Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky Says This Is How To Build The Best Company Culture

Sep 09, 2020
 Created by the author — original image Wikimedia Commons.
“I’m sure I’ll amount to nothing” — Brian Chesky

Brian Chesky’s high school yearbook message could not have been more wrong. Yet 8 years later, he could be forgiven for believing his own words when he couldn’t afford rent in his San Francisco apartment as an unemployed designer. Times were tough and he and his roommate Joe Gebbia were frantically thinking of ways to make some money. When a design conference led to local hotels being fully booked, they spotted the opportunity to let people stay for the weekend for a small fee.

Their cheap and cheerful hosting, with air mattresses and Pop-Tarts, worked a treat. Such a simple idea had legs and Brian knew it. Within a few months, another friend joined them and was created. Fast forward 12 years and Airbnb is worth $31bn with Brian steering the ship as CEO. The guy who said he’d amount to nothing revolutionized the global hospitality industry.

Though he naturally became the leader of the company, he values the Airbnb culture above all else:

“Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next “(wo)man on the moon” leap.” — Brian Cheskey

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Define your culture before you have any employees

Airbnb isn’t a story of how a wannabe entrepreneur got funding and hired a thousand people in a year then disappeared. Brian was far more meticulous than that. He believes they were one of the only companies in Silicon Valley to list their values before hiring anyone. For Brian, it doesn’t matter how good your product is when you start if you don’t build your company with the right people.

It took 6 months to hire the first Airbnb employee and hundreds of interviews. Imagine how much short term income they sacrificed by staring at resumes rather than gaining customers. It paid off spectacularly.

The first employee was so important because it was someone joining the “Airfam”. They were going to become part of the company’s DNA and the example for everyone to follow. For each applicant, Brian asked himself “…would I want to work with 100 or 1000 of these guys?”

This doesn’t mean Airbnb wanted a company full of clones, he recognizes the importance of having diverse people from different backgrounds with different ideas. Yet they should all share the same underlying drive and value system. As he puts it “culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”

Don’t cheat with universal values

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad culture, it’s either a strong or weak culture. And a good culture for somebody else may not be a good culture for you.” — Brian Chesky

The mere mention of culture can draw eye-rolls from employees across the world. This is because many companies define values that are too fluffy or generic. Honesty and integrity “don’t count” as they should be the baseline for every company anyway. If your values could be copied and pasted to any organization then you’re doing them wrong.

Brian suggests a few principles which zone in precisely the type of people you want at your company. It’s not about traits that make someone world-class in their field but what makes them fit regardless of their skills. Take a couple of examples from Airbnb’s values:

  • Champion our mission — Airbnb’s mission is to make people feel like they belong anywhere. Brian used to ask interviewees would they still work with him if they knew they would die in 10 year’s time. If they said yes then he knew they shared the same beliefs.
  • To be “cereal” entrepreneurs — This is a throwback to Airbnb’s struggles. When they only had 2 bookings a month, they started selling election-themed cereal too which for some time was the bulk of their income! They want to encourage whacky ideas not a regimented strategy like other companies.

Hire people that intimidate you

Founders pour their hearts and souls into their company yet this sense of ownership can sometimes backfire. The need to control everything can subconsciously prevent them from hiring the best people for the job. They may not want to be challenged because of personal pride.

Brian takes the opposite approach:

“I think that’s what the first thing is, to build a team that is so talented that they kind of, slightly make you uncomfortable to be with them, because you know you are going to have to raise your game to be with them.”

To create a strong culture you need people who won’t just make your employees better but force you to be better too. It helps to stop the idea of self-importance overpowering the conditions for the strongest possible culture.

“It’s a tragedy if the founders outlive the company”

We often hear founders call their companies their baby and unfortunately some act like an overbearing parent. In reality, many people influence a child’s development from teachers to friends to afterschool sports coaches. It’s what helps prepare the child for life without being dependent on their mother or father. Think of the culture of the startup as a child’s character.

Brian and his co-founders have always thought about their company and mission in the long term to build something that endures. If Airbnb is around in 100 years’ time then the culture will be the same regardless of how the world looks and what they are selling.

“Problems will come and go. But culture is forever.”
– Brian Chesky.

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