Belong Anywhere — The Vision and Story Behind Airbnb’s Global Community

Fireside Chat with Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community

To honor Airbnb’s bold decision to offer housing to refugees, we wanted to share the story and vision behind their global community. This interview with Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community for Airbnb, is from Empower: How to Co-Create the Future. The full 200+ page book is available by donation — download it here. Highlights include:

  1. How small groups can change the world
  2. Why people join cults to feel like their true self
  3. How communities grow into movements
  4. Building the world’s first super crowd brand

Douglas Atkin is a pioneer in building communities and movements around brands, organizations, and startups, a trend that he anticipated in his book The Culting of Brands (2004). We draw upon his vast experience in the peer-to-peer economy as Chief Community Officer of Meetup, Partner at Purpose, Co-Founder and Board Chairman of Peers, and Global Head of Community for Airbnb. Highlights from this interview include

Douglas combines his passion to be a catalyst for meaningful change in the world with a relentless focus on research, often conducting hundreds of interviews and surveys to validate ideas and create actionable strategies. His leadership and example helped inspire me to follow my passion to write, speak, and build movements. I hope he also inspires you to live and work with passion and purpose.

DP: There’s a quote by Margaret Mead that you absolutely love and reference in every presentation, and it is also one of my all-time favorites: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

When I think about the power of small groups, one thing that comes to mind is Meetup, where you served as Chief Community Officer. Could you tell us about the power of small groups and some of the lessons you learned building Meetup’s global community?

DA: I love that quote because there comes a point where people realize that they need other people to pursue their passion or effect change. They can’t be as effective on their own as they can be with a group of like-minded individuals. Whether it is a small thing like cleaning up a local park or a big thing like ousting a corrupt leader, you need help from others and the strength of mutual support.

If a community is strong, it’s not just the power of like-minded people together, that’s like 50% of what represents the community’s power. The other 50% is about the interaction between those individuals. Relationships form when individuals interact. You want to support these people because you like them or they’re important or they need help. Those feelings become mutual and form the bonds of real communities.

We discovered it took someone attending a physical Meetup event four times or more to become really committed. The reason why is because it takes that long to build meaningful relationships with other people in the group. You’re going not just to practice your Spanish or your guitar or whatever, but you’re also going to be able to see Pablo again, or Kia, or Jane.

When we asked people “Why do you like this Meetup?” they would answer by saying things like, “I feel at home,” and “I made new friends.” The original intention was to go and improve a skill or find others who share your enthusiasm. But once relationships form, then a community becomes real.

It’s very hard to break a community apart once it gets to that point because people need and want to help each other. The relationships are strong, and the ties are strong between members. There is a power in a group that changes and transforms you to some degree in many positive ways. To bring this full circle to the Margaret Meade quote, it can empower you to change the world, if that’s what you’re looking to do.

DP: We met years ago in New York City when I reached out after reading your book The Culting of Brands, which looked at the cult-like followings of brands such as Apple, Ben & Jerry’s, and Harley Davidson. Research for that book laid the foundation for your work in Meetup and Airbnb, and building movements that reach millions of people.

The Culting of Brands explored two questions: Why people have this cult-like commitment or loyalty, and what do you have to do to get that level of commitment or engagement? Can you tell us some of the lessons learned from your research that might apply to creating any type of community or community-related brand?

DA: The reason I looked at cults and cult-like organizations is simply because those are the extreme forms of community. It is easier to understand the fundamentals of belonging and belief by looking at the extreme end of the spectrum. I also learned in the process that cults aren’t an aberration. In fact, they are normal and essential because new ideas help keep cultures iterating, growing, and moving. Without cults, cultures would atrophy and die.

The key lesson from cults that can be applied to all communities is what I call the great cult paradox: People join cults not to conform but to become more individual. Most people think the opposite is true — that people join because they’re psychologically flawed or socially inept. This is due to the media’s portrayal of cults that are destructive organizations. Most members of cults and cult-like organizations join for the same reasons that you or I would join anything.

It works like this. As we grow up and become individuals, we realize that to get on in the world you have to shave the rough edges off of you, your identity, just to get on at school, not to be bullied, to form groups of friends, get on with your family, at work, etc. This doesn’t mean that your individuality completely disappears, but rather that you compromise in a way to fit in, unless you can find a group of people who share the same differences you have.

Basically, what cults say is, “Hey, Douglas, you’re different. We’re different in the same way. Come and join us.” That difference could be anything, such as a passion for big motorcycles. Harley riders used to tell me this. Despite having a fantastic job, being a management consultant or dentist by day, lovely family, a good suburban house, that wasn’t them. They only felt at home when they were among like-minded others who shared a passion for rebellion and freedom, which they felt Harley users did.

