Don’t Fuck Up the Culture
On Monday, October 21, 2013, I sent this letter to our entire team at Airbnb. I have decided to publish this in the event it is helpful to entrepreneurs building their cultures.
Our next team meeting is dedicated to Core Values, which are essential to building our culture. It occurred to me that before this meeting, I should write you a short letter on why culture is so important to Joe, Nate, and me.
After we closed our Series C with Peter Thiel in 2012, we invited him to our office. This was late last year, and we were in the Berlin room showing him various metrics. Midway through the conversation, I asked him what was the single most important piece of advice he had for us.
He replied, “Don’t fuck up the culture.”
This wasn’t what we were expecting from someone who just gave us $150M. I asked him to elaborate on this. He said one of the reasons he invested in us was our culture. But he had a somewhat cynical view that it was practically inevitable once a company gets to a certain size to “fuck it up.” Hmm.. How depressing I thought.
Were we destined to eventually “fuck up our culture?” We talked about it a bit more, and it became clear that it was possible to defend, and actually build the culture. But it had to be one of the things we were most focused on. I thought to myself, how many company CEOs are focused on culture above all else? Is it the metric they measure closest? Is it what they spend most of their hours on each week?
Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.
Our culture is the foundation for our company. We may not be remembered for much after we are gone, and if Airbnb is around 100 years from now, surely we won’t be a booking website for homes. We will be far past this in our evolution (not to mention that kids 100 years from now will be asking their grandparents what websites were).
The thing that will endure for 100 years, the way it has for most 100 year companies, is the culture. The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.
So how do we build culture?
By upholding our core values in everything we do. Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.
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. Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.
There are days when it’s easy to feel the pressure of our own growth expectations. Other days when we need to ship product. Others still where we are dealing with the latest government relations issue. It’s easy to get consumed by these. And they are all very important. But compared to culture, they are relatively short-term. These problems will come and go. But culture is forever.