AirBnB’s growth hack

In 2009 AirBnB’s revenues were stuck at $200 per week. This quote from a blog on the First Round Capital site explains how they got back to growth:

At the time, Airbnb was in Y Combinator. One afternoon, the team was pouring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn’t working, why they weren’t growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. “We noticed a pattern. There’s some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn’t a surprise that people weren’t booking rooms because you couldn’t even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

Graham tossed out a completely non-scalable and non-technical solution to the problem: travel to New York, rent a camera, spend some time with customers listing properties, and replace the amateur photography with beautiful high-resolution pictures. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images. There wasn’t any data to back this decision originally. They just went and did it. A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months.

Growth hacking is a heavily  used and poorly defined term these days, but this is a great example of what I consider to be true growth hacking – inspiration based and with the sole aim of getting growth moving rather than be part of a beautiful, scalable system. It’s amazing how many successful startups have a moment like this in their early history where they found a clever hack to scrap themselves up to the next level knowing that it wouldn’t scale them to the level after that. And that’s ok. It’s usually a little hairy at the time, but simply getting to the next level often unlocks resources and customer understanding that make it much easier to build the scalable processes that will underpin fast growth at scale.