top of page
Indeed Wave.PNG

CULT BRAND: Make 'Plan B Decisions' w/ Douglas Atkin

What happens when the New York Attorney General slaps a subpoena on the young upstart Airbnb in 2013 to access all host data for 15,000 hosts?

Do they comply? Do they fight? Listen to this amazing story which embodies Airbnb's brand straight from best-selling author, cult branding expert and former Airbnb global head of community.

Douglas Atkin, joins Chad & Cheese to start unpacking Making Plan B Decisions. Welcome to the new Cult Brand Series of podcasts supported by our friends at Smashfly.This podcast series is a compliment to Douglas Atkin's Living Your Purpose articles on Medium.


Joel: This Chad and Cheese Cult Brand podcast is supported by SmashFly, recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle and big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let SmashFly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM. For more information, visit today,

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 it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark buckle up boys and girls. It is time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel: Oh yeah, we're back, I can't get enough of this cult brand learning shit, man. This is been freaking amazing today. We're fortunate enough to have an amazing cult brand expert icon back on the show.

Chad: He's back.

Joel: He's back people. It's Douglas Atkin, former global head of community at Airbnb, partner chief community officer at and all around Smart Dude. Not to mention author of the highly acclaimed book, "The Culting Of Brands." Welcome back


Joel: Wow. Douglas. That's a hell of an intro.

Douglas: And it was great, that's nice, yes. Please start every day off like that for me.

Joel: Culture changing. Yeah, religious experience...

Douglas: Yeah.

Chad: Wow.

Douglas: I will take it all. I'll take it all.

Chad: This is our third installment of Douglas's, how to live your purpose series, which is really intended as a compliment to his writings over but most importantly to focus on how to become and stay a cult brand. We should all at this point know why we want to become one, this is the house. So today we're going to talk about make plan B decisions. Why are we talking about plan B decisions and not plan A decisions? Douglas,

Douglas: It's interesting you say that. Well because one thing I realized when I was started working at Airbnb with the founders is that they, that's what they refer to as the decisions they make when they don't want to follow convention, when they don't want to follow the path that most people normally take or is expecting.

Chad: Got you.

Douglas: And instead they will take and that's plan A, plan B decisions are the alternative that the big problem with plan B decisions is there is no plan B, nearly always. You have to kick Bolic scramble as they say in England to make it all happen and invent it from scratch. So, you know, normally you use you will face all of these decisions when you're facing a crisis and the thing you want most of all is a really easy sort of off the shelf plan or path to take

when you're dealing with this crisis.

Douglas: But no, we do plan B decisions at Airbnb, which basically means inventing something that no one's ever done before and it, you know, sort of under huge pressure because we, we find that plan A if the normal route is unacceptable. So a good example of that is I guess one of the first plan that would be decisions I was ever directly involved with. And that was, I'd been working at Airbnb for about six months and the New York attorney general, Schneiderman...

Chad: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Douglas: Had issued Airbnb with a subpoena to get all of the information of all of the hosts in New York at the time it was about 15,000 people. And we knew in our guts that we didn't want to comply with this subpoena because that is a huge, we felt it was a massive data overreach. It was a huge sort of fishing.

Chad: They had to scare the shit out of you guys though, because I mean the AG...

Douglas: Well yeah, the attorney general in New York is sort of famous or infamous in that no one ever says no to the attorney general in New York.

Chad: Right.

Douglas: And bear in mind, this is sort of middle of 2013 so Airbnb was not well known. In fact most people hadn't heard of us. We were this tiny little pipsqueak startup from the California and we actually after sweating it through and having long sort of evening meetings with all of us together, decided to take the attorney general of New York to court and squashes subpoena. When we told the attorney general that they said, "what! Do you even have lawyers?" We had one at a time, Darren, who is our one lawyer, he said you, and they said to us, do you know that no one ever says no to the attorney general in New York? In fact, last week we just got billions out of the international banks for causing the 2008 depression and you think you are going to take us to court. So we, it was a big, it felt like an existential threat actually doing this, but we felt that we had to do it to support our hosts.

