First, an explanation:
Growth Hacking was coined in 2010 and had this literal meaning: "a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth" That quickly changed to: "a highly resourceful and creative marketer singularly focused on high leverage growth".
If that was all it meant, I would have absolutely no issue with the term. Growing your business, being creative and scale are all things I would consider positive parts of marketing.
Growth hacking is mainly done by start ups because it offers the promise of scale and growth but with little starting capital. If you can be creative and out think your competition you can excel.
Again, this is another positive, giving startups a tool to grow when they are lacking the funds to do it through traditional methods.
The main problem is the goal
Generally, growth hacking ideas are built to expand vertically with no real control. Ideas like referral offers, cross posting to steal traffic (such as AirBnB did | [Archive.org link in case of linkrot]) and more. These are automated growth machines that basically get companies millions of impressions and hopefully more users.
While this has worked in the past (eg. you all know the name AirBNB for a reason) they worked in very specific circumstances: companies with broad appeal that could really count basically anyone as a customer.
The issue? Those companies are rare (at least the ones that succeed are). The most commonly successful startups generally have a much more specific audience they need. This boils down to my main principle: startups are better off marketing to a tiny group of just the right people rather than trying to blast the world from orbit with their messaging.
When you go all evil scientist with the world blasting method you come up with you may get lucky and get just the right customers but there's also a likelihood of getting a whole bunch of customers or users that aren't right for you: maybe they have a higher cost than return, maybe they aren't evangelists, maybe they just stick to your free tier forever.
This means you spent a huge amount of energy and time (because that's what you traded for actually spending money) and may be worse off than when you started. I guess you learned a lesson and maybe even found ways to improve your product but you certainly didn't grow.
Okay smartypants, how do I grow?
You can still be creative, I promise. It's just that instead of focusing on growth overall you need to focus on better understanding who your PERFECT customer is. This means not only knowing your customers but knowing what about your BEST customers is unique to them.
Once you really understand exactly who you want to be your customer you can then hyper target others that are exactly like them.
One easy way to do this is using Google Analytics and building an audience based on LTV. Then push this to Adwords and the like and let them create a lookalike audience. Use that audience for your top of funnel and then remarket the hell out of those that do click.
That's just an overly simplified example but you can see what I'm getting at here:
Understand the exact segment you want to target and get creative with getting in front of that exact segment.
Put down the ion cannon - it's not the right tool for this job, go for the scalpel.