Design a Business for Scale by Doing Things That Don’t Scale

I listened to an episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast recently. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn was talking to Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb. Both businesses have reached amazing heights and have more than 100,000,000 users each.

Surprisingly, the focus of the conversation was how the painstaking, manual labor, non-scalable things we do are the most critical to building a business that scales to globally. Let me explain.

I’d argue that painstaking, handcrafted labor is actually the foundation of his success. In order to scale, you have to do things that don’t scale.
-Reid Hoffman

Reid made the point that you don’t start with 100,000,000 users, you start with a few. This is as true for your local coffee shop as it is for Facebook. So stop thinking big and start thinking small. Hand serve the few customers you have and win them over one-by-one.

Design with Empathy

To be a great product designer, you really have to get in the head of your users. Where are they when they use their product? What are their physical surroundings? What are they thinking about? What are they trying to do? What is their emotional state? You have to literally walk in their shoes and experience your product as they would.

Too often, we think big and global too soon. We get caught up thinking about groups and target markets rather than an individual. As Brian put it, “If you are only A/B testing, you’re not designing with empathy.”

Tim Ferris takes this further and says that every business should have a guaranteed market of at least one. Meaning, if you don’t personally love the product you are making, you probably shouldn’t make it. Ultimately, you are really looking for passion. Somebody has to get really, genuinely excited about the product you are making because it will make a significant impact for them. If you can’t find real passion from an individual, you’ll never find it from a market.

Go Where Your Customers Are

The founders of Airbnb got caught in this same trap. After raising capital and making big promises to investors, they started thinking global instead of individual. That is until they met Paul Graham of Y Combinator. Paul asked them a simple question. “Where’s your business?”

The bulk of their business was in New York. Paul then asked, “So your users are in New York and you’re in Mountain View? What are you still doing here?”

He told the founders to go to their users and get to know them one-by-one. Brian made the argument that it wouldn’t scale. If he was going to be huge and serve millions of customers, he couldn’t get them one-by-one. It would be impossible to meet every customer. Paul told him that is exactly why he should do it now. He told the founders that this is the only time they’ll ever be small enough to get to know their customers personally and make something directly for them.

Brian and Joe followed Paul’s advice to the letter. They knocked on the doors of their hosts. They booked stays in their hosts homes. Because it was a little creepy to knock on doors unannounced they hatched an offer that the hosts couldn’t refuse. They’d contact their hosts and offer to send a professional photographer to their homes to help them with their listings for free. Like so many great start-up stories, it just so happened that the photographers were Brian and Joe.

These home visits became Airbnb’s secret weapon. They found that by spending time with their customers, they learned exactly what would work and what wouldn’t. They were always asking, “Well, what if we did this? What about that?”

From those questions a hand-crafted experience was born. This is where the idea of the profile and user reviews came up for AirBNB. They designed each touch point one-by-one. And, this is where the roadmap really exists…in the minds of your customers.

Make Better Products

So what do you do? How can you make better products? Follow the pattern of companies with passionate customers:

  1. Take advantage of the time when you are small. Every business starts with just a few customers.
  2. Forget about markets, think about individuals.
  3. Design with empathy for a single user.
  4. Go to your customers, wherever they are. Spend one-on-one time with them and ask good questions.
  5. Your product roadmap exists in the mind of your customers. It’s your job to pull it out.

I’ll share a few specific ways of how to pull that product roadmap out of the minds of your customers in my next post.

Josh Taylor