Every entrepreneur has big plans and even bigger ambitions. But here's the thing: no one starts with 100 million users from the get go. You start with a few. One of the biggest takeaway messages we’ve received from the entrepreneurs we’ve spoken to is to focus on who you have at that moment. The best way to begin is to stop thinking so big, so corporate, professional and generic. Start thinking small and personal. Hand serve your customers. Win them over. Befriend them, one by one. And don't stop until you know exactly what they want.
A great example of this is Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky. His early work was more akin to a travelling salesman travelling door to door and meeting Airbnb hosts in person. He personally took photographs of their space, and acquired the user feedback he needed to up-scale and learn where he needed to improve.
“Don't think so big” sounds like a strange thing to suggest. While we’re not saying don't have big plans and ambitions for yourself and your brand, we are saying you need to adapt to scale. As you start out, you will naturally have a smaller audience. You need to ensure loyalty and since you’re not a large corporation that people can trust from your brand reputation and name, you will have to find another way to attract and nurture loyalty. Personalisation is key today. People want to feel like more than a figure in your books. If you can't personalise their experience with you, then they’ll simply turn to someone else who will. It’s the painstaking, handcrafted labor that builds not only your foundation but your greater success. The greatest thing you can take away from this is that in order to scale, you have to first do the things that don't scale at all. It’s true that Airbnb is valued at $31 billion today but 8 years ago that was hardly the case.
In the first year and a half, Airbnb was getting 10-20 bookings a day. Since then, Brain has learned tremendously valuable lessons about winning over customers. This case study will cover the 4 lessons he’s learned to do this!
Lesson #1: Pay Passionate Attention To Your User
“It’s really hard to get even 10 people to love anything, but it's not hard if you spend a ton of time with them. If I want to make something amazing, I just spend time with you" - Brian
Early on, Joe and Brian commuted to New York from Mountain View to visit their Airbnb hosts in person. They knew the doors of all of their hosts would personally visit them and say “knock knock. Hello. Hey this is Brian, Joe. We’re the founders and we just want to meet you". That is one way that they made their initial audience feel like they had a belonging with Airbnb and that they weren't just a figure. On a large corporate scale you might not be able to do that but you should leverage the opportunity to make close relationships with your customers when you can!
When chatting with their customers and acquiring their feedback, an issue that they dealt with is when the hosts said "Hey, I don't feel comfortable with the guest. I don't know who they are". Brian and Joe thought about the solutions they could offer and suggested to have guest profiles so that the host could see who was coming and what to expect. When that idea was welcomed, they asked what kind of information specifically the hosts wanted to see. Things like photos, workplace, place of education and so forth were requested information. So that's exactly what they did and they built and designed their platform touchpoint by touchpoint. “The creation of the peer review system, customer support, all these things came from -we didn't just meet our users, we lived with them"
They used to joke that when you bought an iPhone, Steve jobs didn't come to sleep on your couch. But they did.
One pivotal experience was when they went to photograph a house and upon finishing that job they asked the host whether he had any other feedback. The host returns with a binder of notes which became their road map.
“The roadmap often exists in the minds of the users you're designing things for” - Brian
Lesson #2: Design An 11-Star Experience
“If you want to build something that's truly viral, you have to create a total mindf*ck experience that you tell everyone about. If I say ‘what can i do to make this [product] better?’
Ask your target market the question "what would it take for me to design something that you would literally tell every single person you’ve ever encountered? You start to ask these questions and it really helps you think through the problem with direction, clarity and more strategically.
“We basically took one part of our product and we extrapolated: what would a 5 start experience be? Then we went crazy"
For Airbnb a 5-star experience is could be that you knock on the door, they open the door, they let you in. Great. You're not going to tell your friend about it. You might say that you used Airbnb and it worked. That's not a big deal. So let's level up. What would a 6 star experience be?
