“I think leader psychology often becomes organizational psychology,” says Brian Chesky, reflecting on a year in which his company, Airbnb, was destabilized by the global pandemic.
There was no panic, says the managing director and co-founder of the accommodation reservation platform, even as reservations have dropped by over 70 percent and thousands of hosts have protested when forced to issue refunds. Others wondered if the travel industry would ever recover.
“The trick is to be optimistic,” he says, with the calm hindsight of someone who knows everything has gone well. “Optimism has to be rooted in facts that you can present as a case to people, to say to them, ‘I am optimistic because this is where we are going, and this is how we are going to get there.’
Chesky, 39, ranks among one of the most striking cases of a person learning on the job in the company’s history. In a Silicon Valley culture that sees quick failures as something to celebrate, perhaps even a minimal qualification, Chesky’s first foray into tech, into start-ups, into running a business of everything. type. – turned out to be a success. Airbnb’s initial public offering, introduced before the end of last year, valued the company at $ 88 billion by the end of its first day of trading.
These facts seemed to rise on Chesky, live on the air, while the price of the first transaction entered on the day Airbnb debuted on the stock market. Stunned, he could only put together gibberish in response to the news.
“It took me about 10 or 15 seconds to form a sentence,” he recalls. “I was surprised what happened. Banks don’t tell you [the stock is] will double. At that point, it was as if my hard drive had crashed.
He continues, “Remember, eight months before there were news articles asking, ‘Will Airbnb exist?’ And I guess those eight months. . . just crashed, in 15 seconds.
The lessons of 2020 have come thick and fast. In May, the company laid off 25 percent of its workforce, abandoning areas of activity which, due to the tightening of the pandemic belt, were no longer considered “essential” and were therefore consumable. Chesky canceled almost all of the advertising, saving about $ 800 million a year, and $ 2 billion in emergency funding. Throughout this time of great upheaval, it was important to keep talking, says Chesky.
“In a crisis, you have to communicate four times more,” he says. “Quarterly board meetings have turned into every Sunday. Monthly multi-hand meetings have become weekly. I used to answer five questions during Q&A, I started answering 10. ”
When the company decided to make redundancies, most of the 1,900 redundancies were, with their consent, added to a Talent Directory – a searchable database of skills and locations from which potential employers could pick up the workers who were leaving. And being critical on how the layoffs were prioritized, Chesky praised his statement to staff, immediately delivering the news of the job losses, then explaining how the decision to cut some areas was made. The typical corporate twist that can accompany such statements was absent.
“In my opinion, even though I said something ineloquent, it’s better for people to think that I am doing bullshit to them,” he says. “I don’t think most CEOs are as cold as they think they are. I just think there are people in HR and lawyers who round up all the benefits of the person, to the point where sometimes they aren’t people.
In the summer, most observers were cautiously optimistic that Airbnb would at least see it safely throughout the year, but an IPO seemed out of the question. Then came an unexpected surge in Airbnb business. While global tourism remained for the most part non-existent, locked-in citizens looked to the platform for rural getaways, realizing that working from home doesn’t necessarily have to take place in your own home.
Company filings later revealed that Airbnb’s revenue was picking up in September, with bookings down about 20% from the over 70% drop seen at the start when Covid-19 hit. . Suddenly, far from being on the back, Airbnb has shown signs of being stronger than ever, with an enticing prospect for investors: the company could dominate leisure travel, business travel and the emergence of a work-and-leisure in-between, with the family in tow. Airbnb’s share price was 19% higher last week than its closing price on its first day of trading.
Different challenges arose in 2021. While the last year was spent trying to get travelers back to Airbnb rentals, the start of it was dominated by an effort to keep some people out.
Three questions for Brian Chesky
Who is your leadership hero?
The one that comes to mind would be Walt Disney. He was an artist and a creative person who ended up running a business – and there aren’t many. I also like Charles and Ray Eames. They were two of the best industrial designers of the 20th century. I really like leaders who have a creative mind.
If you weren’t CEO, what would you be?
Probably what I was before that – I was a designer. I am really interested in design as a way to solve problems. One of the problems I see is loneliness. Airbnb has its own way of solving it, [but] I think there are other ways to resolve loneliness. I like to design different types of communities, different ways for people to connect and meet.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
The first time I really thought about leadership was the first time I hired someone. I had never hired anyone in my life. The moment I became a leader was the moment I became a role model, and I never really thought about that before. I thought, “Oh my God, people are going to imitate what I do.” The way I lead, the role model I exude, the way I treat them will be how they treat the next 100 people. The example you set and what you tolerate at the very beginning permeates the culture.
Following the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill in Washington, it was discovered that several Airbnb hosts had unintentionally put a roof over the heads of those involved. Less than two weeks later, with preparations underway for Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, Airbnb canceled all reservations in the U.S. Capital Metro area. Unsure of his ability to keep domestic extremists out, Chesky decided that the correct course was to take no one in at all.
Hoping to avoid the need for comprehensive measures in the future, one of Chesky’s priorities this year is to build a team to scour the parts of the Internet frequented by members of known hate groups, keeping keeping an eye out for those who might book accommodation on the platform and blocking the activity.
“We can’t stop everything,” Chesky admits. “But we have developed a user knowledge operations team that has cybersecurity experts, law enforcement experts, and we’re investing a lot of money.” He adds, “We’re not like Big Brother digging into everyone’s personal lives.”
What constitutes a hate group is determined by the FBI and its international counterparts. Still, the effort risks dragging Airbnb into a debate it has so far managed to avoid, where tech platforms are accused of being biased against right-wing views or of engaging in a so-called ” cancellation culture ”.
“It’s really hard to predict what’s going to explode in your face and not,” he says. “There has been a take into account in technology and in American companies. The account has been on diversity, it has been on corporate responsibility, it is on this idea that we are all platforms. Yes, we are platforms, but even platforms have limits and they have responsibilities. “
Taking on these responsibilities could hurt income. For the holidays of July 4 of this year, for example, only customers who already have positive reviews will be allowed to make a reservation.
“I tell shareholders, and I think it resonates, that the best thing for shareholders is for the company to want your business to exist,” Chesky says.
Like all businesses, Airbnb is reflecting on what opening up the United States will mean for the way it runs its own business, currently based out of offices in San Francisco, a space meticulously designed by Chesky and his team.
Today, this design-driven thinking is applied to answer the question of when and how Airbnb employees should return to work. Indeed, if they should get back to work, given that the company’s enormous valuation is justified, at least in part, by the promise of an economy leaning towards remote working and a reinvention of the office.
“Flexibility benefits Airbnb,” says Chesky. “It would be great to lead by example and let people live anywhere.
“On the other hand, you know, some of the best ideas I had at Airbnb were just to turn shit, just talk. And we weren’t trying to come up with an idea – in the conversation, something happened spontaneously.