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What Startups Can Learn From WhatsApp, Airbnb, and Glossier

Operations & Management

Isadora Teich wrote this article


We have all had an idea at some point and thought that it would make an amazing business. However, taking that idea and making it a workable and scalable real-life business takes way more than talk. It’s complicated and there are so many little details to consider.

So, what exactly is at the core of a successful startup?

Let’s take a look.

Solving A Problem

All of the most famous and successful startups have one thing in common: they identify a need or problem and create something that fulfills that need or fixes that problem.

In order to illustrate this, let’s take a look at 3 very different massive companies that began as small startups: Glossier, WhatsApp, and Airbnb.


This social media app was founded by Jan Koum and Brian Acton, two ex-Yahoo employees who were tired of digital communication products being swamped with ads. They founded WhatsApp in 2009 to be an ad-free and gimmick-free digital communication platform.

In 2014, Facebook purchased it for $16 billion.

This seems almost like a no-brainer. Everyone hates ads. We go to social media to connect with people, not get slammed with advertisements. While Whatsapp is not that popular with Americans in the US, it is a staple in many other countries.

On top of an ad-free experience, it is an easy way to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world using your phone for free. It has 2 billion monthly active users around the world.


When it comes to discussions of startups that solve problems, you have to talk about Airbnb. This one seems so simple that it is amazing no one considered it before a few years ago. Airbnb solves many problems for many different kinds of people including:

– Budget travelers

– People who need flexible accommodations

– People who want to monetize their extra space

– Entrepreneurs

Airbnb started when two guys realized they needed to do something to make rent in San Francisco, and that people needed more short-term accommodation options in their city.

Today, it is a multi-billion-dollar company the operates around the world.


This is an interesting one.

While WhatsApp and Airbnb solve literal tangible problems, it is less cut and dry whether Glossier does this or not. However, what matters is that they have branded themselves as if they solve a problem. So many people believe their narrative that they are the only startup listed here to have developed a cult following.

This is on top of being valued at more than a billion dollars and having international expansion plans.

Glossier sells beauty products. However, they expertly market themselves as the antithesis of the beauty business. In their About Us, they say:

“Glossier, Inc. was founded in 2014 on the belief that beauty isn’t built in a boardroom—it happens when you’re a part of the process.”

They really have capitalized on the idea that traditional beauty companies tell you how you should look and what you should buy. They say that beauty standards come from the top down, but they solve this problem by involving their community.

Essentially, the idea communicated is that buying from L’Oreal or Revlon is outdated and oppressive, but when you buy from Glossier, you are celebrating your authentic self. You are joining a community.

Narrative and What It Can and Can’t Do

When it comes to building a successful company, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In WhatsApp, Glossier, and Airbnb, we have three very different approaches to utilizing narrative.

WhatsApp is the easiest one to talk about in this context because there is pretty much no branding or marketing of WhatsApp in the public consciousness. It is a bare-bones and simple tool made to get a job done.

And it does that so well that billions of people use it without any story attached to it at all. If you create a valuable enough tool, you might not need to play around with narrative at all.

The Limits of Hype

The more cynical people out there might say that it actually doesn’t matter if you do anything valuable or not. If your connections are good enough and you can throw enough money at something, your company will succeed.

However, we have seen time and time again that it doesn’t always work out.

One of the most famous startups of all time is WeWork, which had the buzziest branding and most glamorous social media presence, as well as money pouring into it. It collapsed anyway.

WhatsApp, on the other hand, has become a global mainstay and was bought for billions of dollars with no hype at all.


Airbnb offers something tangible which has changed the way we travel and live, maybe forever. However, it mixes this with branding that supersedes what it offers. For many people, it is simply an easy way to get cheap accommodations.

However, they brand themselves as a key to authentic experiences and living like a local wherever you go.

Their Instagram is full of beautiful images. It advertises not only their interesting accommodation options around the world but the experiences they offer through their app. Through Airbnb, locals in different parts of the world offer walking tours, cooking classes, concerts, and all sorts of things. Offering authenticity and a way for you to connect with new places, people, and cultures is a big part of their branding.

However, even if Airbnb did not push this narrative, it is likely that people would use their app regardless.

Again, it is a helpful tool that solves problems for people in different situations. Considering that Airbnb has expanded to offer experiences as well as accommodations, this branding has likely been a valuable tool for them.


In Glossier, the importance of narrative and branding is the most extreme. The beauty market is saturated with all types of products and companies. If your company is entering a highly competitive market, or artistry-related market, branding is wildly important. It may be the only way to set yourself apart from the competition.

To put it simply, there are millions of companies making red bullet lipsticks. All of them are more or less similar. If you are selling a red bullet lipstick, how are you going to convince people to choose yours over the thousands of similar ones out there? Probably through packaging, branding, and narrative.

Glossier combines a strong narrative with a community-focused brand. Again, it is the only startup here with a cult following.

This may be partly because they prominently feature users of their products on social media. They treat normal consumers like influencers by sharing and interacting with posts where they are tagged. This incentivizes their fans to keep the conversation about them going online.

According to Glossier, when you buy from them you are not only connecting with yourself, but a whole community of like-minded people.

They brilliantly identified a pain point amongst beauty consumers. Many people were tired of feeling like industry executives were telling them how to look. Glossier made consumers feel like the power to define themselves was back in their hands.

Final Thoughts

These interesting startups are all very different.

They offer different things to different people in different markets. Their approaches are not the same, and their trajectories have been vastly different. WhatsApp ended up as a property of Facebook, Airbnb is a massive international phenomenon, and Glossier just landed $80 million in funding and has plans to expand internationally.

All three solve a problem.

However, Airbnb and Glossier highlight the fact that as much as people want problems solved, they also want to experience connection.

Airbnb markets itself as facilitating connection with the world and Glossier markets itself as facilitating connection with the self. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is such an indispensable tool that literally facilitates connection, that it didn’t have to rely on a brand narrative at all.

New startups should not only ask themselves what kind of problems they solve but how their work can factor into building positive relationships and connections. Therein is the key to success.

About Since 2009, we have helped create 350+ next-generation apps for startups, Fortune 500s, growing businesses, and non-profits from around the globe. Think Partner, Not Agency.


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