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

 

The evening sun shone warmly upon us, as the three of us 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 realized we were falling into an analysis paralysis and 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.

Humble beginnings through a public washroom

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. We felt washrooms were the best way to target a larger set of consumers. And would also be easy since we did not have the necessary permissions to openly sell within the mall!

Growth hacking the sales channel

Insights –

  • While we received prospects, pushing them along the funnel and converting them into buying consumers 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 by the security guards. 😀
  • 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 add tremendous business 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.
An Unexpected pivot

This time, instead of taking the typical product market fit approach of ideation, building and trying it out in the market; we decided to take a diametrically opposed market product approach. The decision was to target the areas which would have the largest crowd, and figure out what could be sold respectively. As we wandered around on the streets, we stopped by hopelessly near a temple. 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 30 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 disbelief. We had a deep feeling that E had truly lost his mind! With nothing to loose except precious time, we very reluctantly decided to jump onto the bandwagon. Backed against the wall, the only worse thing that could have happened was another failure and a  pivot to a third pilot.

Someone comes knocking!

A woman noticed us holding the poster, and approached us, curious to know why two people were selling ghee. While she was extremely finicky 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 would take place a few minutes later. Since it was our first sale, we had not even estimated the potential growth curve or the preparation required for serving consumers at scale.

The Brian Chesky moment

As we got busy in 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 particular 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 watched in complete disbelief as the words started coming true in front of my eyes. We not only got a detailed roadmap for the next 2 hours. But thanks to her, we capitalized on this new found consumer insight of the festival. This turned our next two hours into absolute craziness.

The Rocket ship

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 focused on a packaged diya (bundled with a matchbox). My third partner S negotiated with a woman selling prayer material in a nearby stall to become our supplier on credit and good faith.

As our consumer demand shot up, we soon ran out of ghee. With S stuck fulfiling the remaining materials, I had to run barefoot to the nearest ATM to withdraw cash and replenish the ghee from the nearby store. Running barefoot in the Bengaluru November cold for approx 500m as people stared at me is a moment that’s made it to the bucket list of all the crazy stuff I have ever done! 😀

Customer centricity

As a product manager, I keep interviewing customers to figure 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 (operating margins / cash flows / etc).

This customer centric mindset helped us nail superior profits in the closing hours of our experiment, as we discovered that customers wanted paper napkins to clean their hands after using ghee filled diyas. The insight was additional value as we turned something as simple as paper napkins into premium pricing for our product, and minted even more profits.

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 helped create the messaging, helped sell the product, interviewed the users for insights, and supported the supply chain (when things got out of hand really fast).

Summary

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 am not sure if our success was correlated with being at the right place at the right time. It could have very easily turned into a failure story if we had not ended up wandering near the temple, if E had not picked our brains on a crazy idea, and so many other reasons. None the less, it were some of the most exhilarating hours of my life.

I would also mention one of the best episodes of this wonderful podcast, which keeps my craziness alive, despite constantly being pushed from (0,0) towards the negative quadrant (-∞,-∞) on the Y axis.

Disclaimers

Essays = fn (Perspectives)No. of changes * No. of failures
where Perspectives = fn (biases, experiences, research, learnings)
All thoughts,opinions and words are individual and do not reflect my past or current employers