Handcrafted solutions: creating a product your customers will love
I recently listened to Episode 1 of Reid Hoffman’s new podcast, “Masters of Scale.” In this episode, Reid interviewed Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb. Reid’s theory is that you should “Hand-craft the core experience. Serve your customers one-by-one. Then figure out how and what to scale.” Brian shared his insights around building a handcrafted experience for the initial set of Airbnb customers.
The approach shared by Reid and Brian really resonated with me, and echoed the insights I have learned from other product leaders over the years. As I discuss my take-aways from this podcast, I will also weave in relevant insights from other product leaders that validate the approach that Reid and Brian are advocating.
“Go to your users. Get to know them. Get your customers one by one.”
Brian recounted an early conversation that he had with their first investor, Paul Graham of Y Combinator.
Paul Graham: “Where’s your business?”
Brian Chesky: “There are a few people in New York using it.”
Paul: “So your users are in New York, and you’re still in Mountain View… What are you still doing here?”
Brian: “What do you mean?”
Paul: “Go to your users. Get to know them. Get your customers one by one.”
Brian: “But that won’t scale to millions of customers. We can’t meet every customer.”
Paul: “That’s exactly why you should do it now. 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.”
Brian discussed that for the next several months, the co-founders literally commuted from Mountain View to New York City. They knocked on the doors of these early Airbnb hosts, introduced themselves as co-founders, and got to know as much as they could about their customers’ needs. These home visits became Airbnb’s secret weapon, because it allowed the co-founders to learn what their customers would love.
The Airbnb co-founders kept asking these initial customers questions like, “What if we did this? What if we did this?” User profiles, the peer review system, the customer support system — all of these features came directly from these initial customer visits.
“We didn’t just meet our users, we lived with them.”
Their goal the whole time was to discover what their customers love. As Brian said:
“It’s really hard to get even ten people to love anything. But it’s not hard if you spend a ton of time with them… We didn’t just meet our users, we lived with them. I used to joke that when you bought an iPhone, Steve Jobs didn’t come sleep on your couch, but I did.”
By spending a ton of time with your initial customers, you will develop a deep empathy for them. You have to go beyond surveys, market research, and A/B tests, and really develop empathy for them. Brian said:
“If you’re only doing A/B tests, you’re never designing with empathy.”
This point reminded me of Jeff Bezos’ 2016 annual letter to shareholders. In the letter, Jeff urged us to resist proxies (surveys, market research, A/B tests) and spend time directly with customers. Jeff wrote:
“Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.”
“More like stories than statistics.”
It also reminded me of a recent learning from Clayton Christensen. In his book Competing Against Luck, Christensen introduces us to the Jobs to Be Done theory. In this theory, customers are not buying specific products. They are hiring products to fulfill a specific job in their lives. As Christensen explains:
“What causes us to buy products and services is the stuff that happens to us all day, every day. We all have jobs we need to do that arise in our day-to-day lives, and when we do, we hire products or services to get these jobs done.”
Similar to what Brian and Jeff have said about deeply understanding your customer and designing with empathy (and not relying on A/B tests or proxies), Clayton had this to say:
“Jobs insights are fragile — they’re more like stories than statistics… Jobs Theory doesn’t care whether a customer is between the ages of forty and forty-five and what flavor choice they made that day. Jobs Theory is not primarily focused on ‘who’ did something, or ‘what’ they did — but on ‘why.’”
“Better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like”
It’s not enough to just spend time with your customers and develop empathy for them and their problems. You also want to understand what solution they will love. Why? As Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, once said in a different talk:
“Your job is to build something users love… It’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like… It’s much easier to expand from something that a small number of people love to something that a lot of people love, than from something a lot of people like to a lot of people love.”
The product of their dreams
In order to learn what your customers love, you can’t ask them questions about your current product. You should instead ask them about what the product of their dreams would look like.
Coming back to the “Masters of Scale” podcast, Brian said:
“We’d ask these questions: ‘What could we do to surprise you? What could we do, not to make this better, but to make you tell everyone about it?’ And that answer is different. If I say, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ they will say something small… You start to ask these questions, and it really helps you to think through this problem.”
“Do everything by hand until it’s painful”
Once you have developed deep empathy for the customer, and you understand what they would love in the product of their dreams, you need to handcraft a solution for them. Reid and Brian advise us not to try to build a perfectly scaled solution up front. Instead, create the solution by hand, and then automate portions of the solution as it becomes more and more difficult to do it manually.
