and define your key metrics. They can change, but only as a result of a pivoting, not as a consequence of the weekly performance report.

In order to design your growth you need a scientific approach, contaminated with all the possible diversity you can. But the core of your approach needs to be mainly scientific.

Which tools we can borrow from science and apply to growth?


Let’s have a look at three must-have tools for growth: A/B tests, usability tests and sliding windows.

How many of you are familiar with A/B tests? Very simple: given a population, we randomly assign them to groups (bucketing) and we try different design elements or flows according to the groups they belong to. We analyse the results and we determine which element or flow worked best.

There is an entire universe behind A/B testing, and there are many cognitive traps you can fall into. So please study and improve your A/B testing processes. But let me give you three quick tips on how to avoid the classic mistakes: seasonality, meaningful measurement of impact, micro optimisation fallacy.

Weekly seasonality: it does not matter how much traffic you have, people on monday afternoon behave differently than on thursday morning. I always run tests for a week, at least. This helps me to have more complete sample of the population and helps to reach the statistical significance.

Meaningful measurement of impact: let’s say you have a complete marketing funnel like this, from awareness to revenues. Let’s say you run a test on the signup interface in order to increase activation. If your test involves a specific point of the funnel, use a relevant metric within the same segment of the funnel. If you measure revenues, for instance, there is a high chance to have meaningless results because many other variables are able to influence that metric.

Micro optimisation fallacy: this is a tricky one because it is a direct consequence of the previous step. If you do it right measuring within the same step of the funnel, there is a good chance that one day or the other you fall into this fallacy. This happens when you reach points of relative optimisation and you don’t realise that there are better opportunities just because you have a short sight. How to overcome this? Strong vision, bold decisions and experience.

Usability tests are big helpers on this. Are you familiar with usability tests?

They are easy to explain, very difficult to perform correctly.

You simply take real people and you ask them to try out your product. You ask them to perform key tasks and you study how they behave. Is sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not THAT simple but with a few tips you can get good results from the very first test.

Usability tests help you to find roadblocks and major fails. So, when it’s the right time to run usability tests?

When your site is ready for going live? NO
When your producs is almost ready for shipping? NO
When you MVP is almost ready? NO

The sooner the better! Ask people to try out stuff as soon as you have the idea. Ask them what they think of it. Gather costructive criticism as soon as you can.

As soon as you have a piece of interface, let them go through it, and keep looking where they get stuck. And then ask them why they got stuck.

The big advice I want to give you here is: don’t listen to them when they tell you how it should be done. I know, it sounds awkward but it’s true. If they were able to make it better, they probably would have made it better before you. They are not your engineers, they are your testers, so listen to them carefully about the problems they had, but most of the time their solutions are simply not good enough and they are not the right people for that.

Judge them by facts, not by their words. So if they say that something was easy to perform, don’t trust them. Measure how much time they spent on it and compare it with other people’s performances. When they find a major roadblock or say that something is broken, ask them questions to understand why they find it broken, not on how to fix it.

The third and last tool it’s important to know it’s very trivial. But very tricky at the same time: sliding windows.
Always compare metrics on a 28 days basis. This way you always include 4 weeks of data, you don’t have longer and shorter months and the comparison is always normalised.

Just to wrap up, let’s have a look at the serenity prayer, with a modern growth twist:

“Grant me the ability to adapt to the things I cannot change,
the culture to change the things I can,
and the right tools to know the difference.”

Thank you very much, if you have any question, drop a comment.

3 cognitive biases you should be aware of

Confirmation bias

I’ve seen confirmation bias kicking in many times, especially when dealing with black box problems. SEO for instance is a well developed topic and you can find many established practices nevertheless some areas of SEO are still empiric. The fact that Google does not disclose the entire algorithm behind the ranking and changes that algorithm on a regular basis creates grey area of action that from one side makes many SEO Gurus extremely profitable and on the other end takes people into thinking that there is some magic involved.

