How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one.

Douglas John Atkin
Mar 10, 2019 · 11 min read
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This is the first installment of a series that will describe how to get a purpose-driven company, community or brand, and live it. I’ve noticed there’s a ‘hunger for the how’ about this subject. A lot has been written about why companies should figure out their ‘Why’ (most recently Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’) but much less has been written about how you get your Why, and how to make sure it’s a good one.

Even less has been written about how you implement it. Operationalizing your Purpose and Values is the hardest, yet most important thing to do. It’s easy to have a bold Purpose that sits in a Powerpoint presentation. It’s much harder to take it out and live it in your everyday operations. Most organizations fail at the implementation the moment they face a choice between the long-term and handling a short-term crisis.

So, this series of articles describe how we did it at Airbnb. I’m using Airbnb as an example because it’s the best I’ve seen in decades of working with companies who have made the attempt. And I was there. And leading it with the three very willing accomplices in the three founders who made exactly the right bold decisions to get a Purpose, and live it. Including the short-term costs of money, energy and growth that were paid for a long-term, purpose-driven future.

This is a continuing story of course. A purpose-driven company is only as good its last Purpose-driven decision, one that doesn’t’ cave in to short-term exigencies. Airbnb has been prepping itself for a possible IPO and thus is facing the most testing of these exigencies: the short-termism of Wall Street. I’ll write about how Airbnb handles these as they happen.

Here’s a summary of all the current and imminent articles about Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’.

1. How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one.

2. How to live your Purpose: #1. Purpose must come first.

3. How to live your Purpose: #2. Make ‘Plan-B decisions’.

4. How to live your Purpose: #3. You’re relentlessly focused on the long-term.

5. How to live your Purpose: #4. “Don’t fuck up the Culture”.

6. How to live your Purpose: #5. You need Core Values. They’re the ‘How’ of achieving your ‘Why’.

7. How to live your Purpose: #6. Use your Purpose to Recruit, Review and Reject everybody…even customers.

8.How to live your Purpose: #7. The Purpose must be measured…and given equal status to business metrics.

Airbnb Co-Founders: Joe Gebbia, Nate Blecharczyk and Brian Chesky.

“You know a lot about Branding. Can you help us define ours?” said Brian Chesky, the CEO and Co-Founder of Airbnb, when I arrived from New York on an evening in late 2012. I was expecting to get a project brief about Airbnb’s Community. I had been asked back to do a project after I had done a Fireside Chat about Community at Airbnb HQ in San Francisco (Fireside Chats are talks given by outside experts to employees). So, this was a bit of a surprise, especially since I had left the world of Branding six years previously. I asked him to let me think about it overnight.

I went back to him in the morning and said: “I think that instead of the Brand, we should figure out the Purpose of Airbnb and its community. There clearly is a huge and vital community of Hosts, Guests and Employees. Let’s figure out what role Airbnb plays in their lives and why they are committed to it. If we can do that, then it will be much easier to figure out what Airbnb’s Brand is. But not just that. You will be able to decide everything more easily: who to recruit, what products to develop, what businesses to buy, what your building should look like. Everything. It’s the rudder that guides the ship.” He said “OK. Do that”.

The opportunity to determine the Purpose of an organization like Airbnb and its Community was huge, especially at this stage in its life. One that I think is ideal. Airbnb was four years old. Old enough to have figured out what business it was in, and what its ambitions should be. It had honed its model in the realities of the market over the past four years, and had gotten beyond the idealism and naivety of a raw start-up. But it was young enough to create the foundations on which everything would be built thereafter…and that would set it up to be good for a hundred years. And that’s exactly the time-frame on which the founders were operating. More of this later, but it was clear after this short time I’d met them that they were focused simultaneously on leading a hyper-growth unicorn, but with an eye on the legacy long-term.

This installment will tell the story of how Airbnb found its Purpose. It will show both the process of finding a Purpose, and the criteria for developing a good one. Our journey started by doing something that most organizations never do:

1. Ground the Purpose in an experienced Truth.

This is the first ingredient for a good Purpose. It’s also one that is seldom employed. The normal path to an organization’s Purpose or Mission and Vision Statement (if it’s done at all) is the dreaded offsite for an inner circle of leaders where navels are examined and corporate grandiosity is too often indulged.