When you find other people who share your passion and, like you, feel different in the same way, you feel “at home.” You psychologically relax and feel secure that no one’s going to laugh or ridicule the things you’re passionate about. In fact, they love you for your differences. That creates — I kept hearing this again and again — a psychologically safe space to become yourself. They use the word “become.”

People joining cults and cult-like organizations — even the Marines or a corporate cult — all said the same thing: It doesn’t change you; it enables you to be more yourself. And this is because you feel “safe enough” to express your unedited self.

DP: You mention the Marines and corporate cults. How does the loyalty, sense of belonging and purpose, identity formation through differences, etc., relate to building community in the workplace?

DA: Most recently, I’ve been working on the internal community at Airbnb. I found the same story here. For example, one woman expressed it by saying, “I can be my full fat version of myself rather than the skim milk version.”

DP: That’s a great quote.

DA: Yes it is! People told me that when you don’t feel at home in your job, you edit yourself because you don’t feel secure or safe enough to express yourself fully. It’s normally only with your closest friends or members of your family that you can do that, unless you’re lucky enough to find a company, or a church, or Meetup group, or whatever it is that makes you say, “A-ha! I’ve finally found where I feel at home.” What that basically means is I feel psychologically safe and secure enough to be myself like I normally am only at home.

Brian Chesky, our co-founder and CEO, wrote an essay that was widely shared on social media titled “Don’t Fuck Up the Culture” on the advice Airbnb’s investors gave him. Culture is so important to maintain as you grow.

Airbnb culture is incredibly strong. Not everyone would like it, but those who do, really do. They say the same things and use the same vocabulary: “I can become myself.” “I can be myself.” “I don’t have to edit.” “I feel psychologically safe and secure because I’m surrounded by people who welcome me for who I am and celebrate my differences.” “They don’t criticize or laugh at me.”

Google also studied what makes teams successful. They identified five characteristics, the most important of which is “psychological safety,” as they call it, which is the same thing I’m talking about. What they found is that no matter what teams are working on, they need to feel a kind of security that only appears when you trust each other. And you trust each other because you know and respect each other.

It happens because that team is a community. You have relationships built through individual interactions. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and trust each other. Relationships of trust and mutual support create the psychological safety to be yourself. That enables you to take the risks you need in order to learn something new, to be entrepreneurial, highly creative, or take any kind of business or personal risk. This all goes back to what we talked about earlier from my experience building communities at Meetup. The same thing happens in communities everywhere, including the workplace.

You need to be surrounded by people who are creating a psychologically safe work environment. New team members arrive as strangers. They’re welcomed, made to feel they belong, and then they’re given some huge, crazy challenge. Some describe it as “I feel I’m supported by my teammates and my boss to take a massive risk.” Other people might not think I can succeed, but then they do and realize, “Oh, I can do it after all.” This would never be possible without that psychological safety net of freedom, trust, and support from their community of colleagues.

DP: I’d like to shift from communities to movements. You describe movements as basically like communities in action, or communities on the move. After The Culting of Brands, you left advertising to be a partner at Meetup, and you co-founded Purpose, a consultancy for movements that also incubated and created movements. For example, you helped build All Out, the largest gay rights movement in the world, from 2,000 to 2,000,000 people.

Through your work at Meetup and Purpose, you developed a systematic approach to grassroots organizing and movements. I want to dive into some of the specifics around your approach. People always talk about the mission and purpose, but one of the things that I find especially interesting is this idea that it is important to have an improbable goal, which you refer to as the “fuck off” goal or “fuck off” metric. I love this term. Can you tell us what you mean?

DA: The purpose of social movements is to make a difference and change in the world. They do this by mobilizing huge numbers of people to take the same action (such as signing a petition). One of the most important ingredients of their success is having a seemingly impossible goal. It isn’t actually impossible; it’s just improbable.

Let me give you an example, marriage equality. I’m gay. I’m married to my partner of 26 years, but even five years ago we thought the goal of the equality movement seemed impossible. It was never going to happen, with a Republican congress and so on. But it has. This is the difference between impossible and improbable.

Many things that seem impossible are not impossible, just improbable. The reason why you need the “fuck off” goal and ideally a “fuck off” metric is that you need to create a vision that’s worth all of the effort. It has to be literally visionary, as in I see a new world. Like Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.” Basically, you’re saying I have a vision of the world that doesn’t exist yet but should. That’s exactly what your vision needs to be for an organization, whether it’s a company or a movement that wants to make a positive dent in the world. It needs to be desirable enough to say, “Yes. I will do all these hard things to help make that become a reality.”