This establishes the ground for irrational practices based on Confirmation Bias. We tend to believe that a strategy we are developing is the right one and then we tend to believe that the results we get are directly connected to our strategy, if positive, depending on something else, if negative. Then we tend to ignore the negatives and just focus on the positives. False success is reached! Hurray!

The sunk cost fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is the irrational tendency to focus on something we already lost and cannot be recovered rather then focus on the future opportunities. It’s deeply coded in our brain because in the evolutionary journey it helped our genes to survive the adversities. Unfortunately it easily becomes a burden in a very unpredictable and fast changing environment like the online business.

We are victims of the sunk cost fallacy every time we decide to stick to a loosing strategy just because we got used to it or we already spend large part of our budget into it. When we care more about what we lost in the past rather than on what we can gain in the future we are throwing away opportunities.

The anchoring effect

Rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment, we tend to compare the options and use that comparison as the decisive element. A very good example of this bias is the following:

Dan Ariely conducted an experiment based on a real subscription model by The Economist.

There were three different options:

  1. web only subscription: 59$
  2. paper only subscription : 125$
  3. web + paper subscription: 125$

16% of the people selected option 1, 0% option 2 and 84% option 3.
As soon as option 2 was ditched, and only option 1 and option 3 were available, the discribution changed and the vast majority opted for option 1.


These are not the only cognitive biases we have to pay attention to. Wikipedia has a huge list of biases that affect decision making and a little exploration of that list is a great investment. Knowing that our decisions can be biased and learning how to avoid such effects can dramatically improve the quality of our strategies.

Image by XKCD

The Humble Bundle: an indie game success story

A few days ago I came across this blogpost and despite it was about videogames (usually not my main interest) I wanted to take a further look into it.

It revealed to be a very interesting examples how a new software distribution model is possibile. The main ingredient of success are: pay what you want, DRM free software, support charity and let’s add direct contact with the developers. They have already sold 107K bundles so far, and they got more than 500K$ in revenues. A very brilliant result!

I wanted to take part of the experience and I bought a bundle for 25$. At the moment I’m only playing “Trine”, the first game of the bundle and I like it very much. Money well spent!

Have a look here for mor infos:

Open letter to an event organizer

leweb 2010 day two

A consistent part of my job is to attend events and quite often I’m invited to be on stage. I typically attend conferences, seminars, workshops, most of them are about tech, online business, startups and Internet culture. Maybe in the next months I will attend one of your events, so I just want to help you to avoid some common mistake.

At home I have a big box where I collect all the conference badges. I bet I have more than 200 of them, collected in the last three years. I would love to have great memories about your event when I put your badge in my favorite box.

There are several common mistakes that event organizers commit very often and I hope to offer my suggestions with this post, for the upcoming event you’re organizing.

I organized some events in the past and I committed some of these mistakes. Only now, with more experience I can say they were avoidable but when you are working hard for your event is not very easy to see these issues. For this reason I don’t want this post to be taken as a personal critique of any of the recent events I have attended.

I also know I cannot explore the entire spectrum of event mistakes, so I’m going to limit my scope on the worst 5 errors I encountered in my career. If I’m able to help others avoid these mistakes, I would be very satisfied.

Mistake 5 – Business Model

There is nothing wrong in organizing events to make a living. The best events in the world, such as concerts and art expositions have profit as the main purpose. So why try to hide it? You are organizing the event because of the money. Don’t be worried to say that openly.

Don’t be shy to say that you get money from sponsors. Don’t hesitate to charge for tickets. Just be fair and transparent. You cannot charge thousands of dollars on a single ticket and get dozens of volunteers to work on the conference because you’re promoting culture. It’s stupid and it doesn’t work in the long-term. You want volunteers? fine! publish your figures…

So please, don’t pretend you are doing that for free. It’s not the LiveAid, it’s a tech conference. You are not saving the rainforest, you are gathering a bunch of geeks in a room to do business, to show off their new iPhones and get badges on Foursquare. Of course if you ask them for money you have to provide value back. And guess what, if I pay 10 I want 15 back.

