How Storytellers Find Untapped Markets in Familiar Settings

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor


Using the example of Airbnb, Valla Vakili argues that great storytellers use familiar settings in unexpected ways, a tactic that applies business as well.

By Valla Vakili

Valla Vakili

Valla Vakili

Last week I looked at how you can build better products by treating your users as characters, illustrated by Netflix and their hit show Daredevil. Today I want to unpack the storytelling toolkit further by showing how you can use setting to open untapped markets, drawing on Airbnb and two classic mysteries.

An eclectic mix of passengers board an upscale train in Istanbul, headed to Europe. One is murdered. The train, now a crime scene, is also the setting for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Ten people arrive at the same island, each for a different reason. One by one they are killed. The island becomes an execution chamber—and the setting for Christie’s And Then There Were None. The best selling mystery of all time.

Great storytellers use familiar settings in new and unexpected ways. In product the corollary to setting is your marketplace—the physical location of your customers. Companies that upend the conventional understanding of a setting go on to invent new and untapped marketplaces for growth. You can do the same.

For many companies are the “at home” and “at work” marketplace are the most familiar settings. Enterprise software companies focus on at work customers, consumer media companies on at home audiences. Product development targets the known marketplace, supported by research that paints a vivid picture of what typical at home and at work behavior looks like.  Tremendous efforts go into ensuring market share remains constant or growing against competitors targeting the same at home or at work user. This way of thinking about marketplaces soon becomes second nature—the assumption that the company mostly caters to one or another setting is rarely questioned.

What happens when you set these assumptions aside?

Airbnb did just that. They looked at our homes and saw someone else’s getaway. Here home changes from a private and cost generating setting to a shared and revenue generating one. Airbnb provides the technology and infrastructure to create this untapped marketplace. By enabling a familiar setting to be used in unconventional ways by millions of people they build a differentiated and growing business. The company ascends to ‘verb’ status in popular culture and is revered by travelers worldwide.

How can you apply this same approach in your own work?

Start by questioning the assumptions behind how you define your marketplace. The hard line between home and work settings described above rests largely on assumptions about the role of technology in each environment. A computer for work at work; a computer and entertainment system for pleasure at home. For years now we’ve carried with us technology that not only combines work and home uses but also enables a range of other activities, at all times and in all places. The smartphone and easy connectivity should undo our assumptions about home and work settings, yet by habit and institutional memory these assumptions persist.

There’s never been a better time to create products that upend the traditional understanding of home and work settings. The same holds true for travel, play, health, learning, finance and more. There are untapped markets behind all of these once you start seeing the familiar in wholly new ways.

In the next part of this series I’ll look at the role of another key element in the storytelling toolkit, Plot, in identifying your market opportunity and delivering great products to users. If you like this series, please also check out the podcast that started it, Storytelling is Product Management.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Valla Vakili was most recently the VP Mobile and Consumer Electronics Products, iHeartMedia, and formerly the founder of Small Demons.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.