How Walt Disney and Snow White Fuelled Airbnb’s Success

It all started on a cold winter night in 1934. Walt Disney playfully tossed his staff some cash and told them to get dinner and meet him promptly at the Disney soundstage.

Disney stood alone in the spotlight of a dark and dusty stage, staring back at his group of staff who were unprepared for what was about to happen. Out of the blue, Walt orchestrated a one-man improvisation of the story of “Snow White” and announced they would be turning it into a full-length animated feature film. Although Disney and his staff had spent several years creating animated short films, a full-length animation feature film was a huge feat, and would be the first of its kind; as most cartoons back then weren’t longer than a few minutes. That said, Disney was prepared to do bigger and better things and persuaded his team that they were ready, too.

Of course with big ideas come immense criticisms. Disney’s brother Roy, who was in charge of the studio’s finances didn’t think that the film would succeed, and neither did the media, labeling the film Disney’s “folly.” But that only motivated Walt even more. He worked endlessly on storyboards for the movie in his spare time to present a complete idea to his staff. He was shooting for perfection in every sketch of Snow White and would not settle for anything less.


The movie, being the first of it’s kind, had a modest budget of $250,000, (Don’t get me wrong – this was a huge movie budget for the era.) but ballooned to nearly $1.5 million when it was finally complete. To help with costs, Walt mortgaged his home and used personal funds to ensure the movie’s completion.

The movie first aired December of 1937, and premiered Nationwide February 4th, 1938. Disney’s “Folly” blew up the box office, grossing 8M while in theatres, and ranking 10th in all-time gross ticket sales to date…surprising the media and even some supporters of Walt’s work. People may not have believed in him back then, but many have been inspired by his courage, and have recreated his early business strategies to help their business ventures.

Enter Airbnb.

Brian Chesky is the CEO of Airbnb Inc. He was heavily inspired by Walt after reading his biography while on vacation…So inspired, that he completely altered Airbnb’s original business strategy using Disney’s techniques. Brian introduced a storyboard process, so instead of working out of a spreadsheet or a Google Doc, Airbnb staff create characters to better understand their customers and the needs they will have throughout the Airbnb process. Brian’s philosophy is that by mapping out your customer’s journey, you can identify potential pain points and anticipate their emerging needs.

Airbnb has a range of host and guest profiles used throughout Airbnb’s storyboard process.


This photo is a frame from Airbnb’s storyboard depicting “a host receiving a reservation request”.

So far the new business strategy has been working, engaging staff and even customers in the new process. Brian is confident that the storyboard process will continue to serve Airbnb and its client base well. “It’s just like watching a movie. You’re sitting in this room watching each of these frames, talking about what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. We’re almost sometimes acting it out. And that is such a different experience than working on a spreadsheet.”