How to live your Purpose (it’s hard). #2: Make ‘Plan-B decisions’.

Douglas John Atkin
Mar 26, 2019 · 4 min read
Making a ‘Plan-B decisions’ about the NYAG: Darren Weingard, Brian Chesky and Belinda Johnson.

This is the third installment in a series of articles about ‘Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’. Here’s a summary of all the current and imminent articles.

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.

Making a ‘Plan-B decisions’ about the NYAG. Belinda Johnson, David Hantman, Kim Rubey, Brian Chesky, Darren Weingard, Amy Curtis-McIntyre.

Make ‘Plan-B Decisions’

“I know the risks. But we can’t let him do it. We can’t let him do this to our Hosts.” Brian Chesky was close to making his final decision…one that we had been debating for the previous five days. One that meant we were in for a very bumpy ride. It was early October 2013 and the Attorney General of New York had issued Airbnb with a subpoena to access to the data of all fifteen thousand New York hosts. The normal response to a subpoena from the NY AG is immediate compliance. Just the previous week he had successfully wrung $9 billion out of the global banks for their part in the 2008 crisis. But here we were, an unknown and tiny startup, discussing whether to take the mighty New York Attorney General to court.

“They’ve asked us whether we even have lawyers. They said “You know no-one says “No” to the NY AG”. It’s true. I can’t think of any company that’s ever done this.” This was Belinda, the General Counsel. She, like the rest of us in the room, was outraged by the AG’s demand. It was a massive overreach for private data from our hosts. “Do you think you can get the community to fight this with us?” Brian was saying this to me. I had joined as Global Head of Community. Inside I was thinking “Oh god, I hope so” while I outside I was looking at Brian and saying “We have no choice. We have to. If we don’t support them on this, we lose our community forever. I think we can mobilize them to fight with us using grass-roots organizing tactics”.

“OK then, let’s do it” Brian said.

I would come to know these as ‘Plan-B Decisions’. Plan-B Decisions’ are ones you take because Plan-A is unacceptable. Plan-A Decisions (in this case, complying with the AG’s subpoena) tend to be ones that follow the expected path. Plan B Decisions are ones that execute your Purpose and Values. A Core Value at Airbnb was ‘Be a Host’: which meant empathizing and supporting others. In this case, we needed to be Hosts to our Hosts. Hosts were our partners in executing the Purpose of ‘Belong Anywhere’ by making homes away from homes for guests. Supporting them meant standing by them and refusing to hand over their data…even though it felt like this decision could be the end of Airbnb.

Plan B Decisions are always harder. They take more energy, more time and more innovation at just at the moment when all you want to do is grab an easy fix to a big problem. Inevitably they mean you have to invent on the go because you have to do something that’s never been done before. “It’s like forging your own path.” This is Nate Blecharczyk, Airbnb’s youngest Co-Founder, three years later on that Sunday afternoon. “It’s like there’s a path before you and you can go down it and it’s kind of safe, but you don’t like it. And you say, “No, I’m not going to do that,” but then it’s not really clear what the alternative is and you have to forge a new path”

We were scared that this was an existential threat to Airbnb. At best, we knew we were in for long hours and weekends of work. Belinda’s legal and government relations teams were charting new territory. I knew my team was going also going to have to do something that no company had done before: mobilize its users to take political action. We would end up using techniques from the world of movements and political grassroots organizing, enabling hosts to become political activists.

Ultimately, we were successful in quashing the AG’s subpoena in court a few months later. And the NY community of hosts and guests not just stayed with us, but worked long hours alongside us campaigning for a change of the law that recognized this new economy. Unfortunately, six years later, the fight in New York is still happening. But none of us regret the hours, effort and money to fight the AG. It was the right thing to have done.

‘Plan-B’ decisions tend to get elevated into what I call ‘Meaningful Moments’. They are such clear manifestations of principle (the ‘meaning’ of the ‘moment’) that they become part of the mythology of the organization. They are talked about and referred to as examples of doing the right thing: of living the Purpose and Values at any cost.

They’re also decisions that favour the long-term. Which is the subject of the next article: You’re relentlessly focused on the long-term.

Douglas John Atkin

Written by

Airbnb, Purpose, Meetup, Author of The Culting of Brands, The Glue Project, various Ad Agencies in London and NY.

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