In this talk to ProductTank Cardiff, Colleen Graneto, a product manager at Airbnb, looks at learning and doing things that don’t scale.
Colleen starts with a quote from Airbnb founder Brian Chesky: “At Y-Combinator we were challenged to do things that don’t scale – to start with the perfect experience for one person, then work backwards and scale it to 100 people who love us. This was the best piece of advice we’ve ever received.” Do things that don’t scale has become a part of the DNA of how things are done at Airbnb, she says.
Colleen’s Jewellery Business
Colleen starts with what not to do by using the example of her own jewellery business, which she set up a few years ago when she was living in Ecuador. She did market research, developed a business plan, commissioned a logo, got professional photos, built a website, opened an Etsy shop, did trade fairs and street fairs, and all the rest before coming to realise that she was getting by far the best traction from her Etsy store, and that she also didn’t love fashion retail. “It all sounds very similar to how companies I’ve worked for have approached product launches,” she says.
“Do we ever get the results we expect in the first iteration?,” she asks, “I think the answer is probably not. In my case all that planning and research I did was a waste of time. I should have just got in front of my customers a lot earlier, I should have learned a lot faster and a lot of the activities I didn’t weren’t helping me to learn.”
With hindsight the first thing Colleen should have done was open an Etsy shop, she says, it costs nothing and then she could learn what people were interested in buying. Secondly, she learned the most about customers at street fairs. She could talk to them, see how they bought, play around with pricing and displays, and that then would have enabled her to optimise her Etsy shop.
At Airbnb doing things that don’t scale means imagining the ideal outcome and then working backwards to scale it. Colleen says the launch of Airbnb’s experiences business is a great example of this as to begin with the experiences team went out and found travellers and crafted personal experiences for them. The experiences business now is a managed marketplace with established quality standards where Airbnb looks for expertise, access and connection, but in the early days Airbnb didn’t know what attributes it wanted for its experiences. This meant that an Airbnb staffer went on every experience and decided whether it should be added to the marketplace, which obviously wasn’t scalable. “We were learning what made something magical, what the common attributes were across those experiences and hosts. That’s how we distilled down to those three attributes of expertise, access and connection.” Today there is a scoring algorithm and continuous feedback on experiences, so it’s come a long way.
The experiences were originally launched with specialised merchandising and professional photography. In the early days this was important: “When you look at Airbnb experiences you need to understand how they’re different from say Big Red Bus tours,” says Colleen. “You have to understand it from the merchandising, which isn’t necessarily easy to do.” But it doesn’t scale.
But it meant the company was able to work out what type of merchandising worked. It’s created a formula for what potential guests want to see and is able to give guidance and empower hosts to create their own merchandising and content.
How can you apply this in your own company? Colleen advises that you keep it simple and she shares some exercises and tips to get you started.