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One More Thing

Help, I’ve been Growth-hacked!

What are the repercussions of engineering rapid success at any cost? Just messing with people’s lives, that’s all.

Help, I’ve been Growth-hacked!

[Illustration by Stan Chow]

The app was called Have It All. It promised smarter contacts, calendar, messaging, news— basically a smarter life. Imagine having a personal assistant that never sleeps, saves you time, money, and stress—and doesn't require food. That's how they sold it. Facebook told me 27 friends wanted me to try it. The last time 27 of my friends agreed on anything, the United States elected its first black president. I figured I would trust them with an app recommendation.

Upon first launch, I tapped through the various requests for access to my email, calendar, and social media accounts. Installing apps has become so routine, I wasn't suspicious. How could this app manage my life without access to it? Then the app prompted me to invite friends. "Like life itself, Have It All is better with friends. Do you want to avoid not inviting friends to have it all?" I didn't quite understand what that meant, so I clicked what looked like the skip button and was told to "Wait while Have It All optimizes your digital life and rocks your world!"

My world was rocked, all right. Over the next few hours, it became clear the app had sent a text to every single one of the 3,746 people in my address book saying, "I have some big news to share about my life. See what I'm talking about!" and a link to download Have It All. And it emailed everyone I've ever interacted with via Gmail a note saying, "Fire your personal assistant. Join me, and Have It All!"

In a twisted way, Have It All did simplify my life: I now have no friends. The investors I was courting have gone silent. They didn't like being invited to Have It All three times a day for a week, probably because they're venture capitalists and already actually have it all. Now that my smartphone, once my trusted companion, had become a torture device, I am more inclined to leave it off. My Google account was suspended for "suspicious activities." Mashable called me "The Most Annoying Person Online." My face is even on a billboard in Uganda above a message pleading, SOME-ONE PLEASE HELP ME. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO INTERNET.

The above scenario didn't happen exactly like this (though some office-supply company did use my face in a Ugandan billboard ad), but when an app spammed all my contacts, it sure felt as if being personally and professionally ruined was going to be the inevitable result. You see, I was the victim of growth hacking.

"Growth hacking" is what happens when developers (mostly app makers) go beyond merely building in social hooks that help products go viral and instead try to force virality at the expense of the user. They indiscriminately "select all" when posting to contacts. They force you to publicly endorse the product just to get access. They send misleading messages using our names without giving us a chance to see or edit them first.

If you've done or even contemplated any of these tactics in order to achieve rapid growth, I have two words for you. Oh, I can't use those two words? Then let's just say: Stop it.

I understand that it's hard to be the one-billion-and-third item in the App Store. It's hard to satisfy growth-obsessed VCs. It's hard to get media coverage. These days, attention is our most precious natural resource. You're desperate, and your competitors might be more desperate. But you have to remember something about attention. Yes, it's possible to buy, grab, or even steal it. But it's far better to earn it.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.