Douglas: One of our sort of called one of our core values, which we'll talk about in subsequent sessions is be a host, which means, you know, be a host to everyone. Look after people, make them feel like they belong, be by their side, support their side and support them. What we want felt we needed to do was be a host to our hosts. We couldn't abandon them and just hand over all of their information, their addresses, their phone numbers and everything else. And our hosts were really panicked. I mean, at the time, my title at the time and my role was global head of communities. So I was holding a weekly or biweekly town halls with 200 plus hosts in New York city for flying out there every week or every other every other week and hearing how they felt about it and they felt incredibly victimized and scared.

Douglas: They called it a witch hunt because previously a few months previously with one another action, actually a separate legal action where one host was fined tens of thousands of dollars because it contravenes some hosting contributes some sort of arcane local law. So they were really, really scared. And, and one of the arguments, one of the reasons we decided to say no to the attorney general of New York, you know, beyond the fact that it was one of our values is that I was basically being the advocate for the hosts in these meetings and saying, we have to stand by our host. We have to stand by our hosts. If we don't, they'll abandon us. But anyway, it's just the right thing to do. And I had freshly arrived from Airbnb, from having worked in the field of movement making starting movements for social change.

Douglas: And Brian turned to me and said, so do you think you could start to movement to of our hosts to take political action and change laws and, defeat and help, change opinion against this subpoena? I said, yes, I think I can. And of course inside I was going, Oh shit, what am I taking myself into? But, I did actually think we could because I had already met hundreds of thousands of hosts who are incredibly passionate and willing to do anything. And so that's what we did. We said no to the attorney general of New York and we actually won. And we turned around public opinion in New York in favor of Airbnb. And that was a plan B. So the plan B was, was really, really hard. I mean, we actually ended up doing things that no other company has ever done before, like starting a movement of hosts in New York and guests and everyone else to change the law.

Douglas: So I recruited a lot of grassroots organizers from the Obama campaigns of 2008, 2012 because I knew that they had written the kind of the game plan on how you take ordinary people and turn them into political activists and lobby politicians and change laws. And so thanks combining that with my background in movement expertise, I worked incredibly hard, since that from the moment we said no to the AG and took him to court, I was basically spending every waking hour for the next five or six months until December, doing all kinds of things to recruit and mobilize our hosts to take political action. We had a petition that was started by a host who was hosting because she was a vet to come back from war and wanted to change her life and go to college and she was hosting to pay for college.

Douglas: And so we started a petition saying, please change the law. It's ridiculous that hosting is illegal in New York. And we expected about 10,000 and we really, really wanted about 10,000 signatures and we ended up getting 236,000 signatures on that petition, which then in turn got the attention of the press. We had retrained hosts to give press interviews. Then we raised money for an ad in the Albany times, I think it's called to lobby politicians to change the law. We trained all of our hosts to go and turn up to legislators offices and make their case and tell us stories about why, how they've got through the recession. We're able to stay in the city because of Airbnb, all these kinds of things. It was a huge... It was basically running a political campaign.

Joel: Yeah, the host almost sounded like a labor union.

Douglas: Yeah, no they were. It was amazing. And they all do that, we never paid anyone. The really cool thing is that the passion and the commitment in these town hall meetings we were having, they were very, I mean, one of the policies, I wanted to make sure we did was, we had to inform our hosts of everything, certainly before they saw it in the press, because it was like one of the big top stories in New York over those months.

Douglas: This whole fight with the AG plus, Airbnb in New York and the issue of hosting. And so I said, they're terrified. They need to feel like they're on the inside. So we have to inform them about everything all of the time. And certainly before we tell the press. So I had all our lobbyist and our one lawyer, one lobbyist, and one lawyer, David Humpman and Darren to give sort of radio interviews, basically online radio interviews telling him what the latest status and everything. We had these town hall meetings where I flew Brian Chesky and myself and the lawyer and the, and the lobbyist over to talk to posts every week or every other week. It was a lot of work. And as I say, no one had ever hired grassroots organizers before. No one had ever turned the users into a movement using these political techniques and it was a huge amount of work.

Joel: Yeah, I don't think consumers ever think about users of an internet service being mobilized for political purposes.

Douglas: No.

Joel: This is really fascinating.