Ideally, you also have a “fuck off” metric. For example, with All Out we wanted equality everywhere; for gay, transgender, lesbian, etc., people, and we have a metric for that. When we launched, there were 76 countries in the world where it’s illegal to be gay and 10 where you can be executed or receive life imprisonment for being gay or transgender. Our fuck-off metric was to go from 76–10 to 0–0.

DP: This same idea of a big “fuck off” improbable goal can be applied to the vision for companies.

DA: Yes, exactly. For example, at Airbnb we take extremely serious our vision of a world where “Anyone Can Belong Anywhere.” We know we can make that world happen in millions of small ways through the actions of our hosts. They enable strangers to feel like locals by welcoming them and weaving them into the social fabric of their neighborhoods and cities. We’re developing a metric that will enable us to measure how much guests felt they belonged. It will be used to measure our success, together with our business metrics.

DP: In contrast to the big “fuck off” goal that’s improbable, you also have this idea of the commitment curve, where grassroots organizers start with a basic first action that is a minimum level of commitment, such as signing a petition or joining an email list, and then move on a curve through stages of increased participation up to attending a rally or physical event.

Can you tell us about how a commitment curve works? Why is it important to start at the bottom instead of jumping ahead to the big ask?

DA: The commitment curve is a very simple model that enables you to make “asks” of your members and users such that a larger number of people become committed, and committed more completely, to your movement or organization. The top axis measures the degree of commitment. The bottom axis is time. The Commitment Curve travels from lower left to upper right. The idea is that you plot asks on the curve from easy at the bottom, to hard at the top. Start with a low-barrier-to-entry ask, such as signing an online petition.

Next, follow up with a slightly harder ask. Not a massively larger ask, but a slightly harder ask. For example, tweet at your Senator or post something on Facebook. It takes a little bit more effort and a little bit more personal commitment, but you do it. Then you might follow up with a slightly harder ask, such as making a donation.

The idea is to make increasing, incrementally harder asks, which in turn lead to incrementally more commitment. Any given ask on that commitment curve is only slightly harder than the one before, so it never seems like a huge jump. Then before you know it, you find you will have ramped large numbers of people up the curve to ever-higher levels of commitment.

DP: At Airbnb, on one hand, you have these decentralized communities of hosts around the world that are self-organized. There are forums that hosts can join and provide mutual support to each other. They can also form meet ups and take innovative initiatives. One example you mentioned in a talk was a woman started a peer-to-peer group where people could sell items and raise money to decorate places and become hosts.

On the other side, Airbnb proactively engages communities to take action around legislation or to engage in their communities to raise awareness for the economic benefits of home sharing. As the Global Head of Community, can you tell us about the balance between these decentralized, self-organizing communities vs. the more hands-on, proactive engagement of communities to take action in the form of grassroots organization.

DA: We created the community platform because we know that hosting can be hard, and the mutual support of other hosts will make it easier and more fun. For example, a new host may be thinking, “Oh my God, what do I do? Do I have to put clean towels out; do I do this? So I do that?” Getting tips and advice directly from other, more experienced hosts can be enormously helpful.

Conversations are about everything from “How do I create a good welcome for a honeymoon couple?” all the way down to “Oh damn, my washing machine’s broken and I need to change the bedding. Is there someone nearby whose washing machine I could use?” The basic idea is that hosts help hosts become better hosts. And that’s exactly what happened.

Grassroots organizing is a different methodology that’s required for a different purpose. Airbnb hosts and guests are participating in the peer-to-peer economy. It’s a new economy bumping up against old laws in cities around the world.

We’ve used grass-roots organizing techniques to invite our hosts and guests to become part of the political process in their cities, and to create laws that both recognize this new economy and are fair to their fellow citizens. Grassroots organizing is truly excellent at scaling the effects of community.

Unlike the traditional community manager model that exists in most organizations (usually startups), grassroots organizers identify and then train members of your community to become community leaders. In others words, they try and make themselves redundant by recruiting and training your members to be leaders.

In San Francisco, for example, we had 11 host-leaders that ran communities of hosts in each of the 11 Supervisor Districts (Supervisors are the governing body in the city). The organizers trained and equipped them to tell their stories to their representatives effectively, to attend hearings and testify, to give press conferences and so on. They used the Commitment Curve to make the right asks at the right time. The result was a new law that involved unheard of community involvement in its making.

DP: You have such a wide range of organizing experience, from building small groups at Meetup to global communities and movements through Purpose and Airbnb. Most people today talk about “community” in generic terms, as if all communities are the same regardless of size or interest.

