Using imagination and client feedback to build a service clients are passionate about

Feedback can help you refine your services to take clients from satisfied to raving fans. Just ask the guys who turned couch surfing into a multibillion dollar business.

Individual attention to early clients gave them the guidance to create a compelling brand.

It’s 2008 and Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky have come up with this service where people can offer an air mattress to crash on when staying in a town that is out of affordable hotel rooms. It is an election year, so they try creating breakfast cereals themed for the two majority party presidential candidates. The service is called Airbed and breakfast. The founders are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and are getting very little traffic. After a few wins related to specific events in specific cities, their website is attracting maybe 50 visitors a day and taking 10 or 20 reservations. Nowhere near enough to pay the bills.

In an interview on LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s podcast “Masters of Scale” Chesky relates some of how they turned it around. They start thinking about the nature of the experience. What’s a “five-star” experience? You show up for your reservation and the owners is home and shows you to your room. That’s fine, but it won’t get people talking. What’s a six star? The owner welcomes you, shows you around, has a gift waiting on the table for you. What’s a seven? When you arrive, you find the owner has reserved a table for you at the city’s best restaurant. What’s ten stars? Chesky says “A ten star check in would be The Beatles check in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for me…”

They go to 11. You get the idea.

At the prompting of Paul Graham, co founder of Y Combinator, the start-up incubator, Gebbia and Chesky begin visiting their customers. They ask the people who have a bed to share about the service of their dreams. They ask questions like “What can we do, not to make this better, but to make you tell everyone about it?” Chesky says “If I were to say ‘What can I do to make this better?’ They’ll say something small. If I were to say…’what would it take for me to design something that you would literally tell every single person you’ve ever encountered?’ You start asking these questions and it really helps you think through this problem.”

And now, through a combination of creativity and deep, early feedback from passionate users, AirBNB has grown to 3,100 employees and is closing in on $4 billion in revenue. Sometimes to get the best idea you have to go way beyond what’s possible and then scale it back. Without that stretch, you won’t be able to break the constraints your brain sets for you and find something that will set you apart. Remember, everyone else is also trying to set themselves apart and have similar mental barriers. And help your clients stretch their imaginations as well. Help them out by proposing ideas that are beyond what you can do – beyond what any advisor could do. Then ask what parts of that idea are most appealing. And use the answer as the grain of something you can build.

As Hoffman says in summarizing the episode: Handcraft the core experience. And don’t stop until you know exactly what they want.

What are you asking clients? Are the questions big enough? Are you probing deeply enough?


  1. Sharon P ivirottoMay 11, 2019

    Interesting post, Stephen. I think most people spend so much time on the marketing side of how to get a customer, they forget to spend as much time on the customer experience side (which is what keeps clients and gets them referral clients).

    On a side note – I stayed at an AirBNB in Salt Lake City, UT in January and the thing I remember most is they had an old time record player and a full stock of amazing records to play. We didn't turn the TV on even once. That made it a much more memorable experience for my friend and I for sure!

  2. Stephen WershingMay 25, 2019

    Thanks, Sharon! And your AirBNB story is a great example of the power of experience.


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