Just evil enough to scale: How to capture attention

Editor’s Note: Startupfest 2018 had plenty of world-class content, but this talk was my favorite. Alistair is the co-author of Lean Analytics, along with Ben Yoskovitz who we interviewed here.

This article is a teaser of Alistair’s “Just Evil Enough” talk. To get the full experience, hire him to speak at your next event: click here.

A common mistake among entrepreneurs is that building a good product is good enough. They think that if you build it, customers will come knocking at your door. Even perfect product-market fit isn’t enough. The truth is, sometimes it’s more about making people care about your product than how good it is. You can have the most sophisticated product in the world that meets people’s exact needs, but if you don’t have their attention, you don’t have a customer. And this is doubly true in our attention economy.

To get people’s attention in 2018, most people pull from the Growth Hacking bible of disjointed tactics found all over the internet. The problem with using “tried and tested hacks” is that by the time they’re published, they don’t work anymore. There is a negative feedback loop. When a tactic works well, other people find out about it and use it. Eventually, the tactic stops working. Either because the channel (e.g. facebook) updated its algorithm so as not to be vulnerable to the tactic. Or because people have adapted to it and it doesn’t grab their attention anymore. (e.g. clickbaity headlines like “You won’t believe how well these 9 shocking clickbaits work! (number 8 is a killer!)”)

This is very similar to how the natural resource discovery cycle works. You discover a new deposit of oil, you exploit it until it’s all gone, and then you have to look for another deposit or find a substitute for oil. Rinse, repeat.

If you want growth, your job is to systematically discover new deposits of oil.

Alistair Croll proposes that every platform intends you to use it a certain way. Every social media channel benefits when you use it the way it intends you to.

But if you want to capture disproportionate amounts of people’s attention, you need to subvert the channel. Hack the market. Seek and exploit weaknesses in the system that afford you borderline unreasonable amounts of attention.


Guiding principle: Look for zero-day growth exploits

Alistair calls these kinks in the system zero-day growth exploits. It is the fundamental principle that guides the following tactic. (Editor’s Note: Alistair shared many more tactics including: creating a product that aligns with your sales funnel, making your product mandatory, and making the future happen sooner. But you’ll have to get him in-person for that: click here to make that happen)


Tactic: Position right

Many use an orthogonal chart to show people how their startup is different. Your job is to ensure that the dimension on which you’re different from your competitors actually matters to your customers. If no one cares, you’ll go extinct. A great side-effect of positioning yourself correctly is that it re-positions your competitors.

It’s also important that you take firm control of your positioning from the start. If your startup seems vaguely positioned, the market will do it for you and that rarely ends well. If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.

One of the reasons for Tesla’s success is that it didn’t focus its efforts on positioning itself as an environmentally friendly car. The customers that Elon Musk wanted as first adopters were not the types that resonate with the messaging that a Prius has. So he zagged where others zigged. He positioned Tesla as a PERFORMANCE car company. It turns out that the people that can afford a Model S prefer that. Because that positioning is aligned with the story that they tell themselves about who they are.

Imagine an alternate universe where the Model S was positioned as a family-friendly, earth-friendly car for tree-huggers.

How far would Tesla have gotten? How many people that could afford a Model S would get one?

And yet in this universe, they sold like hotcakes. Same product, different story. And what is a story?

It’s a shared illusion that subverts human rationality, influencing people much more powerfully than a set of facts and logic.

Is that evil?


But you can slide around on the spectrum of the moral means-to-ends ratio without having to sell your whole soul.

Alistair proposes the questions:

Do you care too much about what others think?

Is that getting in the way of your startup’s success?

Have you considered becoming a little more evil in order to grow?

For more evil tactics, hire Alistair Croll to speak at your next event – just click here.
Mo Akif

Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Dobson Chronicles. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.