Paul Graham, known as the father of Silicon Valley startups, famously encouraged new companies with the phrase, “Do things that don’t scale.”
The context behind this advice is that many founders of startups initially want to engage in efficient and scalable activities. For instance, when a company is newly established and aims to acquire users, the first thought might be to buy online ads, collaborate with influencers, or advertise on Facebook or other social media platforms because these are the fastest and most scalable methods. A Facebook post can buy exposure and even customers for as little as 500 units of currency, making it one of the most effective and scalable actions. However, Paul Graham suggests that the best method is for founders to personally reach out to and find customers. Although this is the slowest and least scalable method – given that a founder’s time, contact reach, and promotional scope are limited, hindering rapid growth and replication – Graham believes this is precisely what startups should do: engage in unscalable activities.
One of the best examples of this approach is Airbnb, the globally recognized home-sharing platform that allows hosts to rent out their spare rooms or properties. Airbnb listings range from farmhouses and castles to beach huts, treehouses in the mountains, and common suites in cities. In the past, there were even students from National Chengchi University who listed dormitory beds on Airbnb.
Currently, Airbnb is valued at approximately $80 billion, generating billions in revenue each quarter. However, in its early days, Airbnb faced numerous difficulties. No investors were willing to back them, and they had to fund their venture by selling their own designed breakfast cereals. Before reaching its current status, Airbnb made many efforts that can be summarized as “doing the unscalable to make 100 people love you.”
Making 100 People Love Airbnb, Not Just 10,000 People Like It
No one wanted to rent out their rooms, and not many were willing to use such a service. Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO mentioned that in the early days, they did many unscalable things to make 100 people love Airbnb, rather than making 10,000 people just like it.
Flying from the West Coast to the East Coast to personally serve hosts Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky would fly from the West Coast to the East Coast to visit each host. He would even book their rooms via Airbnb and live with them for a few days, adding the first reviews for them on the Airbnb platform.
Moreover, Brian Chesky once asked hosts: “What if we had a button that, when pressed, would immediately bring a photographer to your home to take professional photos?” The hosts loved the idea. So, Chesky borrowed a good camera from a friend. The hosts were amazed to see Chesky himself turn up with a camera, never expecting the founder to be their photographer! Chesky did much more than just photography, including personally delivering the rental receipts to the hosts.
If one person is moved by your actions and falls in love with you, that love can spread. This is also the essence of “growth.” Accepting customer suggestions and finding opportunities for growth Initially, Airbnb was only about renting rooms and not entire houses. In a 2010 interview, Brian Chesky mentioned that renting out entire homes was a suggestion from one of their hosts. This host was the drummer for a well-known American singer who often toured. He didn’t just want to rent out a room or an air bed but the entire house. Chesky said this was an option they hadn’t even considered, which later became one of Airbnb’s main businesses.
To make customers fall in love with Airbnb, it’s necessary to establish standards that go beyond 5 stars.
Brian Chesky, to create an experience that would make customers fall in love with Airbnb, continuously thought about how to achieve a six-star rating from customers. Below are the exercises they did for understanding and achieving this.
5-Star Service: You land from your plane, exit the airport, and arrive at your Airbnb accommodation where the host is already waiting for you. This is a 5-star experience.
6-Star Service: In addition to the above, the host personally picks you up from the airport.
7-Star Service: In addition to the above, the car that picks you up is a luxury car filled with your favorite flavored chips and refreshing coconut water.
8-Star Service: Upon landing at the airport, a grand parade welcomes you.
9-Star Service: The moment you disembark from the plane, there are 5,000 screaming fans below with banners welcoming your arrival. This is referred to as a ‘Beatles-level welcome.’
10-Star Service: Upon arrival, you find Elon Musk waiting outside your room, inviting you for a trip to space.
This wasn’t just wishful thinking. In an effort to ensure hosts could provide superior accommodation quality, Airbnb provided a series of courses, value-added services, and rating methods for hosts. Just like in the early days when they would personally photograph hosts’ homes and assist hosts in providing breakfast to ensure guest satisfaction, all these efforts were aimed at facilitating hosts to provide 6-star or even 7-star services.
This is a World Without Magic
After learning about Airbnb’s story and Paul Graham’s “Do things that don’t scale” philosophy, it becomes clear that there is no magic in this world. Airbnb mentioned that they had many public launches, which went unnoticed due to their small size at the time. There was no magic in any of these launches; none of them were successful on their own. Success came through continuous interaction with customers, understanding what could be improved, and deeply winning the love of 100 people before gaining more users. (Similar to the story in the 7th newsletter issue)
Paul Graham expressed that believing simply launching a new product will gain users is a combination of egocentrism and laziness. It’s the belief that something great has been built, coupled with the desire to achieve success through a single broadcast release. However, gaining users and love is always a gradual process. Merely doing one extraordinary thing isn’t enough. Exceptional efforts are necessary, and any strategy that neglects the effort, such as trying to gain users through a large launch event, is inherently doubtful.
It’s precisely because a company is small and starting that it can deeply interact with customers, something that super-large companies (like Apple or Google) can’t do. By doing these unscalable things and being loved by a small group of people, you can build internal momentum and truly know if the users love the product. Otherwise, focusing solely on advertisements only reviews whether the ad itself is liked, not whether the product is genuinely loved by users.
Of course, this Airbnb story is only applicable during the startup phase. At that time, they could spend ample time and energy on unscalable tasks. When Airbnb grew to a company of 100 or 1,000 people, it became challenging to adopt the same strategy. Making the right decisions early on allowed them to survive and grow into a large tech company. In hindsight, doing those unscalable things to make 100 people love them was indeed sensible.
What If My Job Was a Product
How does this story relate to me? Whenever I see these company decisions, I wonder how they relate to me. I haven’t started a business, so these decisions seem like just motivational anecdotes. However, if I start to view managing my own job as a form of entrepreneurship, seeing my work as a product,
If my job was a product, I need to think further about what 6-star, 7-star, or even higher star services in my work might be (and I certainly don’t think it’s endless overtime… I welcome any ideas you may have!).
If my job was a product, I wouldn’t expect each completion of a task to be met with roaring applause, praise, or a salary reward. This is always a gradual process, and making work extraordinary requires continuous and exceptional effort.
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