How Airbnb Hacked Craigslist for Viral Growth by@scott-d.-clary
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How Airbnb Hacked Craigslist for Viral Growth

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Airbnb was one of the first-ever true ‘Unicorns”, achieving a billion-dollar-plus evaluation. It's not a surprise that startups are emulating and unpacking their business model to try to replicate their success. Here are a few lessons we can learn from Airbnb’s Craigslist strategy. Be unconventional, don’t overcomplicate a customer acquisition process, and keep it simple. Do boring things that work, and growth doesn't have to be sexy.

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Scott D. Clary

Host of The Success Story Podcast | Founder/CEO OnMi Patch...

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Not only did they completely revolutionize and redefine travel as we know it, but Airbnb was also one of the first-ever true “Unicorns”, achieving a billion-dollar-plus evaluation.

They definitely haven’t slowed down over the years, surpassing over 1b in quarterly revenue, with an evaluation of over 35b. They are nothing short of impressive.

It's not a surprise that startups are emulating and unpacking their business model to try to replicate their success.

Let’s break down some of the main components that helped them achieve their massive success.

Humble Beginnings

Airbnb started out in 2008 when founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia realized there was a business idea in renting our air mattresses to travelers in their living room when hotel space for a large conference in San Francisco was sold out.

The idea then evolved into a website.

Other people used the website to do the same thing.

Boom. Airbnb.


Do Things That Don’t Scale

Instead of investing in paid ads, or social media, they started manually reaching out to people who would be the perfect client for their website/platform.

Every time someone posted on Craigslist that they offered their home up for a bed and breakfast or for short-term lodging.

They emailed them — asking them if they wanted to list their platform.

This was manual, and this was tedious, but this worked.

It was low-cost, and it worked.

To quote Paul Graham, “Do things that don’t scale”.

The Results?

After initial success, they coded up an automated tool that reached out to new Craigslist postings automatically.

They refined the copy, made the onboarding and sign-up simpler and more user-friendly.


This led to viral growth and was the start of the incredible story of a category redefining company.


Scaling & Growth

Airbnb is a masterclass in startup strategy, marketing strategy, and sales strategy.

They failed multiple times before they achieved any measure of success, and the early-stage lessons, that they used to achieve their initial momentum, as well as many scaling and growth strategies they used on their way to Unicorn status we’re equally impressive (and far too numerous to properly cover in a newsletter).

When researching this case study, I stumbled across a 230+ page case study that goes into post-Craigslist, Airbnb growth strategies, and insights, so if you want to read more about some impressive, innovative things that Airbnb did to scale, check out these links.

Lessons Learnt

There are a few lessons we can learn from Airbnb’s Craigslist strategy.

Growth doesn’t have to be sexy.

Airbnb realized that startup growth could be using very traditional, boring, and simple methods to achieve initial growth. The Craigslist strategy was essentially an outbound sales strategy for a SaaS project. I know enough developers that just want to set up an inbound machine and never type an email or chat with a customer, and just drive traffic and optimize conversions. Do boring things that work. You don’t need paid ads, fancy funnels, graphic design. You need to write a few sentences and focus on getting customers wherever they’re at.

Meet customers where they’re at.

Airbnb didn’t focus on targeting, retargeting, and spreading a wide net. They just met their customers where they were at. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Silicon Valley thinking they wanted to spend their time on a platform as “unsexy” as Craigslist. But they realized that their customers were there — so they just spent time meeting the customers on the platform/medium they preferred.

Be unconventional.

Keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate a customer acquisition process. Just because your strategy isn’t in line with the strategy used by a CMO chatting about the latest high tech demand generation schemes on a popular marketing podcast, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Being unconventional is a good thing.

Do things that don’t scale.

To build out a process that will let you scale your business, it’s not going to be scalable on day 1. It won’t be automated; it won’t be available en masse. It will be slow and painful. A common trap that founders or marketers fall into is that they assume that if they build it, customers will come. This is the most dangerous mindset trap to fall into. Almost all successful businesses or strategies work because someone made it work. Figured out how to optimize it manually. This took a painstakingly long time to figure it out, and only then, once they proved that it was successful, figured out ways to scale it and automated it. Recruit users & land customers manually, and then scale that process, only once you’ve figured out that it works.

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