Can you help us understand the different nuances based on your extensive experience?

DA: Let’s go back to the first two things that we talked about, movements and smaller communities. Never be confused by thinking they are the same thing; they’re not. They exist for different purposes and offer different benefits.

A smaller community like a Meetup group, or a PTA or church, exist to create a sense of belonging, so that people can learn, do, or change something together. Social ties between members tend to be strong within small intimate communities.

It’s different for movements. The whole point of movements is not to be small and intimate; it’s to have massive scale. Your goal is to mobilize large numbers of people to take action on a single leverage point (normally a government, and ideally a person, such as a Prime Minister, a Mayor or whatever). The social ties in a modern movement tend to be weak. But the effectiveness comes from many people taking the same action at the same time.

DP: I want to ask one final question and build upon this idea of world firsts. Airbnb is arguably the biggest crowd brand in the world doing pioneering work at massive global scale. Recently, you launched the Belo, a new logo that is also a symbol for people, places, love, and the letter A.

I’ve heard you speak about the Belo in the context of launching a global super brand, in the sense of being a universally recognizable icon similar to a Coca Cola or Nike. There is this big idea behind the Airbnb brand that anybody can belong anywhere, and you encouraged your 1 million hosts and 25 million guests to embrace the Belo and make it their own brand. People created and uploaded over 80 thousand versions of the logo to your website. Airbnb is basically going into uncharted territory as the worlds first super global crowd brand.

As Global Head of Community and as a former branding expert, this seems like an awesome culmination and triumph of your life’s work. Can you tell us about the Belo and the story behind launching the world’s first super global crowd brand?

DA: I first joined Airbnb as a consultant. I thought it was to help them with community because I’m a community guy. But Brian said, “Hey Douglas, you know a lot about brands from your past, can you help us figure out what ours is?”

“We are clearly a community, I can see that,” I said. “There are three stakeholders in the community (hosts, guests, and employees.) Employees are both hosts and guests; and guests are also hosts; and vice versa. We have this massive community. I think the question to ask is: What’s the purpose of our community? Why does it exist? What is it in the world to do and what difference is it going to make? In other words, what is the vision and how will this community make the world a better place?”

Once we have established what that is, then we’ll know what the brand should become. But the brand is only one manifestation of the vision. Vision will also be manifested in product design, our office space, and who we hire — all of those things.

We ended up talking to 485 hosts, guests, and employees. The stories that people told, and the data from surveys, suggested that the community’s purpose was something in the area of, “We are trying to create a world where anyone can belong everywhere.” Eventually it became “Belong Anywhere.” That’s what was used to brief the Design Studio in London that developed the Belo with our in-house design team.

When we launched the Belo, we wanted to launch a symbol, not a logo. There’s a big difference between the two. A logo is simply a graphic design. A symbol is a graphic design that has a meaning attached. We simultaneously launched the Belo (our symbol) with the idea of Anyone Belonging Anywhere.

Brian, Joe, and I flew to New York to show both the symbol and its meaning to some guests and hosts. We shared the story of “Belong Anywhere” — what it means, and where it came from. One host from Brooklyn said, “Thank you for explaining to me what it is exactly that I do and why I do it.” That’s when we knew we had something that really resonated. Some people even had tears in their eyes!

When we launched the Belo and “Anyone Can Belong Anywhere,” we also invited our community to submit their own versions of the Belo to our site. Over 80,000 people submitted their own versions. This just reinforced the idea that the Airbnb brand is a community brand.

One of our current marketing campaigns called “Live There” is another great articulation of the brand and our vision of “Anyone Belonging Anywhere.” It says don’t go and visit somewhere, go and live there, even if it’s for a night because that’s what it feels like. Feel like you’re so immersed in the culture and have an inside track on the place that you feel like you’re living there, even for a short time.


Douglas Atkin is Global Head of Community at Airbnb; Co-Founder and Board Chair of Peers.org, a Global Movement for the Sharing Economy; Founder of theglueproject, a blog and venture about social glue; and Board Member of AllOut.org, the world’s largest LGBT movement. Previously, he was Co-Founder of Purpose, an organization that mobilizes millions for social change, and Partner and Chief Community Officer at Meetup — the world’s largest network of communities.

Douglas is also a former brand strategist and partner at leading NY and London agencies and the author of The Culting of Brands: How to Turn Customers into True Believers, a book about how to build cult-like community around almost anything. He lives in San Francisco with his partner, Matthew, and two beagles.

This interview is from Empower: How to Co-Create the Future by David Passiak

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