Sometimes the big ideas are lost in my hour-long interviews. So instead of doing new interviews this week (since I’m on vacation), I’m running the “Big Idea Series,” in which I isolate just 1 big idea from past interviews.


Why did flying to New York turn around Airbnb‘s business? That’s what I asked the founders when I interviewed them.

“It was weird,” they told me. “Up until that point, Andrew, we’d be here in the apartment in San Francisco, making decisions about things [that had] to do with the company, and if a discussion ever came up, [we’d ask ourselves] ‘Does that scale?’

“If the answer was, ‘No,’ we didn’t do it. We thought that everything that we did here had to someday support hundreds of thousands to millions of users.”


Then Paul Graham, their investor, suggested they do things that don’t scale. So they flew to New York, because the site was popular there, and they stayed in homes that they rented on Airbnb and they had one-on-one conversations with their users.

Sometimes the conversations would go on for hours over coffee or tea and people told them “exactly what they wanted. They said, ‘Hey if you guys added these features, if you added this button, this function, I would love your website.’

“And all of the things that they told us actually weren’t that hard. So we’d come back to San Francisco [to update] the website, and people would just be so happy back in New York. They’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, the cofounders flew out to see me, they listened to what I had to say, they changed the website to accommodate me, I love these guys, I’m going to start using them even more than I have been.'”


You know that I like to push for specifics in my interviews, so I asked how exactly the site changed based on what they learned on these trips.

“Our website was still called Air Bed and Breakfast,” they reminded me. Their niche before these trips to New York was to help people rent out spare bedrooms or couches. Then they had a conversation that changed the direction of their company.

“We met Barry Manilow’s drummer and we realized that he didn’t want to just list his bedrooms, he wanted to list his entire apartment. Why? Because he goes on tour with Barry and they go to Providence, [they go] to Boston, [they go] away for a week at a time.

“Suddenly we found ourselves in a situation where we had a user, a really passionate user, that wanted to list his entire apartment on our website. That was an entire user base that we didn’t even realize wanted to use our product. As soon as we did that, we decided, why don’t we add the option to rent out your entire home, your entire apartment on our website. It turns out that that’s a huge portion of our business now.”

And they may never have discovered it unless they did something that didn’t scale.


The interview is full of examples of what they learned from doing things that didn’t scale. Grab it here. You’ll enjoy it.