top of page
Indeed Wave.PNG

CULT BRAND: Purpose Must Come First

Best-selling author, branding expert and former Airbnb global head of community, Douglas Atkin, returns to The Chad & Cheese Cult Brand Series of podcasts.

In this episode, Atkin breaks down the importance of companies living their purpose, first and foremost. Douglas also authored Purpose Must Come First on Medium.

Enjoy this SmashFly exclusive.


Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors, you're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad. Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where hurts complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls. It's time for the Chad and Cheese Podcast.

Joel: What's up Chad?!?

Chad: Oh man, I am so geeked right now we're back with Douglas Atkin former head of global community at Airbnb. Partner chief community officer at

Chad: so this is the second in a long series of podcasts that we're actually doing with, uh, the, the gathering and also guys like, uh, like Douglas who really know their shit. The first one was about how Airbnb found its purpose and why it's a good one. And today we're going to talk about The Purpose Must Come First.

Joel: Yeah. Are we sure Douglas is still there? Douglas, did you come back for a second round with us? He is there. Awesome. Yeah,

Douglas: I did indeed.

Joel: He's a glutton for punishment. We're going to talk about opera oper uh, operationalizing and that's a mouthful. Uh, your, your brand and your purpose. So Douglas talk about that, which was sort of the second, uh, second segment of the, of the, uh, the blog that you're putting out on medium.

Douglas: So, um, I, if you find it hard to say operationalize, which is a really a horrible word anyway, very corporate, you can, you can say living your purpose, you know, how do you, how do you write better? Yeah. How do you and your organization live your purpose? So in the previous podcast we talked about, um, how to get your purpose and how to make sure it's a good one using airbnb as an example. So that's fine once you have a really groovy purpose. But, um, you need to, the point about a purpose is it needs to be used. It's, it's the, it's the rudder that guides the ship. It's basically the why of why your organization exists. And so therefore you have to be using it every single moment of every single day in every single thing that you do. Everyone actually in the organization needs to be using it for everything every day.

Douglas: And that's really, really hard because one of the characteristics of a purpose is as we discussed last time is yes, it needs to be grounded in a truth, but it also needs to seem almost impossible. It's going to make the world a better place in some way. And so, um, it is inherently idealistic as well. And so trying to execute an ideal is always hard in the face of, uh, the daily grind of turnover, profit, pleasing clients, whatever you have to do in your daily life. And so that's why I wanted to write about this because I'm not completely, but Airbnb's made a very good effort to operationalize belong anywhere. The three founders are completely committed to it. They see it as the most important thing they do. In fact. And, um, we found this out because in a a, I had a session with the founders in 2016, I think it was March, 2016 where I gathered them together, the three of them, one Sunday afternoon in the office.

Douglas: Again, no dreaded off site in the office and a guy was getting them together. And this is going to be the subject of another podcast, which is how you find your core values. And when I had got them doing was um, was figured it was identity cause I wanted them to base it in reality, not wishful thinking. I asked them to identify all the kind of critical moments of the in the history of the company and so far all their, what I call meaningful moments, those moments where there's great meaning attached meaning that, you know, you made some decision on principle that uh, you know, often that was an Accenture existential threat. Uh, but where you made it on principle, we've talked about this a in a couple of other podcasts and so one state identifies all these moments. I then ask them to extract the main figure out what the principles were that they had used.

Douglas: And then I asked them to order them in terms of importance. And the first thing that each of them had, God basically, first of all, they all agreed on all the important principles. That was good, that will create a problem if they hadn't. Um, but w even more interestingly, they also agreed, which was the most important one, and that is that your purpose must come first. And so, um, when I, when I asked Brian, well, what do you mean by that exactly? I'm gonna read you actually what he said, because you will never have heard this from a CEO of a company before. I guarantee it. He said, so I said, which ones should come first? And he said, mission. And by the way, it may be calls its purpose mission. Sometimes it causes vision. Sometimes you called its purpose. And I know a lot of people get their knickers in a twist about the differences between those words.

Douglas: I don't give a damn, to be honest. I think it's overthinking it. All you have to do is make sure that everyone knows that you're talking about the why, why we exist, right? So you can call it anything you like. Anyway. We call it mission in Airbnb. So he said, I said, what comes first? And he said, mission obviously mission led. The simplest way to describe it is the mission comes before everything that comes before the personal gain into the people who work at the company. It comes before the valuation. It comes before profits, it comes before business performance, it comes before all the other values. It theoretically comes before the quality of the product. I mean, I could keep going on. Right.

