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How to Use Ecosystems to Match Assets and Needs

An Ecosystem Primer Using Airbnb as your example


Good platforms match the abilities of a business ecosystem with the needs of a finely segmented customer base. They are the perfect way to deliver to the long tail, that miasma of customers introduced to us by Chris Anderson in 2007.

We tend not to talk of it much now, but Long Tail thinking has created great companies like Amazon and Alibaba. You could do worse than bring it into a strategy session.

By the way I often talk to people about the need to develop long tail tools and services as part of any innovation program.

To help you think about long tail issues (ecosystems/segments!) I have put together a rough breakdown of the ecosystem of Airbnb (below). Airbnb is a platform where people rent out rooms or apartments right? So, a two-sided market? Think again.

To grow and sustain its business Airbnb has had to develop a quite complex ecosystem that will no doubt grow more complex over time.

This is not the Apple ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of app developers, websites and advocates. But it is as complex.

I will summarise by looking at the ecosystem member and the assets it brings to the platform:

1. Guests. This is a highly diverse group (bottom right). I have only summarised a few of the main groups in the purple bubble: they are people who are on weekend breaks, people going away for longer, business traveler and experience seekers (see the yellow bubble's above).

Airbnb's customer ecosystem is undoubtedly much more complex with people selecting resort destinations, country destinations, city breaks, whole houses, whole apartments, shared rooms, private rooms, groups, singles, couples, and so on.

To some degree these groups naturally segment by geography. Airbnb has the data to understand what they are looking for though it seems under-utilised.

The assets on this side of the platform are mainly about trust. Airbnb has done a phenomenal job of building trust between renters and hosts. No doubt data plays a part in this and data is a recurring asset that I feel is nonetheless under-used.

2. Property ecosystem: In the orange bubble top left, there is a number of property-related interests in the ecosystem. There are people who rent out rooms or apartments or houses with varying degrees of flexibility. There are superhosts and there are friends of hosts who can do the meet and greet on behalf of hosts.

But in recent times Airbnb has been working with construction/property developers to develop assets that will allow it to compete with resorts or high end community facilities like swimming pools.

Airbnb can underwrite developer activity because it knows something about the demand for specific types of facilities in specific locations.

So the assets we are starting to see are: developer skills and local construction and planning know-how; finance; and data.

3. Business development. There is then a group of activities on the left.

Companies have sprung up to create conferences around the Airbnb community, to teach people how to optimise Airbnb businesses.

There are rental management systems that link host accounts with other gig economy activities. And there are expense reporting apps that make it easier to account of expenditure around a property and rental.

These help keep the cost of being an Airbnber down.

There are also Airbnb specific SEO services and the Airbnb community hosted by the company.

In addition Airbnb has also begun exploring how to offer home improvement loans, taking it into the area of financial services.

Assets: data, finance, apps development, learning and training, QA, convening power of conference organisers.

4. Services: There is then a group of service providers:

Companies that provide cheap cleaning services (in some cases in partnership with Airbnb)

Remote property access services;

Laundry pick up;

Photographic services to improve property appearances on the Airbnb site and

Home Sharing Clubs, meet ups organised by Airbnb to help local people promote the concept of home sharing.

There are also Airbnb management improvement services and Airbnb training services.

Assets: again learning and training, about arbitrage from offshore property access management, content development. 

5. Political ecosystem. Botton centre you can see NGOs and Civic Councils. Airbnb is using its data and convening power to help settle refugees.

6. Experiences. Airbnb has fortuitously alighted on the idea of experiences. Example: If you are a marathon runner you can now book a week with a pro-athlete in Nairobi and experience professional running training.

Experiences constitute a powerful and diverse ecosystem of people providing experiences in al areas - cooking, Zen, yoga, sport, arts and so on. At the same time this closer connection with its ecosystem is allowing Airbnb to generate huge amounts of content about the experience and the location, a kind of granular travel guide that no writer could hope to match.

In the area of experiences they can also now count on Telcos that they have agreements with to pre-load the Airbnb app onto smartphones.

Assets: network access of telcos; local knowledge; lifestyle and skills knowledge, extraordinary goodwill, advocacy from experience providers and their guests expressed in a rich seam of content and reviews.

I am sure this list is not exhaustive but it is a start in understanding how a platform really works in practice. Many third parties, many third party assets and matching of needs through innovations in the ecosystem!


In other places I have stressed the importance of content as an asset. Look how rich the content layer is around Airbnb:

  • Location content on many of the cities and places covered by the platform
  • Experiences content created by providers
  • Conference content provides by service providers
  • Reviews created by users on both the buy and sell side.
  • Photographs
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