“We had a saying that you would do everything by hand until it was painful. So Joe and I would photograph homes until it was painful — then we would get photographers. Then we would manage them with spreadsheets until it was painful — then we got interns… Then we would automate the tools to make the interns more efficient… And then eventually, our system does everything. We build a system where now the host comes, they press a button, it alerts our system, which goes to a dispatch of photographers — so it’s all managed through technology. They get the job, they market through an app that we built, and then payment happens. The whole thing is automated now.”
“Note how they gradually worked out a solution. They didn’t guess at what users wanted. They reacted to what users asked for. Then they met the demand through a piecemeal process… [This] gives your team the inspiration and urgency to build the features that users really want.”
By taking this approach, you are not over-building a solution that has unnecessary features. You are taking the handcrafted, unscalable experience that you initially created, and then automating pieces of it over time. In that way, you’re only building technology in service of an experience that you already know customers want and love. You reduce the risk of wasting time and resources by building a product (or features) that nobody wants.
“Stripe’s bleary-eyed customer service rep”
Reid also shares the experience of Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, as he created a handcrafted solution. Patrick recounted how they had a chat room for customers, and they had set up alerts so that they would get paged in the middle of the night if a customer sent a chat but didn’t get a response. Then Patrick would “groggily” wake up, respond to the customer, and then go back to sleep. Reid said:
“In addition to being CEO, Patrick had become Stripe’s bleary-eyed customer service rep. Frustrated users would page him at all hours.”
This story reminded me of the same talk that Sam Altman of Y Combinator had given:
“You should make this feedback loop as tight as possible. If your product gets 10% better every week, that compounds really really quickly… Great founders don’t put anyone between themselves and their users. The founders of these companies do things like sales and customer support themselves in the early days. It’s critical to get this loop embedded in the culture.”
The story also reminded me of the example from Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, as captured in this First Round Capital article. The article says:
“Butterfield and his cofounders are voracious readers of user feedback, and they attribute much of the company’s rapid traction to this skill. From the get-go, Slack made sure that users could get a response to every email they sent, and approached every help ticket as an opportunity to solidify loyalty and improve the service. As they listened to their ever-growing flock of users, the Slack team iterated accordingly.
“‘If you put that all together, we probably get 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and 10,000 tweets per month, and we respond to all of them,’ says Butterfield.
“Where some people might see a huge customer-service burden, Butterfield sees one of Slack’s greatest assets — so much so that he fielded half of these messages himself for a long time.”
Scaling the handcrafted approach
After you have developed your handcrafted solution (often by serving as the company’s “bleary-eyed” customer service rep) and your initial customers have told you that they love it (and are also telling their friends about it), you’re ready to scale.
As Reid and Brian mentioned in their podcast, the transition from handcrafted phase to massive scale phase is difficult. The designing of the experience uses a different part of your brain than the scaling of the experience. Reid uses the analogy of writing. The handcrafted phase is like writing: more inventive, creative, empathetic. The scaling phase is more like editing: more analytical and critical. You prune, compact, distill.
Even when the product begins to scale and the company becomes more successful, Reid argues that the sharpest founders never abandon the handcrafted mindset. They’re still passionately focused on their customers, especially when inventing something new.
What did we learn from this podcast?
First, it’s critically important to get to know your users well. Go where they are. Spend tons of time with them. Develop incredible empathy for them. “Live with them.” Don’t rely on proxies — A/B tests, surveys, market research. Customer insights are more like stories than statistics.
Second, your job is to build something that your customers love. It’s a lot better to build something that a few customers love, then a large number of customers like. You can learn what customers love by asking them about the product of their dreams — not just to react to the product you’ve already built. Ask them what you can do to surprise them, to get them to tell everyone about it.
Third, you do everything by hand until it’s painful. Very importantly, this includes customer service. Smart founders will be the “bleary-eyed customer service rep” in order to deeply understand and quickly respond to customer needs. Once it becomes too painful to continue doing something manually, you should automate that piece of the experience. In that way, you are taking the handcrafted experience that you know customers love, and automating it in a piecemeal fashion. This helps you to avoid wasting time and resources on features that nobody wants or needs, and takes the guesswork out of product design.
Finally, be aware that the transition from handcrafted solution to scaled experience can be challenging. You need to be able to transition from the creative, inventive “handcrafted” mindset to the analytical, critical “scaling” mindset.
I was greatly inspired by Reid Hoffman’s inaugural podcast for Masters of Scale. Hope that all PMs and entrepreneurs take these lessons to heart!