Chad: That's amazing to be able to hear a CEO say it comes before valuation, before profits, before business performance. I mean that is, that is amazing.

Douglas: Well I mean, yes and he's saying that it didn't like you don't sit here CEO saying that. In fact, in fact for most CEOs their mission is profit and turnover. So um, yeah. The, the reason why he was saying that is that as they had rude sat down and reviewed that that Sunday afternoon they realize that there were some really big, big, big, big common things that had sort of United them from very early on. And that was, they didn't just want to get rich quick. They wanted to make a dent in the world. They wanted to sort of do what they were doing. And do what they loved and uh, hopefully make the world a slightly better place as a result. And, um, and they look back all these kinds of moments which we can talk about in later podcasts and realize what we were doing every single time was, uh, making decisions for the long term, what the short term.

Douglas: So in the, in the long term, we want a company that creates a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And in the process of doing that, of course you have to have business. You will definitely have to have profits, uh, and so forth. But you need to keep your eye on the sort of the north style, which is why we are doing this. It's not just to make a turnover and profits for shareholders is to have this legacy effect. It's time, make a sort of a dent on the world in the process. And so what he would also argue is if you put your mission first, you will end up delivering turnover and profit. Because if it's the right mission and it's wanted and people buy into that mission and vision and subscribed to it and they're committed to it, then in the process you're likely to be able to sell profits or that are premium, you know, grow your business and so forth.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute. And building a brand isn't easy, which is why you need people like Thom Kenney, CEO of SmashFly on your side.

Joel: Hey Thom, it seems like a lot of companies look for that silver bullet approach to recruitment marketing, but you guys have a little bit different approach in terms of a multi-tiered strategy. Talk about that.

Thom Kenney: It's building this connection with people. It's building the time that they want to be engaged and they see the value in that particular brand. So when you're doing single stream and you're just thinking, well, I'm just going to send out a bunch of emails, or I'm just going to throw a chat bot on a page and you're not really thinking about it holistically, you're not going to really develop a cult brand. You might develop a brand, you might have a brand value and you might end up with a brand value that's kind of negative. So you've gotta be careful with that.

Chad: To find out more. Go to

Douglas: so, you know, I said to him after that, uh, well a couple of things happened after he said that. The first thing was he said, ah, okay. So if that is our collectively what we think is the most important principle that we have or value that we have, which is we need to put the purpose first, then it's my job as CEO to, um, set expectations. Everyone including investors and the board. Ultimately, if we go public shareholders, and he said, I have to go now to the board, which is repeated and tell them, okay, you have to judge me not just on how well we're doing on, on growth, turnover and profit, but also how well we're doing on achieving our mission of creating a world. But anyone can belong anywhere. And fortunately, you know, the board is occupied by some strategic investors, visionary investors, and they've totally bought into it and understand why it's important to have a purpose that leads everything.

Douglas: Um, but he's also going to be doing, and he's, there's not been much publicity about it so far, but there will be over the next few months he's launched this concept called the 21st century company, which is, um, a company that, uh, puts its mission first that thinks about not just shareholders or even shareholders and employees or even shareholders, employees and customers, but thinks about the impact they're having on the world at large. And in other words, he is setting expectations before they do an IPO. Basically. I think I'm setting the expectation that the purpose will come first. So that is one thing that happened.

Joel: Hey Douglas. Yeah. When it seems like it would be really important to get someone in terms of recruiting early on in the process that can buy into the purpose. Yeah. So was there, was there any talk about purpose and say the job descriptions or when people would come in to interview with the company? Was it talked about so that you knew who we were getting, what had already bought into the purpose before they even walked into the door for their first day?

Douglas: Yes. In fact, Airbnb started in 2012 just before I turned up there in the middle of 2012, the company was now like 150 strong in HQ and about another 150, 200, I think globally of people. And the founders were realizing that they couldn't be in every single meeting and they couldn't interview every single candidate, especially globally. So they had to set up a center of a set of principles or values that were proxy for them being in the room, making sure all those principles are being lived. And they created these six core values, which we can talk about later. The first, um, the first one of those core values is, is champion the mission. You know, remember the words live the purpose. And what they also did is, uh, they set up in 2012 and it's, it's even bigger now as you can imagine that a, when someone is interviewed, they'll have probably six, seven, eight interviews that measures the skills and the discipline that they're applying for.