A 6-star experience could be that you knock on the door, the host opens the door and shows you around. On the table would be a welcome gift. It would be a bottle of wine or some chocolates. You'd open the fridge and there's water. You go to the bathroom and there's toiletries. The whole thing is great. That's a 6-star experience. You’d say, "wow I love this more than a hotel. I’m definitely going to use Airbnb again. It worked much better than I expected"
What's a 7-star experience? You knock the door and the host opens. You get in and the host says “welcome. Here's my full kitchen. I know you like surfing. There's a surfboard waiting for you and I've booked you lessons. It's going to be an amazing experience. By the way, here's my car. You can use my car. And I also want to surprise you. I got you a table at the best restaurant in San Francisco. You're like "Whoa! this is way beyond what I'd imagined".
A 10-star experience would be its 1964 and the Beatles check in. You’d get off the plane and there's 50000 children screaming your name and the welcome cars are there waiting for you. You’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for you, and it would just be a complete mindf*ck experience.
It's getting grand but let's keep moving. What would an 11-star experience look like? You would show up at the airport and Elon Musk will be there waiting for you and says he's taking you to space.
The point of the process is that maybe 9, 10,11 are not feasible experiences but a 6 or 7 experience sounds reasonable. A personalised experience for your customer seems achievable. If you go through this exercise, you'll identify the sweet spot between the point that your customer finds out about you to the second they make a purchase. You have to design the extreme and work backwards. Suddenly, doesn't knowing your customers preferences and having a surfboard waiting for them seem not crazy and reasonable? It's actually kind of logistical, but this is the kind of stuff that creates a great experience”
Lesson #3: Create A Magical Experience...And Then Figure Out What Part Of That Magical Thing Can Scale
Brian and Joe put up flyers saying "seeking a traveler. We’ll photograph your trip to San Francisco if you let us follow you". A person called Ricardo replied and they sent a photographer around with him while he was just travelling in San Francisco. This guy had a not so great trip and did a lot of things alone as he was introverted. So Brian and his team got to work and they planned and set up an end to end experience for Ricardo to come back to San Francisco. They picked him up at the airport and took him to the perfect airbnb. He went to dinner parties and got the best seats at restaurants and a midnight mystery bike tour. At the end of the trip, Brian asks Ricardo “how was your trip” to which Ricardo replied that it was amazing. Brain walks away and Ricardo shouts out to Brian that it was the best trip he ever had. Brain thought to himself “Oh my God. I guess it worked. It really moved him.’
The moral of the story is that if you design this tremendous and personal experience from start to finish, your client will never forget it. It's not about big corp, generic and numeric-figure-led roadmaps and business plans. The reality is not a lot of brands think like this. Their roadmap is set up in the same way a 100 million user company roadmap is set up.
“I don’t think anyone ever tried to design an end-to-end experience for somebody like they’re in a movie before and we did it. That became a blueprint. We said we are confident on an unscalable basis that we know how to create a trip that deeply moved somebody — that was better than anything they’ve ever experienced. The question is: Can we develop a technology that scales and do it 100 million times?"
This is the narrative of every movie you’ve ever seen: A main character starts in an ordinary world. They leave their ordinary world. They cross the threshold to a new, magical world where all these obstacles happen and they overcome something. They call it the hero’s journey. Brian and Joe built a small team, and spent the last couple of years figuring out how to scale this further.
Lesson # 4: Take Advantage Of The Time Before You Scale
“I tell a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t have traction, I miss those times. Yes, it’s exciting to have traction, to have a company that has a huge scale. But the biggest leaps you ever get are when you’re small. Another way of saying it is: Your product changes less the bigger you get because there’s more customers, more blowback, more systems, more legacy" - Brian
The most innovative leaps you’ll ever make, especially if you’re a network, are going to be when you’re really, really small. You can change the product entirely in a week. Try doing that at LinkedIn or Airbnb today. That would be a huge disaster. So taking advantage of that sub-scale and designing the perfect experience, being able to ask yourself what you can do — is amazing. It's something that is underrated during the start-up phase yet one that is very powerful.