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Austen Allred Growth Hacks His Way to Success

Similar to eating healthier, reading more frequently and cutting back on Netflix, becoming a tried-and-true 5am.er is one of those things that’s easier said than done …

As such, it’s often a good idea to look at someone else who’s successfully found their stride.

Austen Allred is one of those guys.

Give him a reliable laptop, a strong Wifi connection and an air mattress (it’ll soon make sense), and widespread success will soon be his next stop—crazy, right?

It’s not—keep reading to check out this 5am.er’s wild ride to the top:

Who are you? Why do you have a verified Twitter account?

I’m a startup growth person based in San Francisco, California. Currently, I work as the Senior Growth Manager for a company called LendUp. We lend money to really high-risk people with low credit scores.

It’s funny you ask that—one of the reasons I have a verified Twitter account is because I recently co-wrote a book called “Secret Sauce.” Basically, it’s a step-by-step guide to growth hacking.

It was a bestseller. We made $100,000 on it before it was even finished.

Austen Allred - Twitter

Twitter saw that and verified me.

So, what’s growth hacking?

Really, it’s just Internet marketing with a cool name. It’s finding and acquiring users online with little to no cost whatsoever—that’s how I see it, anyway.

I mean, there are certainly different definitions out there, but it’s still kind of one of those terms that people aren’t completely sold on quite yet.

It’s just Internet marketing, but made to sound super important.

How did you discover that growth hacking was your passion?

When I was 13 or 14, the Internet was pretty much just AltaVista and a host of similar programs. Back then, what we now call ‘search engine optimization’ was little more than just doing whatever it took to manipulate early search engines.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that hard to do.

From there, eBay came out. I quickly found out that eBay had a very rudimentary search engine that you could make a lot of money off of if you played it right.

To be honest, I just kind of grew from there. I’ve always stayed in the loop with this stuff.

Anyway, somewhere along the line, people started calling what I do ‘growth hacking.’ When it first came out, I wasn’t big on the term—I still don’t love it. I’ve just grown to accept it, I guess.

Why don’t you like the term ‘growth hacking’?

It’s too kitschy, you know?

Also, the people that came up with it just love what they’ve done. Like, they’re building conferences and all sorts of things around it. I don’t know—it’s just so much of a buzzword that it’s kind of annoying.

Apart from LendUp, what kinds of projects have you tackled?

The big one was Grasswire.

It was a startup I founded three or four years ago. Basically, we were trying to become the Wikipedia of the news. It was going well—we had half a million monthly visitors and we were growing really fast.

We needed to raise another round of funding and finally found a solid investor.

We had everything set up for success. Looking back, we knew we were close to running out of money, but this investor was going to close in a few short days, so we were confident.

Then, at the last minute, after we’d done our due diligence, our investor bailed. That was pretty much the end of the company. Grasswire represented years and years of my life.

How did you respond? Were tears shed?

Definitely.

It was frustrating, because I feel like if we’d been given some sort of warning, we could’ve made things right. The company didn’t die because it wasn’t growing or successful. More than anything, it fell apart because of bad timing.

This investor definitely pulled the rug out from under us, leading us on for a month and a half until we had turned everybody else down. By then, people knew who we were going with, and yeah—it was just an awful situation

It was rough, but then the plan became to go work for the fastest-growing startup I could find to get a paycheck and make a difference. After some time, I’d do my own thing again.

That’s where I’m at today.

You were homeless while starting Grasswire, right?

I was living in Provo, Utah and going to Brigham Young University—being a good little boy, going to school and doing those kinds of things. I then started working on Grasswire.

At the time, it was little more than a side project of sorts.

I was playing around with crowd-sourced verification, fact checking, news curation and all of that stuff. The idea was that, instead of getting tidbits of news from social media, you would be able to go to one place to see the most important stuff, knowing that it had already been verified

My team and I thought that we could do all of this for really cheap, which would allow people to focus on hard journalism, instead of the clickbait articles you see on BuzzFeed.

So, I built out this little side project, and it started growing faster than I’d expected.

I started talking to investors in Utah, but at the time, they just didn’t seem to understand consumer content or companies that didn’t make revenue upfront. It didn’t take long for me to decide that Silicon Valley was where I needed to be.

I only had like $1,000, though.

In Silicon Valley, it’s $1,000 for rent. So, that’s when I decided to put a small air mattress in the back of my Honda Civic. I drove out to Palo Alto and crashed in the street for three months.