So… let’s discuss value

Mistake 4 – No value, no party

As I said before, if I give you 10 in cash I want 15 back in some sort of value. The kind of value is up to you. You can give me a unique opportunity to meet a guru. You can provide me with the best networking opportunity to meet new business partner. You can give me the best content, in terms of speakers and topics. But you cannot think that I would spend any money just to have a t-shirt, a badge, a huge bag of press material, a half ton of merchandise, a cool pencil, a few gadgets and my name on the guest list. We are not kids and not even kids like to go clubbing if there is no music, no girls, no guys and no beer.

So, please, think about the value you are providing me. It’s not about the gadgets, it’s not about the food. It’s about the people I meet, the content I get and how comfortable the venue is when I’m doing my business.

If it’s a show, make it fun. Real fun. If there’s a networking area, make it quiet and relaxed. Wi-Fi is welcome but we can live even without it, if on stage the right people are there.

Mistake 3 – People on stage

Don’t put idiots on stage. Especially if they are sponsors of the event itself. Wanna know why? because if the event is crap, I will blame you as the organizer and not the sponsor who bored me to death from the pitch.

Are you getting money from the sponsors? good, but don’t allow them to take over your job. Let them to put their names on billboards, on the ticket, even on the toilet paper if they want. But the event is yours, not theirs. Don’t give them access to the stage, unless you are super sure they are excellent speakers and they provide value to the audience.

Always respect the audience, they are your key value.

Mistake 2 – Respect the audience

Have a clear and easy to access agenda. Ask the speakers to strictly respect their time slot. Start on time and follow the schedule. Have an efficient way to inform your audience if there’s been any change in the program. Give them the chance to relax, with frequent breaks.

If you provide real-time feedback, like a twitter wall, you have to be ready to hear the criticism. Sometimes really bad criticism. You need to have an event manager to take care of the issues. If they shout that the toilet paper is gone, the solution is to provide more, not to shut down the twitter wall and to introduce moderation.

At the same time don’t let this real-time feedback to impact your event too much. Don’t let the presenter spend all his time reading tweets. He’s there to present, not to follow the twitter stream. Provide him a stage assistant, who reads the tweets and listens to the audience, in order to react quickly. Don’t mess up the roles.

Mistake 1 – The roles

If you are sick, and you go to the hospital, would you be happy if the doctor is more worried about what you say on twitter about the hospital rather than find you the better solution for your medical issue?

So, define clear roles. You are the organizer, and so you have to organize, not to be the star on stage. If you suck on stage, you suck on stage even if the event is yours. Don’t waste 15 minutes to say how cool your organization is and how many people are in the room and blah blah. Wanna be the one that opens the event? fine. Go on stage, say “thank you for being here, enjoy the event” and get off the stage. Your job is something else. Get out.

The speakers need to be “speakers” and not “influential people with cool job position in cool companies”. Nobody cares about your job title if you suck on stage. And then the event is crap. Get the best speaker and give them the opportunity to be well briefed about the audience, the kind of event, the demographics, the key messages of the event, the kind of speech they have to give.

Please ban the discussion panels. They suck all the time. They are usually an overcrowded group of people, who have never met each other before, too polite to disagree on anything, totally unprepared on the topic, not because they are not experts but because when a topic is very defined there is no discussion and if the topic is too broad no one cares!

Conversational interviews with good presenters, Ignite Talks, Pitches, keynote speeches are way better. And if you have the right people on stage, your event will rock!

A few more details

If you produce videos, pay attention to the audio. If you provide food, get the best food. Always provide water. Lots of water. If people provide you feedback, say “thank you” and shut up. Don’t address criticism on the same day. You are working and you are busy. You will have the time to think about criticism next week when debriefing with your staff.


Even when your event is free, people are giving you their time. Make them happy. Work hard and constantly try to improve. That’s your mission!

Yours sincerely,
“a serial conference addict”

PS: again, ban the discussion panels. Seriously, do it!

Picture from Leweb10 (the best tech event in Europe) taken by Teymur

Enterprise Social 2.0 – Brussels 8, 9 march 2011

enterprise social 2.0

One of the best conference i attended last year was Enterprise Social 2.0 organized by KGS Global. This march, on the 8th and 9th will take place the second edition, in Brussels, Belgium.

