In Order to Scale You Have to do Things That Don’t Scale

Learning from the early days of Airbnb

Airbnb and scale
Image source

Large organisations are pretty obsessed with scale, and naturally so in many instances. Ideas need to have big potential impact, returns need to be sizeable, programmes and projects need to work robustly across large numbers of employees or customers. It’s an inherent part of the mindset.

But what happens when you need to start small? And what happens when you need to do something that doesn’t scale? I loved the story that AirBnb founder Brian Chesky tells (in this Masters of Scale podcast) from the earliest days of the service when they were still part of the Y-Combinator programme. Paul Graham (founder of Y-Combinator) had asked him where they were getting traction with their idea. Brian told him that they didn’t actually have a lot of traction at the time, but they did have a few people in New York who had started using the service:

Graham: “So your users are in New York and you’re still inMountain View.”

Chesky: “Yeah.”

Graham: “What are you still doing here?”

Chesky: “What do you mean?”

Graham: “Go to your users. Get to know them. Get your customers one by one.”

Chesky: “But that won’t scale. If we’re huge and we have millions of customers we can’t meet every customer.”

Graham: “That’s exactly why you should do it now because this is the only time you’ll ever be small enough that you can meet all your customers, get to know them, and make something directly for them.”

So the founders literally commuted from Mountain View to New York, and went door-to-door meeting the Airbnb hosts in person. To give them a reason for visiting they personally offered to photograph the host places for the site. When they’d talk to the hosts they would get direct feedback that enabled them to start designing ‘touchpoint by touchpoint’ in order to handcraft the user experience and feed directly into their product roadmap (‘the roadmap often exists in the minds of the users you’re designing things for’). Almost all of the early features that would become critical to Airbnb’s success came from that early feedback.

As Airbnb grew, that habit of handcrafting the user experience stayed with them as they visualised what a truly exceptional experience might look like in order to challenge thinking, and work back from there to deliver a service that is truly remarkable:

‘The core thesis is if you want to build a massively successful company, you need to build something that people love so much they tell each other. Which means that you must build something worth talking about.’ (Chesky)

It’s too easy in large organisations to dismiss doing things that don’t scale. Like talking face-to-face with your earliest users to craft remarkable experiences. It’s too common for leaders, as they progress higher up the hierarchy, to become more and more distant from actual customers.

We need to challenge these conventions.

And that’s as much about culture and mindset as it is about process and practice.

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Originally published at Building The Agile Business.