By the time Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky returned to work after the holidays last year, his company had cornered a critical portion of the rental market and started an international expansion. Its executive team was planning the next big move. Should they campaign to put more homes on the Airbnb platform? Expand the peer-to-peer rental model to cars and office space? Chesky wasn't sure, but he knew how he wanted to talk about it.
Over his Christmas vacation, he had picked up a biography of Walt Disney. In it, he found an idea that would change the way Airbnb launched products and would eventually help steer Airbnb’s next move toward its mobile product.
"I realized that Disney as a company was actually at a similar stage where we are now when they created Snow White," Chesky says. The company had success with shorter cartoons, but Walt wanted to create a feature-length film with enough depth that people would care about, not just laugh at, the characters. He wanted to tell a complete story.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began in the mid 1930s with a storyboard, a technique the animators at Disney had invented a few years earlier. A comic-book-like outline of the story helped all of the film’s collaborators understand the vision as they took on the new format. Chesky similarly wanted to use storyboarding as a way to understand the Airbnb customer experience as the company planned its next steps.
"Brian comes back from Christmas break with inspiration from Walt Disney and how he storyboarded everything from Snow White," remembers Airbnb co-founder and chief of product Joe Gebbia, "and we kind of all are sitting around the conference table inspired, but wondering, what do we do next?"
Airbnb started the project, appropriately code-named "Snow White," by creating a list of the emotional moments that comprise an Airbnb stay. They built the most important of those moments into stories.
"When you have to storyboard something, the more realistic it is, the more decisions you have to make," Chesky says. "Like are these hosts men or women? Are they young, are they old? Where do they live? The city or the countryside? Why are they hosting? Are they nervous? It’s not that they show up to the house. They show up to the house, how many bags do they have? How are they feeling? Are they tired? At that point you start designing for stuff for a very particular use case."
The final storyboards document the Airbnb experience from different perspectives. In the host story, for instance, there's a moment when the characters think about what they could do with the extra income. In the guest story, there's a "moment of truth" when they arrive at the Airbnb space they've rented and immediately decide if doing so was a good idea. One of the storyboards begins with a character hearing about Airbnb for the first time at a cocktail party and ends with that character telling someone else about the service at a cocktail party.
To make it an official storyboarding process, Airbnb hired Pixar animator Nick Sung to produce final copies of three stories: the host process, the guest process, and the hiring process. The storyboards now hang prominently in its headquarters.
Chesky and Gebbia say the stories guide marketing, advertising, and customer service decisions at Airbnb as well as keep everyone working on the same page. But the unconventional brainstorming method also played an important role in answering the question about Airbnb’s next big move.
One of the first insights the team gained from thinking about their customers in narrative terms is that their service isn’t a website. Most of the Airbnb experience happens offline, in and around the homes it lists on that website.
"For us, it’s a dance between online and offline. And this has been our biggest challenge," Gebbia says. "We saw it play out in the storyboard. We realized the key is mobile.... Mobile is that link between online and offline."
Airbnb released its first mobile app more than a year before they started storyboarding. But mobile’s role in the business since has greatly increased. In January, the company released its first Android App and updated its mobile website to include new features such as instant chat between guests and hosts. In September, it announced that 26% of its traffic was coming from mobile devices. Last month Airbnb "acqhired" the mobile team behind restaurant review app Fondu because, says Gebbia, the team "knew how much more important mobile would be for us going forward."
"As opposed to working out of a spreadsheet or a Google Doc, this is us creating characters and starting to understand the personality of these characters," he says about the process that led to the company’s mobile focus. "It’s just like watching a movie, honestly. You’re sitting in this room watching each of thees frames, talking about what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. We’re almost sometimes acting it out. And that is just such a different experience then working on a spreadsheet."