Douglas: No, I know, but I kind of knew it would work because they weren't just ordinary customers. They were passionate. I'd heard their stories about how Airbnb changed our lives, whether it was turning them into an entrepreneur so that they could give up the legal secretary job and start the Opera company. They always wanted to do that was a woman called Maria in Jersey city or, whether it was simply being able to keep your apartment in New York when you'd been fired during the recession.

Joel: Do you think the political piece to help serve the cultural goals of a company? In other words uniting to fight or fight for a common purpose. I assume that helps build the culture, but does it change it as well?

Douglas: What did that event eventually did, are saying no to the AG fighting him and mobilizing our hosts to also fight him and take political action. What it did actually was become what I call a meaningful moment in a company's history. And a meaningful moment is, is a moment with where there's lots of meaning attached to where you normally stand on principle for something often at great risk to yourselves. So the risk to ourselves here was we had no idea what the attorney general could do to us if we lost, he could ban us completely from New York city, which was our largest market at the time. There was a significant part of the business. So this was a huge big deal for us at the time. But we decided to face that threat of extinction in New York city, potentially our biggest market because it was the right thing to do.

Douglas: And we kept to saying that it's just the right thing to do to stand by our hosts and to help them change their local laws so that they could host legally, happily and securely and, invest all this time, this money and this expertise in doing all of that. And so that did actually become, it was very reflective back into the culture of Airbnb to your point in that it became like one of those moments with our backs against the walls. We said we're going to stand on principle and do this and we did it and then it worked out well.

Joel: I'm reminded of Facebook's recent issues with the government and the contrast in terms of, they have a a billion and a half users, like pretty much everyone uses Facebook. But I don't remember any, lobbying, any groups, picketing congress...

Douglas: What? No.

Joel: Or boycotting, anything in defense of Facebook whereas your members did. Now they kind of screwed up. You were just fighting for something you guys believed in. But is there something in Airbnb's culture versus what Facebook is doing that makes that happen? That there's not the grassroots support for them when the government comes knocking?

Douglas: Well I can't, I can't speak with Facebook in internal culture. I don't know that at all. So what I can say for our culture is that it's a sort of a default thing which is how are we going to stand by our hosts basically. I mean remember almost everyone in Airbnb is a host themselves, and certainly a guest. And the other thing by the way is a, and this came up a lot when we were in, I was getting the, the founders to focus on the core values and not the employees on redoing the core values. There is this real sort of human humanity humanness hosting this feeling at Airbnb, which is, we are all in it for humans compared to say for example, Uber with whom we're often bracketed where we, we we feel where even though we often talked about in the same articles, because we are both leaders of the sharing economy and so on.

Douglas: We see ourselves as completely and utterly 100% different, especially culturally because they seem to be doing everything they possibly can to remove humans from driving from everything else. Whereas what we're trying to do is celebrate humanity and its diversity and creating, intimate personal interrelate, relationships and things bring guests and hosts and each other. So there is this automatic default position I think in everyone at Airbnb from the top to the bottom, which is grass roots ish alongside the hosts. We're all in it together. The other thing that's really important is probably to say is that because we're a platform, for hosts and guests to meet each other and do what they need to do, it means the goals of hosts in particular and guests. But the hosts in particular are very closely aligned with us.

Douglas: Everything we're doing basically is to provide a platform for hosting guests to get together. So when hosts are threatened, we're threatened when we're threatened, hosts are threatened. And so that's sort of different in a way from many old style companies like the old packaged goods companies or car companies where they're producing things at a profit and the goals of a customer aren't necessarily the same goals of a corporation. Whereas in this case it is.

Joel: Yeah, I think Facebook in particular has this sort of cult of personality around Mark Zuckerberg.

Douglas: Yeah.

Joel: And I think if you asked a thousand people on the street, you know who founded Airbnb, they'd have no idea. But do you know anyone that Airbnb or anyone who rents Airbnb they would know that.

Douglas: Oh yeah.

Joel: And I think maybe having a culture that's sort of invisible in terms of someone pulling the strings or we own your ass kind of mentality I think really helps in the end, it's stuff like what Airbnb faced with the, with the governor.

Douglas: So when all of this, and then that's also speaking to this point about this sort of grass roots inclination if you like, so that there sort of a feels like a long dark tunnel of months I'm just recalling it, that period from about September, October to December in 2013 and there was only again about I know 200, 250 of us in HQ at the time. Whenever I saw Brian, he would like do a sort of fist symbol and say, resist. You know all the revolution.

