How one unscalable marketing tactic doubled Airbnb’s revenue [Growth Hack]

Good marketing boils down to two primary areas: perfecting standard processes (like AARRR metrics) and uncovering new innovations (popularly termed “growth hacks“).  Hopefully this series on clever growth hacks will inspire new ideas that push the envelope.

Airbnb’s founding team became growth hacking royalty when they managed to sell enough politically themed cereal to keep the company afloat.  But while this strategy gave them more runway, how did they actually make Airbnb a success?

One major part of their success started with an expensive and unscalable idea.  Way back in 2009, the founders were studying their 40 listings from New York City – trying to find a breakthrough idea.  What they did notice was that all the listings had terrible photographs.  People were snapping shots on their phone cameras with low resolution and even less photography skill.

So Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y-Combinator, proposed an unscalable solution: what if the entire company (three people) flew out to NYC, rented a camera, and took free, quality photos of each existing NYC listing.  Scrambling for ideas, they jumped on a plane and became photographers for a few days.


When the results came in though, this tactic turned out to be quite successful.  The week after upgrading photos, Airbnb’s revenue doubled – from $200 to $400 per week.1

From this experiment, Airbnb learned two important lessons:

#1 Unscalable quick wins can impact Growth

In Silicon Valley, so much time is spent thinking about things that scale that we can easily forget that unscalable ideas can still have large effects.  Particularly for early stage companies (like Airbnb making $200/week), unscalable ideas might well have larger short-term impact than scalable ideas.

Scalable ideas matter because they have generally small impact on massive user bases, but when you don’t have a massive user base unscalable “quick wins” should be harvested.

And sometimes “unscalable” ideas can actually be scaled.  Once Airbnb saw how impactful professional photos could be, they actually managed to scale a free photography program in 2011 that’s still running today.23

#2 Good visuals drive conversions

Humans tend to react irrationally to good visuals – just look at the entire companies that focus more on brand image than product quality.  And while this tendency can be manipulated in an evil way, good design principles can also be used to put the best foot forward.

Airbnb found that listings with verified photos (ie, photos taken by Airbnb) tend to be booked 2.5 times more frequently than those with amateur photography4.  Technically the product (room/house) is the same regardless of photography, but we have to remember that the product is only as good as the customer is aware. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?