I wanted Airbnb’s Purpose to be grounded in the experience of its users. What role did Airbnb play in their lives? Is it different from what had come before? Is that role the source of their commitment? And for employees too (who also happen to be both Hosts and Guests): why are they committed and what role does Airbnb play in their lives?

Airbnb’s Purpose, like any organizations’, must be grounded in something that’s universally experienced so that it’s recognized to be true. Done this way, it will resonate, be ‘bought’ into, and not rejected as corporate or brand-overreach. And if the Purpose is derived from an experienced truth, then it increases the chances that you land on something that is yours and yours alone. It’s differentiating and true to you. Too often, corporate Mission or Vision statements are interchangeable with their competitors.

A very short three and a half weeks was spent speaking with 485 Hosts, Guests and employees. I and a small band of San Francisco employees spoke with them face-to-face, all over the world. We drilled down into the emotions that drove their loyalty and heard stories that identified their reasons for using Airbnb that went way beyond the transactional (“I host for the money”, “I stay on Airbnb because it’s cheaper than a hotel”).

We came back from that odyssey with several fascinating hypotheses that we showed the three Founders in the one large meeting room that Airbnb had at that time. We plastered the walls with images of the Hosts and Guests we had spoken to, and showed video of the stories they had told us, especially the ones of transformation. Geo, a host in San Francisco, had told us that interacting with strangers in his home turned him from being “shy” and a “follower” to being “outgoing” and “empathetic”. Beverly, a frequent Guest, said that she was no longer “a tourist” and had started feeling like “the World’s local”. David said he discovered his “inner adventurer” as he opened up to discovering the hidden parts of places he visited, the ones that only locals knew.

The hundreds of stories we heard were about this: a host’s role in enabling a stranger to feel at home in a strange place. And a guest’s experience of feeling that they were “insiders” and could quickly feel at home in an alien environment. Guests felt they could feel at home anywhere. Hosts wanted them to feel like a local, even part of the family.

Later, after I had had time to digest all the data and stories (and after I had been offered a full-time job by Brian and moved to San Francisco) I brought back to the Founders this core idea crafted into a more Purpose-like format: ‘Airbnb and its community wants to create a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’. This seemed to sum up the stories we heard. It was an ambition that was rooted in the everyday experienced truth of its users, but it also stretched into something much bigger, highly desirable, and could have positive impact on the world. A world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere. And that’s the second important ingredient of a Purpose:

2. It should be transformative. It should seem impossible (but actually be improbable)

It should be enormously ambitious. It should be exciting enough to get out of bed for, and inspirational enough to keep you going through the tough times. It also needs to be huge enough to seem almost impossible to achieve…so that for a hundred years or more people will keep trying. ‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’ was both grounded in an every-day experienced truth, but it stretched to an incredibly ambitious goal that sought to break down barriers caused by cultural, geographical and racial differences.

The best Purposes seem impossible to achieve. But in actuality, they are improbable, not impossible. Ten years ago, Marriage Equality in the United States seemed like an impossible goal. The movement for it seemed like it was chasing a hugely desirable outcome, but one that was naïve in its ambition. But then the US Army accepted gays. Courts cases were won. And all of a sudden, what had seemed impossible had become a reality. Marriage Equality was not impossible after all. It was just improbable, and with the efforts of so many working so hard it had become a reality.

We heard many stories from both Hosts and Guests of the origin of Airbnb’s huge ambition. One Host who was also a father said “I’ve always planned for my son to go out and experience the world and its different cultures. Now they come through our front door and stay with us in the form of our Airbnb Guests. He’s learning a huge amount about countries and cultures thousands of miles away.” I had asked the Hosts to bring in an object that symbolized what Airbnb meant to them. He had brought in a globe, and explained that the world was truly coming into his home and educating his son. Brian Chesky, at his most expansive, is inspired by the idea of millions of mini-United Nations happening around kitchen tables across the world as guests and hosts meet each other and share. So, a Purpose should be grounded in an everyday reality, but be able to stretch to an improbable goal. Ideally, one that wants to make the world a better place.

