growth_hackersWhat’s the key to incredible, mind-blowing growth for your fledging startup? Um, it’s a secret…

That’s one of the mentalities that the organizers of the Growthathon conference tried to overcome this week in San Francisco. The weeklong gathering brought together founders, developers and marketers – some of them seasoned and some newbies – to learn the art of growth hacking. About 150 wannabe growth hackers participated, and mingled amongst the teams of seven startups: FandropFamilyLeaf, ApartmentList, Carrot MobIntroCrowdtilt and Wello.

The term has been en vogue in Silicon Valley of late, now a buzzword in startup tut-tut. Essentially, a growth hacker is someone concerned with growing a startup from a uniquely marketing and product vantage point. Michael Small, chief executive of the professional contacts app Intro, a participating startup, describes growth hacking as the “convergence” of those two things. Some would less elegantly say it’s a marketer who codes. And not everyone is completely in agreement as to what it really means.

The event is the brainchild of Ken Zi Wang and Vi Tran of the startup Fandrop. That startup teamed up with the organization Hackers and Founders and prominent growth hacker Aaron Ginn to organize the event. The program started December 8th with content like talks and mentoring sessions. Then the growth hacking teams had a week to work on  hackathon-style challenges like building an infographic or assembling a public relations campaign. Prizes for projects will be awarded this Saturday.

Getting a bunch of growth hackers in a room provided the organizers with some unique insight about the community. Namely, getting someone to openly talk about an effective expansion tactic is as difficult as saying “growthathon” five times fast. One of the biggest challenges for the group in the beginning was having them allow themselves to work with other attendees, and create an environment of sharing and brainstorming. “People tend to be tight-lipped about this stuff,” says Wang. Small adds, “There is a level of trust that needs to be there for people to share and collaborate.”

This is presumably the case for all types of trade conferences, especially in a Valley culture that sometimes puts a premium on secrecy. (More recently, we can thank Steve Jobs for that). But the reticence seems to go double for an area of the startup space that’s not so defined yet – this conference is the first organized gathering of growth hackers, the organizers say. It’s also a high reward game, and a bit of a balancing act: Any innovative variation on the growth playbook is likely to gain a lot of positive attention for the individual growth hacker, but he or she might think a precious secret like that is better left safeguarded.

For the startups in attendance, it was a way to engage with – and possibly recruit — young talent while possibly trying to get to the elusive next round of funding. For the hackers, it’s also a way to build a brand and reputation. “There’s a small percentage of people who are doers and not talkers,” says Wang.

[Image courtesy Chris Halderman]