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


The evening sun shone warmly upon us, as the three of us sat sipping hot tea together in the slightly cold November winds of India’s silicon valley. I had been hotly debating on a plethora of business 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. The caveat – No food, chocolates, flowers, etc.

Humble beginnings through a public washroom

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

Planning for execution

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

Realizations –

  • While we received prospects, pushing them along the funnel and converting them into buying consumers was ridiculously hard.
  • A lack of women on the team, which would have made our task of approaching female groups easier. And a lack of children with us, which would at least have helped us approach and interview families.
  • 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.

Attempting to use the mall without permissions as a growth hack was exciting. Luckily, we spent sufficient time trying to run our experiment, before being thrown out by the security guards. 😀

“Market Product Fit”

This time, instead of taking the typical product market fit approach of ideation, building and trying out a solution in the market; we decided to take a diametrically opposed market product approach. The hypothesis was to target the areas which would have the largest crowd, and figure out what could be sold in massive volumes respectively.

The crazy insight

As we wandered around the narrow 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 racking something up through observations; E wandered off to the nearby shops. A good 30 minutes later, E walked up to us and stated 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 each other. And then turned to stare at E in utter 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 a second failure and 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 attempting to turn around our business with a couple of more customers; our first customer 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 visiting the house of a particular user who single handedly gave them the entire roadmap for the next few months. 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 on that particular Saturday. This turned our next 2 hours into absolute craziness.

The Rocket ship

We immediately diversified our product categories to both ghee and diyas. In light of the new information about the festival, our core insight of people needing ghee became sharper. We took a step further and experimented with a hypothesis that a fully ready to light diya might sell more. And it did! 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 (purely on credit and good faith).

As our consumer demand shot up, we soon ran out of ghee and credit. With S stuck trying to fulfill the remaining materials, I had to run barefoot to the nearest ATM to withdraw cash and replenish ghee from the nearby store. Running barefoot (against the cold wind of Bengaluru November 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! 😀

Napkins, juicy profits and a wrap up

I kept interviewing customers in parallel to figure out insights that not only solved further pain points, but in turn also impacted conversion metrics and ultimately business metrics (gross margins and revenues). 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 the right team

Having worked with diverse stakeholders as a product professional, I have been a strong believer in teams, with whom I have shared both crests and troughs while working towards impact. This experiment brought alive the power of the right teams which have a healthy mix of hard work, mutual respect, and ethics. E came up with the idea, S negotiated and ran the supply chain like a slick operations guy, and I did whatever it took to ship the product & track earnings. I helped create the messaging, helped sell the product, interviewed the users for insights, and ran barefoot to support the supply chain (when we got sucked into a large vacuum of opportunity).

Zero to One

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 failed with our earlier idea, if we had not ended up wandering near the temple, if E had not picked our brains on an absolutely insane idea, and so on and so forth. None the less, these were some of the most exhilarating hours of my life, as they brought alive the Brian Chesky moment for me and my team respectively.