3. It must be about ONE BIG THING. It must be specific enough, but broad enough.

It has to be narrow enough to function as the guardrails that will ensure everything that is done by Airbnb and its community is true to the Purpose and differentiating from others. But it also had to be broad enough to both inspire and encompass whatever Airbnb and its community might dream up over the next hundred years or more, from launching new businesses it hadn’t thought of yet, to non-profit work it might venture into.

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Brian Chesky launching the first new product ‘Experiences’

Actually, within two years of launching ‘Belong Anywhere’ (the shorthand that we used for the full expression of our new Purpose: ‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’) was put to the test with exactly that challenge…a Purpose that is specific enough, but broad enough. And they happened to be about those two examples: the launch of an entirely new businesses, and a pro bono venture. ‘Experiences’ was the first big new business that Airbnb launched in 2015 that extended belonging from not just the Homes you might stay in, but the things you could do while you stayed there. Things such as wine-tasting or making pasta in Tuscany, and hosted by locals. And in 2016 the pro-bono venture ‘Open Homes’ was launched that enabled free accommodation in Hosts’ homes for victims of disasters (such as forest fires or hurricanes), or parents of sick children while they are treated in hospital. Both of these were inspired, guided by and launched using ‘Belong Anywhere’.

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Airbnb’s new symbol launched with ‘Belong Anywhere’ Purpose in 2014

The very first thing that the Purpose was tasked with was full circle back to Brian’s charge to me that evening in November 2012. We used it to create Airbnb’s Brand. In 2013, Joe Gebbia and Andrew Schapiro (our head of Design) had retained a top London brand-design agency to replace Airbnb’s charming, but too cutesy, blue and white logo. Actually, Brian, Joe and Andrew’s brief to the agency was much bigger than a logo-redo. It was to create a symbol for Airbnb, one that could be recognized independently from its name: like the swoosh for Nike or the apple for Apple.

The point about a symbol or icon is that it’s not just a graphic design. It’s a graphic with meaning attached. If you think of icons like the dove of peace or the cross or crescent, they are bound with enormous cultural meaning. The DesignStudio (for that is their name, confusingly) had been struggling. They had developed designs that were all very good, but were not expressing Airbnb’s meaning. At a pivotal moment, Brian came into the room where they were camping out at Airbnb, and slapped ‘Belong Anywhere’ on the wall. “Make it about this” he said. “Make it about more than travel…make it about people, and how they can now feel welcome anywhere…to the extent that they can feel like a local. That they can Belong Anywhere”

This was the inspiration for the symbol that you know today, which we called the ‘The Belo’ (short for Belonging). It was launched in July 2014 with this short and delightful animated video that dramatizes that in this large, and largely disconnected world, people are seeking to connect, be accepted and feel safe. In other words: to Belong. It continues: “what if you could have that feeling, anywhere? Airbnb stands for more something much bigger than travel. We imagine a world where you can Belong Anywhere”.

Actually, within the first few days of its launch, people ascribed several other meanings to it, as this cheeky article in the Guardian documented: “Is it balls, vagina or both? Airbnb logo sparks wave of internet parodies”. Our “equal-opportunity genitalia logo” as I like to refer to it (there’s something in there for everyone) not only weathered this internet storm (actually we loved the interest it was generating and even encouraged the sauciness a bit) but quickly became associated with the Belong Anywhere idea that we launched with it. And that’s the final ingredient that a good Purpose should have.

4. It should be launched publicly and owned.

Your organization needs to be held accountable to its Purpose, and one of the best ways to do that is for it to be publicly known, and the organization publicly criticised if it fails to live up to the Purpose’s promise. Here is my favourite public expression of ‘Belong Anywhere’ in a commercial that invokes you to ‘Live There’, not just go there.

‘Don’t Go There. Live There’

It should also be public because it sets expectations for users. In this case, Hosts now knew what was expected of them: make guests feel at home in a strange place, and like a local. And it set tough, but correct expectations amongst Guests of Hosts: make me feel like I belong.

Airbnb now had its Purpose. But could it live up to it? Was it reflected in its Culture and its daily actions, internally and externally? The next few instalments cover Airbnb’s Culture, it’s Values (the other two of the ‘sacred three’ requirements for an organization that is Purpose-led), how it met challenges to them all, and how it embarked on operationalizing them so they could be truly lived and delivered.

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