Douglas: You know, whether they are a good marketer or engineer or whatever it is. But then they get interviewed by two people, had nothing to do with discipline and they're called core values interviews. There's now 500 of them in Airbnb globally. And their job is to see whether your personal values align with the core values of airbnb. And if they don't, then the core values interviews have veto power. In other words, they could be sitting in front of the best engineer in silicon valley, but if their values don't align, they can say, nope, it's an Ohio with their care how good he or she is. The values don't align with ours. And um, so they're not hired, so yes, you're absolutely right. It's incredibly important and we make sure that people coming in the door are already aligned with the values as best we can.

Chad: Well, and, and from the company standpoint and looking to be able to draw great talent into their organization, you know, how do they differentiate because everybody says their mission led, right? And, you know, cause I do, that's a bunch of bullshit. How can you tell the difference? Or how can you, how can you differentiate yourself from the posers that are out there that say they're mission led, but they're really focused on profits and valuation versus how do you become that brand who really can articulate and get that purpose out there? How can, how can you different?

Douglas: You have to live it. You have to at it. And the only way of assessing whether it's bullshit or mot is taking a look at the organization's actions that they've taken and comparing it against the intentions as expressed in the purpose. And if there's a dissonance, then you know, it's full of bullshit. So, I asked, uh, again, after they will put it first, I said, okay, so give me some examples of where you think you did put the purpose first, um, of creating world where anyone can belong anywhere. And, uh, so one of the ones he mentioned was, uh, and the way he expressed it. So the, the, the, the, all three of them talked about this space is that he said, you know, uh, you make some decisions that make no sense in terms of growth or in terms of, um, profit at the time.

Douglas: But what you're basically doing is you're putting deposits into a bank account of culture and of achieving your mission. You know, you're paying, you're paying for things now that will reap benefits later. So he said, for example, you know, we had just had this big, big meeting called one Airbnb. This was in 2016. Every year a BNB flies in the now thousands of people from all over the world who worked for Airbnb to have one week together. And the purpose of that one week is we have, there's a bit of training. Yes, there's some product announcements and this, that, and the other. But the whole purpose of that week is to make sure that the people, that the people that work at Airbnb feel like they belong there, that they've, they form relationships with each other, they have fun together, they work together, they get to know each other and they feel like they're part of one big family basically.

Douglas: But you can imagine. And he said, that's a, this is, let me just, um, quote what Brian said at the time. He said, I think the decision of having One Airbnb, like even this year, I got pushed back for doing it. The pushback I got for flying in all the employees is expensive and time consuming. Some people say it's not the best use of time or money. Well, we do think it's the best use of time and money and he goes on to say it on your horizon long term, you need these investments. If you're trying to build a company that outlives you, then people have to believe in the purpose and values. They have to be believers and they have to be wanting to go way above and beyond. And he saw one Airbnb as sort of one of those ways of creating that kind of belief and alignment around the purpose and values.

Douglas: Even though it costs like know 2 million, $3 million to fly everyone in, have everyone for a week, not doing their job. And I'm putting them up in Airbnbs and so, but there are many others. I mean, he also said, for example, the very first hire they made aside from the three of them was an engineer and they desperately needed an engineer. It was just Nate, one among the founders who was the, I'm the only engineer I had. Uh, but they interviewed hundreds of people and waited four or five months until they found the right person. Which when you're a startup, you know, and there's only three of you, then that three or four months means three or four months of not launching critical product will make the difference. Could make or break you, right? Because you don't have an engineer, but they will not willing to settle on the kind of fit this person was gonna have.

Douglas: They weren't gonna hire a high performing engineer who is a complete asshole. They wanted to wait until there was a someone that they felt shared their own values at the time. And so there are these costs you make, you know, there are these deposits as Brian puts it, that you, that are really quite costly in terms of money or time or energy at the time that you make them, but will pay off longer term investment. So long story short, to answer your question, you need to look at the actions of the organization and see if they aligned with the purpose. And if they don't, then that purpose is on a mug somewhere in the organization and might exist on a PowerPoint, but it doesn't really live.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute. But first a quick question for Chris Kneeland about the gathering of coke brands.