Of course i will be there and i strongly recommend to have a look at the speaker’s lineup, it’s really awesome!

See you in Brussels!

Here more infos and registration.

A scanso di equivoci

Ho inviato un centinaio di email in cui invito altrettanti amici a raggiungermi su Xing.
Non mi sono bevuto il cervello e non è stato Xing a farlo a mia insaputa.
Alcuni, come Gianluca, mi hanno chiesto se il corpo del messaggio fosse “testo standard” oppure di mio pugno. Ovviamente era testo standard perchè sugli inviti massivi non potevo scriverlo io, ma tutto sommato è vero che su Xing mi trovo bene, altrimenti non avrei passato la voce.

Se vi interessa dateci un occhio perchè RBC lentamente si sta organizzando per abbracciare sempre più strettamente la piattaforma teutonica di Business Social Network.

Se volete iscrivervi potete farlo da questo link e diventare direttamente miei contatti.

Se volete iscrivervi a Romagna Business Club su Xing, questo è il link diretto.

Warm Water Discovery – La stampa è marcia

Come molti di voi sapranno da qualche settimana mi sto dedicando al Romagna Business Club, il mio nuovo progetto molto social e molto business sul territorio romagnolo.
Qualche giorno fa ho organizzato una conferenza stampa durante la quale abbiamo esposto le finalità del nostro progetto ai giornalisti e a coloro che ci hanno raggiunto fisicamente o in streaming.
Ieri, sono stato contattato da una concessionaria pubblicitaria che mi ha proposto una serie di inserzioni sulla stampa locale e regionale. Al telefono mi hanno elencato le modalità di inserzione e le possibilità offerte. Ad un certo punto è stato sottolineato con enfasi come l’acquisto di pubblicità sulle loro testate avrebbe direttamente dato accesso al supporto redazionale.

In pratica se io compro pubblicità le testate inizieranno a scrivere di me.

Non pago di queste affermazioni telefoniche ho chiesto al mio interlocutore di formalizzare un’offerta economica in modo da poterla valutare con attenzione. Persino nell’offerta economica è scritto:

La informo inoltre che in caso di adesione è possibile usufruire anche di un articolo redazionale a voi dedicato (a discrezione comunque della nostra redazione e senza nessun ulteriore impegno economico), in forma di Intervista Telefonica o a mezzo Comunicato Stampa.

Io non mi scandalizzo, perchè lo so che funziona in questo modo, semplicemente non userò questo canale perchè per il momento non posso permettermelo e perchè sinceramente mi fa schifo. Ma più per la prima ragione che per la seconda.

Di sicuro manderò a quel paese qualunque altra discussione sulla purezza dei blogger. Non rompetemi mai più le scatole con Clarita che prova uno spazzolino o con la telesvendita della blogosfera fatta PTWG. Son cazzate e basta.

Romagna Business Club – un nuovo progetto

In questi giorni ho avuto il piacere di lanciare un nuovo progetto che sta impegnando gran parte delle mie giornate.
Il Romagna Business Club ha avuto origine circa sei mesi fa, quando Giorgio Minguzzi ha fondato il gruppo su Linkedin, realizzando anche sul suolo romagnolo quello che già stava già avvenendo nelle altre città italiane.

Gruppi di professionisti ed imprenditori che decidono di aggregarsi su scala geografica locale per applicare i benefici del reciproco scambio di informazioni e conoscenze. L’effetto rete applicato al contesto locale.

Dopo aver promosso un paio di incontri e un convegno, ho deciso di dedicare tempo e lavoro al Romagna Business Club, concordando con Giorgio le finalità e gli obiettivi di questo gruppo.

Ho così messo in piedi il sito web, il blog, la newsletter, il gruppo di discussione e ho portato il progetto anche su Facebook e su Twitter.

Con la speranza di portare beneficio all’area geografica in cui vivo e lavoro, mi auguro che questo genere di iniziative possano piacere a più gente possibile.

Sono graditi consigli, suggerimenti, segnalazioni, critiche.