How Airbnb used customer journeys to become a $31 billion company

Matt Geary in Growth hacking on 5th of Nov 2018
The Airbnb Customer Journey

The Airbnb Customer Journey

Snow White: the original customer journey

In Christmas of 2011, Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb was navigating the company through a period of explosive growth. During the holiday break, he picked up Walt Disney's biography and was inspired by  how storyboarding was used to create Disney's first full-length animation, Snow White.

That was the catalyst that launched Airbnb to creating their own storyboard — a way to imagine and illustrate their guests and hosts experiences while using their service.

The result was what we now call the customer journey — the missing link between customers and businesses.

Today, successful companies around the world use customer journey mapping to:

  • Better understand their customer's experiences
  • Make all business efforts human-centric
  • Center their company vision on something visually compelling
  • Imagine even the smallest customer needs and pain points

The product-market fit

Rebecca Sinclair, who was then the Head of User Experience at Airbnb, interpreted Chesky's 'storyboard' idea as a customer journey. By looking through the lens of the customer, Sinclair and her team looked for new, human-centric possibilities.

This fresh perspective gave Airbnb the 'ah-ha' moment they were looking for. Huddled around a mass of post-it notes, Sinclair's team realized that the 'product' was not the website, the app or even the service. Each moment in the customer journey was pointing to one thing — the offline experience.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Sinclair explains:

_This offline experience — this trip to Paris or stay in a treehouse — is what they were buying from us, not a website or an app. That’s when we started to say, “the product is the trip” and began shifting our perspective. We could see completely new possibilities in how we thought about which problems to solve and what to build._

Thinking about the product as a trip was key to understanding Airbnb's product-market fit. The company positioned itself based on what its customers needed, making it resilient and flexible in the face of a fast-changing market.

When Airbnb realized their product was a trip, they began to see themselves as a lifestyle company and could make believable extensions into lateral markets (think Airbnb Experiences).

Harnessing self-disruption

Mapping out a customer journey doesn't just result in creating a whole new company from the outside. To consistently deliver crowd-pleasing experiences, companies need to be ready to disrupt themselves internally.

By presenting the 'Snow White' storyboards to his team, Chesky changed the way Airbnb thought about operating both internally and externally. Presented with end-to-end customer experiences, Airbnb employees could:

  • Define where and how their role affected the customer journey
  • See how their work directly affected the customer journey
  • Examine their work through a new lens
  • Form ideas that senior staff could have never imagined

By disrupting itself, Airbnb disrupted the entire hospitality industry. A human-centered customer journey launched them from working on a living room floor of a San Francisco apartment to a $31 billion company in 2017.

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