Joel: Chris, one of the things that really blew me away when I attended the conference was just the lineup. Uh, I mean it's a WHO's who of marketing, uh, celebrities, if you will. So I'm curious, when you started, how in the hell did you get these people to come? And I guess more importantly, how do you keep them coming and how do you one up yourself from this year?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah, well it's certainly easier to get them to come in year seven than it was in year one. And people frequently ask, are we gonna run out of cult brands? And you know, I think maybe I wondered about that to help me out. Can I get 10 years, 20 years out of this conference and there'll be started doing things like destinations. We started doing nonprofits last year we did our first celebrity, which was Tony Hawk and we could go into um, politicians. There's lots of different places that actually have cult like followers. And so I think it's, uh, got a nice long healthy runway of cult brand honorees and, you know, we get them to come for two reasons. One, I think there's a lot of substance. Uh, we do about nine months of vetting. Uh, we've partnered with IBM and

we use Watson technology to help us call through tremendous amounts of data.

Chris Kneeland: We do phone screening interviews, we do onsite visits. And so I think there's a lot of rigor that goes into making sure that these brands are as awesome as they appear to be on the outside. And then secondly, I think part of the secret sauce is that we're giving them a product, a, an offering. We don't even call it a conference. That's why we called it the gathering. We didn't want to call it a conference cause we think most conferences suck. And so we said we had to build a place that these types of people would actually want to go to. And so the whole, the whole format and the whole location and everything was sort of chemically engineered from the ground up to be highly desirable.

Chad: Register now at

Joel: We talk a lot about retention in our, in our podcasts as well. So recruiting is one piece of it, but actually keeping people in the job as an important part of, you know, recruiting. Um, I'm guessing that retention was really good at Airbnb. Can you talk about that?

Douglas: Yeah, it was, it was and is still really, really good. Well, a lot of people, a lot of people came for, um, for the mission, uh, belong anywhere for the culture and the other people in the, for the values. And we know this because we ask them. So, and I did a, there was a period, um, later in the history of the company in 2015 when, when it went through massive, massive growth, doubled in size from like a thousand to 2000 people in just in San Francisco. And it was the, the culture was creaking a little bit. And I went out at Joe's request to find out whether the culture was kind of being resilient or not or what was going on. So I asked people, why are you here? Why do you stay? You can earn much more money somewhere else, I'm sure, but why do you work these ridiculous hours and do these crazy things that Airbnb and everyone, there was one person who said, I, I'm in it for the money. But every single person I spoke to and I spoke to over 300 people, all different levels, seniority, different disciplines, different locations around the world. They all said we're here because of the culture. We're here because of the, I believe in the mission of creating lobe where anyone can belong anywhere. And I can see that the companies making decisions that executed, I'm here for the core values. They're real, they're being, you know, lifted by.

Joel: I'm just curious about the people who did leave the company. Do you have any sense of like what the main reasons were that they actually left and did they still appreciate the mission even when they left the company?

Douglas: Yeah. Good question. Um, yes, one of the dominant reasons why people leave is the reason I left, which is burnout. Ah, it's, it's not a good thing. Burnout. Um, but especially when you, you know, you started early on in like 2010, 12, 13, uh, there's only a few of, you are doing a hell of a lot. And what was great about it is that you were inventing all the time because what we were doing had never been done before. You know, there was no manual. We were inventing a whole new marketplace, a whole new economy, and actually a whole new behavior, which is trusting complete strangers that you've never met before to sleep in your bed. Literally it's what it man was. You know, your adrenaline gland is open all of the time. So that the, the one of the biggest reasons people were leaving is a, we're just really, really tired, but they still appreciate it and love the mission and the values. Interesting.

Chad: Yeah. Well that, that people is one of the reasons why the purpose must come first. And, and when you're building a company like that, obviously, uh, you know, you are going to have, you're going to have people test you a from your brand and your purpose standpoint. And the big question is, are you walking the walk and not just talking the talk. So, Douglas, we appreciate you guys taking the time again.

Joel: You're the man. Douglas. It's my pleasure. Thanks very much.

Cheers. We out we out.

Outro: This has been the Chad and Cheese podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google play, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a single show, and be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible for more visit oh yeah, you're welcome.

bottom of page