Joel: Fight the power.

Douglas: Yes, he was, he loved, he loved that I was doing this. You know that in fact, when I had first joined Airbnb full time, this was in January, 2013 when I first joined, I went to Brian very early and said, I think we need to create a movement for the sharing economy because I keep getting emails from other companies in the sharing economy like Uber and Lyft and Sidecar and so to do the same, asking me to do the same things about signing petitions.

Douglas: Why don't we all do this together? We're all in it together and it's a new economy. We're going to be bumping up against old laws. All of us, all the sharing economy companies are and also know all of the hosts or the drivers and things. We're all going to be facing the same things. We should start a people's movement. And I said, I've just come from this area of working in this area. I kind of know how to do that. And he said yes. And then, so for this first six months from January to June, he and I did what he called a startup within a startup. So he and I launched him a grassroots movement called Peers. And we raised about one and a half million dollars donations from a lot of the sort of heavy breathers on the Silicon Valley that from a rave Hoffman, from the Omidyar group, the founders of eBay, and you know, from all these people because they also saw the same need and he loved it.

Douglas: We, so basically Brian and I did this startup together within a startup, which was Airbnb. And we launched Peers or hired someone from the democratic party to run it called Natalie Foster, who's well known at the time. And it was actually through that, through Peers that we did this campaign in New York against the attorney general. But they also did campaigns for Lyft and and others and the reason I'm mentioning that is yes, Brian loves, he's all three founders.

Douglas: There's a sort of inbuilt DNA part of them, which is that you're bucking the man, you know what I mean? Sort of like fighting the man. In fact they have a different term for it. And again a lot of all these sort of big important values and defining characteristics came up when I was doing a revisit of the core values a few years later. It's part of a value. In fact there is a value, there's a couple of values at Airbnb which is embrace the adventure and be a serial entrepreneur, which is all about daring to do plan B. It's the people we hire, the people, how we train them, how they're the culture of Airbnb is all about plan B-ism if you like. It is not being content with how it's normally done and doing it better or doing it differently because of that.

Joel: Yeah. I'm curious plan B to me sounds a lot like a pivot. Is it just a pivot by different name or is there a significant difference between a company pivoting and having a plan B?

Douglas: It's probably a a bad description for what we do, but basically what it is is, by so plan A, in that example with the attorney general would have been complying with his subpoena and handing over 15,000 hosts information. That's what every other company had done in the past. Some probably would do in the future. And we said, no, we're not going to do that. But then we had to say, but what are we going to do? Because if we take him to court, we can't just do that. We have to bring our hosts, mobilize them, feel like they're part of something alongside us fighting this unfair subpoena. But more than that, fighting this and these old laws that are getting in the way of this new economy. And so we need to immobilize them and make them feel part of a bigger movement together with us.

Douglas: So we're standing side by side and that's why we did all those town halls flying 3000 miles across the country every week or every other week with the founders and, and everyone else to talk to and listen to our hosts face to face in a we work actually in Soho.

Douglas: Everything you did was new because basically everything we were doing had never been done before. There was no marketing book or playbook you could buy at the store about how you do what we did because we were inventing, you know, not just a new company or even a new market or even a new economy. We inventing a new behavior as well, which is getting strangers to trust each other enough that they will be, feel happy and content to have a complete stranger they've never met before, sleeping in their bed at night. So it was like changing everything. And so I placed in that context it is both liberating because you cause after that and then when you doing something so radical, you know you don't want to do the status quo for anything but but we generally had to make everything up as we were going along because it hadn't been done before.

Joel: Yeah, and I love how this has become commonplace. The things that were so radical back then are becoming normal place today. Douglas, appreciate it. For our listeners, where can they find out more about you? This is part three and a mini part series. On our next edition we will be talking about longterm culture goals but Douglas for you any Twitter accounts you want to point people to or websites?

Douglas: You can find me on LinkedIn and I'm writing the series on Medium about how Airbnb founders purpose might. It's a good one and then how Airbnb lives its purpose of which doing plan B's is one.

Joel: Outstanding. Thank you Douglas.

Douglas: You are welcome.

Chad: 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