What AirBNB, Uber and Etsy can teach you about scaling up

scale-up disruptors


It’s every CEO’s dream: one day you’re at the helm of a bright young start-up with a great product gathering momentum. Before you know it, you’re steering a unicorn through the intergalactic business space. Although the herd of unicorns numbers few in the scheme of things, business leaders today can learn a great deal about how companies like Uber, Airbnb and Etsy went from tiny entrepreneurial projects to massive global companies.


The first important concept to understand here is scalability. Without scalability, Uber is just another small-time cab firm. By being accessible to anyone with a smartphone, it became a behemoth. It needed affordable technology and a slick, easy-to-use platform, and by focusing on the supply side of the equation, it knew that the demand would follow. Similarly, Airbnb focused on creating beautiful content on their platform by hiring professional photographers to improve the look of listings. They focused on supply, knowing that demand would eventually follow.

Putting supply first also means that these companies could constantly improve on the UX as they could identify early in the process what worked and what didn’t and adapt accordingly. It’s only now, as these companies reach truly immense size, that the focus has shifted towards generating demand.

 So how did they go from a small customer base to a global one in virtually no time at all?

Smart digital marketing

They eschewed the traditional forms of marketing such as TV and print ads and instead focused their efforts on digital media. Google ads, Facebook ads, Youtube ads. All of these were on platforms whose audience was familiar with the sort of technology which Uber and Airbnb was presenting them. It was also targeting a millennial audience which bought into the sharing economy, even if they didn’t quite know it yet.

Furthermore, digital advertising was significantly cheaper than those traditional forms just mentioned and, importantly, it is also trackable. Uber used demographic data to identify successfully the types of people who could be interested in becoming drivers, then created ads to target them specifically.

 The shift from a supply to a demand focus occurs when the early adopter phase is complete and the company begins to attract new customers from digital marketing and social media. It’s at this point in the company trajectory that a poor product will not be tolerated. Given the previous supply focus, however, it should be a given that the product has been sufficiently tweaked and improved to offer practically the best possible UX.

airbnb growth

Pay attention

Importantly, a brand must then listen to its customer base. This sounds like a simple concept but can in fact easily be overlooked, particularly considering that up to this point all efforts were focused inwards on product, rather than outwards on customer.

It’s here that appointments become critical. All too often, we hear about tech start-ups that showed great promise, only to reach this stage, not improve personnel then fall by the wayside.

The right team

A great CIO or CMO will be able to put in place a feedback structure whereby the company can respond to customer demands in a timely manner. As we have found in the past, companies need to recruit well ahead of where they want to be or risk recruiting today’s and not tomorrow’s leader.

The next key factor behind explosive growth companies is expansion. This comes back to the scalability point I made earlier. Uber was able to ramp up its operations so quickly because it had a business model that could be deployed in just about any city in the world. Admittedly, it came up against some obstacles in certain places, but ultimately the platform it had created filled a huge gap in the market.

So what’s the lesson? Even if you have a product that isn’t global in nature, prove your business model in one location, analyse to death why it works there and only then look to replicate in similar locations. 
As CEO Travis Kalanick has said: “After a platform finds a formula that works, it needs to distill the formula into principles, catalysts, and a to-do list to transfer the formula to managers it hires to expand in different regions or industry verticals.”

If your company has a scalable product but you are unsure of the next steps, get in touch for a confidential chat. Our expertise is in matching the right senior management people with the best companies at the critical time.

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