The Magic Of Marketplace Expansion Playbooks

Editor’s note: Mike Townsend is the founder of HomeHero.

Since the early days at Flowtab and now HomeHero, it had long been an assumption that our city-by-city expansion would be driven by an illustrious detailed playbook. It would consist of an instruction manual with the necessary steps to go from scratch to city domination as fast as possible and all we’d have to do was find the right people to carry out the assignment. It would be the key ingredient to our success and growth and it would be kept in a proverbial vault.

This idea was taken as common knowledge passed down from successful marketplace founders before us. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has spoken numerous times about the importance of his company’s playbook in market rollouts. And Aaron Hirschhorn, who launched DogVacay in Los Angeles and has since expanded to hundreds of cities, had this to say about customer quality when expanding: “As a marketplace expands, one of the most critical challenges is maintaining the same level of customer care and quality assurance. As a business scales, the customer experience should remain a top priority, as it helps to bolster both repeat business and word of mouth.”

However, the concept of expansion playbooks is largely misunderstood.

I caught up with Joe Nigro, general manager of home services marketplace Handy, to discuss his experience with the playbook; he agreed that the public perceptions are far from reality. Joe organizes a monthly meetup group in Boston that discusses marketplace challenges and hacks. We asked the group, which consists of about 50 founders and city managers of the most successful marketplaces, what they thought about the expansion playbook and we received a collection of passionate answers confirming my suspicions.

The reality is that marketplaces don’t follow a book to expand to new markets, but rather a collection of process checklists and face-to-face strategy meetings to share past learnings. The playbook is a basic guideline to start from:

“Playbooks are extremely useful as a starting point — they can get you moving in the right direction and tune you into the things you should be paying attention to — but we’ve found that every city and market is so unique that we need to be smart about when to follow the recipe and when to trust our taste buds. Making adjustments based on constant communication within our team and frequent self-questioning typically gets us better results than blindly doing what’s worked well for other cities at other times.” — David Schloss, Instacart GM, Boston

When rolling out to a new city, a marketplace needs to understand marketing (attracting demand both locally and online); supply (signing up service providers); sales and support (staff to solve problems and answer questions); and the local risks (regulatory considerations, local market dynamics).

It’s obviously important to think about and discuss what’s working and what’s not working in order to consistently optimize your strategy. However, writing these things down in a big book and passing it to a new crew in another city is probably the wrong approach.

The simple fact is no one reads big training documents because they become outdated two weeks after they’re written.

“From day 1 we assumed the success of our city-by-city expansion would rely on the coveted knowledge contained inside a confidential playbook. Now I realize that because our technology and business processes improve so frequently, a full playbook would become obsolete in a matter of weeks.” — Jordan Fliegel, CoachUp CEO

At HomeHero we connect families with caregivers for seniors. We have a lot of moving parts: onboarding supply of caregivers (Heroes); partnering with referral channels; handling support tickets; and developing the product. To share knowledge across our 13-person team, we produced a bunch of video and written tutorials (i.e. the start to our playbook) explaining internal processes.

The videos were simple and short, and we pushed hard for employees to use them any time they had a question. I was proud of them and was convinced they’d work great to maintain consistency and internal communication.

Except I don’t think anyone ever watched the tutorials.

Tutorials take work to absorb, and they are boring. And, often, the person who knows the answer is sitting next to you. Also, because product and processes change so fast in a startup, the videos are likely to be antiquated by the time you watch them, which is an unnecessary risk. So I realized these video tutorials and long step-by-step documents needed to be sliced into bite-sized checklists.

Build a checklist, not a book

We took a note from the book The Checklist Manifesto and decided to only write down the absolutely critical steps in a process. These relatively short lists became our playbook. Here are a few of them:

  • Checklist for onboarding new heroes
  • Confirmed at least two past work references
  • Score 80 percent on questionnaire
  • Fluent English in recorded interview questions
  • Five years experience in caregiving
  • Confirmed CNA license or equivalent
  • Confirmed smartphone
  • Confirmed driver’s license and car
  • Cleared background check
  • Conducted orientation session
  • Signed all onboarding legal documents

Other checklists (about 10 steps long) we maintain include:

  • Removing a Hero from the platform
  • Conducting orientation sessions
  • Marketing HomeHero to a hospital manager
  • Recruiting new Heroes
  • Equipment needed in a new city
  • Matching a family with a Hero

As your company grows, you should build a culture of constantly questioning your assumptions and refining your playbook. Ideas that were bad ideas at a small scale may be great ideas at a larger scale or in new markets.

For example, finding a caregiver for your parents is stressful because it’s so important. Finding someone you trust is time-consuming and difficult, because you probably have no clue what to look for. So when we created our onboarding process, we bought $4,500 worth of heavy camera equipment, rented out an office and conducted video interviews to make the experience 10x better for families.

After about six months we moved to group orientations, then a few months later we launched mobile group orientations in various locations throughout Los Angeles County. However, in a monthly brainstorming session we realized heavy expensive camera equipment was the wrong tool for our new process and we switched to an iPad, which has been a wonderful improvement to our playbook.

“The word ‘playbook’ gives you the idea that there is a spiral notebook, but in reality we use a combination of Google docs with checklists to keep track of equipment needed, cultural characteristics we look for in hiring, and unique marketing tactics to test when we launch a new city.” — Jordan Metzner, Washio CEO

The human element

Great people perform their jobs like artists not robots. Tasks are constantly and subtly improved over time, and the best way to cross-train people is to talk to each other.

At HomeHero, we set up weekly and monthly lunches and dinners to check in with department leaders to discuss what they’ve learned recently, and we put an emphasis on transparency. It’s been productive.

Instead of spending time thinking about how to capture every detail in a book, think about building a concise checklist and repeatedly educating employees on tactics to execute the checklist.

“A playbook implies you already know all the plays. Great startups learn incredibly fast and adapt and are constantly changing how they play the game. In my experience, a few-page doc of concise, high-level learnings is a much better guide.” —  Josh Breinlinger, VC at Sigma West, previously oDesk