Doing things that don’t scale – my Brian Chesky moment

Inability to chill out

The evening sun shone warmly upon us, as we sipped hot tea together in the slightly cold winds of November. I had been discussing a plethora of topics with my partners E and S. (They would like to stay private. Hence, the post will refer to them as E and S). We decided to challenge ourselves.

The challenge – Run an experiment where we had to sell a tangible physical product within 24 hours and generate revenues (and hopefully profits) respectively.

Hence began some of the most exhilarating hours of my life along with my partners in crime; E and S.

An Idea and Washrooms

The problem statement we narrowed down on was to help people surprise their respective partners / friends and give them the opportunity to make memories.

We entered a mall and used the washroom entrance to target people. Since we did not have the necessary permissions to openly sell within the mall. 😀

Insights –

  • While we received prospects, pushing them along the funnel and converting them into buying customers was ridiculously hard.
  • Attempting to use the mall without permissions as a growth hack was exciting. Luckily, we spent sufficient time trying to gain prospects, before being thrown out. 🙂
  • Lack of women on the team, which would have made our task of approaching female groups easier. Lack of children with us, which would at least have helped us approach and interview families. (Side note – Made me ponder on why companies keep fighting against diversity, since a small experiment like this made it very clear that collaboration between people from different backgrounds / genders / experiences, etc can help make things easier, and also add value.)
  • The true power of trying out something crazy showed up, as a couple walked over to us and talked about how they had tried something similar and would be happy to help us in our growth.
A Pivot and a Rocket ship

This time, instead of taking the typical product approach of building something and trying it out in the market, we decided to take a diametrically opposing top down approach. The decision was to target the areas which would have the biggest crowd, and figure out what could be sold respectively.

While S and me took to observing the people walking in and out of the temple, in hopes of spotting some clues; E begun exploring nearby shops. A good 20 minutes later, E walked up to us and mentioned that we should be selling ghee (traditional clarified butter) which could be used by people to light up diyas (oil lamps) and place them in the temple respectively.

Our eyes widened, as the two of us stared at him in silence. We had a deep feeling that E had truly lost his mind 🙂 With nothing to loose except precious time, we none the less decided to jump onto the bandwagon. And backed against the wall, the only worse thing that could have happened was a second failure and a third pivot to something crazier.

Someone comes knocking!

We ended up landing our first customer. While she was extremely reluctant at first, we did manage to convince her, and ended up making the first sale. It was more of a relief than a celebratory moment. However, nothing had prepared us for the moments that took place a few minutes later. Since it was our first sale, we had not even considered the potential customer success use cases.

The Brian Chesky moment

While we begun quickly turning around our business with a couple of more customers; our first consumer returned angrily. She begun pounding us with details on where we were screwing up. In this fit of irritation, she mentioned a festival that happened to be on that Saturday.

While my partner pacified the angry consumer, I made mental notes of the various points with a high degree of astonishment. Brian Chesky had talked about finding a singular user who helped them define the next set of features. I stared in complete disbelief as the words started coming true right in front of my eyes. We not only got a detailed road map for the next 2 hours. But thanks to her, we capitalized on this new found consumer insight; turning our next two hours into absolute craziness.

We immediately diversified our product categories to both ghee and diyas. Gradually, we realized that a complete ready to light diya was turning out to be more profitable. Hence, we quickly shut down our original product of direct raw materials and went full bang on a packaged diya.

As our consumer demand shot up, we soon ran out of supply. With S stuck fulfilling other supplies, I had to run barefoot to the nearest ATM to withdraw cash and replenish the ghee supply. Running wild eyed and barefoot for about a kilometer as people stared at me is a moment that’s going into my bucket list of crazy stuff I have done. 🙂

Customer centricity

As a product manager, I keep interviewing customers in hopes of figuring out insights that not only solve further problems for the customer, but in turn also impact product metrics (conversion / retention / churn / etc) and ultimately business metrics (profit margins / operating margins / cash flows / etc).

This customer centric mindset helped us nail superior profits in the closing hours or our experiment, as we discovered that customers wanted paper napkins to clean their hands after using ghee / lighting diyas. The insight was a value add as we utilized it into premium pricing for our product.

The power of persistence and a team

Having worked with diverse teams / stakeholders as a product manager, I have been a strong believer in teams, with whom I have shared both tough yet happy moments working towards outcomes. This experiment brought alive the power of diverse teams yet again. E came up with the idea, S ran the supply chain like a slick operations guy, and I as the product manager, did whatever was required to get stuff out. I participated in driving the end to end execution, provided a lending hand in the consumer facing messaging, and supported the supply side, when things got really fast.

Customer messaging and Sales

We not only went from zero to one, but ended up making a small yet neat profit from the measly amount we had invested.

I have been immensely lucky to have executed a crazy experiment like this in collaboration with two amazing people who keep me motivated through their own respective journeys. And yes, a mention for one of the best episodes of this wonderful podcast, which keeps my craziness alive, despite life constantly pushing me towards the negative quadrant on the Y axis.