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Airbnb’s real growth hack

You don’t need a degree in computer science to copy this hack

2 min readJan 12, 2022


You’re probably aware of the fabled growth hack where Airbnb used professional photographers to improve the quality of listings with no cost to the host.

But did you know that in the early days, those professional photographers were the founders themselves?

Let’s get side-tracked for a bit.

I’m willing to bet that you’re aware of your boss’s quirky habits and anxieties at work — perhaps even more so than she is.

But can you say the same about your customers?

How many of their problems are you solving? And I’m not talking about how many features your product has.

Do you know which of their anxieties flare up when they run into a problem?

And which habits kick in when they need to make a decision?

To quote Spotify’s CEO, Daniel Ek:

“The value of a company is the sum of problems you solve.”

It’s one thing to know about what features your product has and what functions they perform.

But you need to spend time with your customers to understand what problems they’re trying to solve, for which they need your product.

In his book Masters of Scale, Reid Hoffman tells the story behind why Paul Graham advised Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia to go to New York in the early days of Airbnb.

After they arrived in New York, they contacted their local hosts and offered to send professional photographers.

As the story goes, after taking the pictures, Brian Chesky asked the host if they had any other feedback. The host disappeared into a back room and came back with a binder full of dozens of suggestions the host wanted to see on Airbnb.

Ultimately, learning what people loved and needed to be improved became the engine behind Airbnb’s growth.

As Brian Chesky recalls in the book Masters of Scale:

“The roadmap often exists in the minds of the users you’re designing things for.”

Marketing’s sole purpose is to make a customer, and as marketers, we’re responsible for connecting people with exceptional products.

The truth is, no matter how good you are at your job, you can’t scale a crappy product.

So, my advice is to spend time with your customers.

Understand their habits, anxieties, needs, and desires first.

Then when you go back to the drawing table, use that knowledge not only to plan better, smarter, more relevant marketing but help make the products you’re selling solve more of their problems.

Here’s one of my favourite examples of a company building products that solve a real customer problem.