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Each day I’d shower at the YMCA, work all day on my laptop and then go to sleep in my car. It didn’t really matter than I didn’t have a home, because all I would use one for was sleeping.

My car seemed to work well enough.

Where were you parking your car at night?

For the first little while, I’d just park it on a random street. People don’t really walk down the road, looking into the windows of parked cars, you know?

It worked—nobody ever noticed me. After a while, though, I started to get kind of nervous, so I’d look for a nearby church parking lot to park my car for the night.

Believe it or not, there was this one time I pulled into a park parking lot to bunk for the night. Apparently, there was a drug bust going down right when I pulled in.

The cops found me there and figured that I was involved. Needless to say, it took me some time to explain to them why I was sleeping in the back of my car.

What other kinds of obstacles have you had to overcome?

One of the things I’m always battling with is the feeling that there’s no way something will work. In my mind, if it’s going to work, why isn’t everybody already doing it?

Things just seem too easy, sometimes—there’s no way it’ll work. What I’ve found, though, is that this isn’t the case. If something seems like it will work, then it might just work.

So, yeah—self-doubt is a big one.

The other thing is the constant ‘chicken and egg’ problem with trying to feed a family, while also finding time to do interesting things—that’s probably a challenge for everybody, I’d assume.

Who do you look up to the most?

As an entrepreneur, there are a few people who are taking really big swings. They’re playing the game 10 steps ahead of everybody else. One is Elon Musk—he doesn’t need much explanation.

Ev Williams, Stewart Butterfield and the founding team of LendUp—they’re really sharp.

When we do things at LendUp, we don’t necessarily do them to find quick, short-term wins. Instead, we’re playing a very long game—I think that’s really cool.

What inspires you to be great?

It kind of depends on the project, I think.

I let the project inspire me. At LendUp, it’s knowing that if you don’t have access to credit, you’re in big trouble—that’s just the way the American financial institution is run.

If you don’t have good credit right now, there really isn’t a feasible way for you to have good credit. If you’re short on a bill, you’re just stuck with having to go see a payday lender.

Trying to make peoples’ lives better—I love it.

On the flip side of things, at Grasswire, it was knowing how important information was. There didn’t seem like there was—or is, for that matter—a good way for people to access the high-quality information that matters most.

In pretty much everything, I let the project guide my motivation.

So, what happened with you and Elon Musk on Twitter?

For me, the real story goes back quite a ways.

I’ve read about Elon Musk and studied Tesla and SpaceX like nobody else. All of this led me to learning more about finances and stock analysis. Seeing as how I work at LendUp, this made even more sense—it’s really interesting stuff.

So yeah, me and a work buddy started reading everything we could about the Warren Buffets, Charlie Mungers and Ben Grahams of the world, and how to do fundamental analysis on the current and future value of a stock.

Combining this newfound knowledge with the tech companies I personally think will be successful in the future, it’s at least somewhat possible to see what Wallstreet will undervalue.

They did it with Apple, they’re still doing it with Amazon and I think they’ll do it with Tesla, too.

Anyway, I did a great deal of analysis around what Tesla is worth and what I think it will be worth in the near future. Then, having talked to my wife about it, we decided to invest all of our money in the company.

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Together, we kind of came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything better for us to put our money in—that’s not to say that we are rich by any means. I mean, it’s certainly a risk, but it kind of got blown out of proportion, I think.

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I’m sure there are people who’ve put 100 times more money into Tesla in the past month than I did. But yeah, what Elon Musk is doing is incredibly inspiring.

At this point, if you’re doubting Elon Musk, it’s pretty irrational.

For the past 15 years, he’s called his shots, and then gone out and hit them.vSometimes he exaggerates a bit, but it’s pretty clear in my mind that Tesla is likely to become one of the best companies in the world.

I feel confident putting my money behind that.

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If I lose that money, that’s fine—I’ll make it back. Everybody was kind of freaking out because I put all of my net worth into one company, but it’s not that big of a deal—I feel good about it.

What are you doing at 5:00 am?

I’m actually the perfect person for this question.

When I was running Grasswire, my wife was a basketball coach at a local high school. I would get up with her at 4:00 am—that’s when she’d go to basketball.

At that hour, I’d start working.

Nowadays, I go to the gym at 4:00 am, and then leave the house at around 7:00 am to get to work. But yeah—I start my day bright and early. Every day, by 5:00 am, I’ve worked out, showered and am working on side projects.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Note: Though the link was already included in the body of this post, for more information about Austen, his personal story and growth hacking tips, click here to visit his personal blog.