CULT BRAND: Relentlessly Focused


What does long-term focus really mean? Do companies really wait months to decide on a priority position? When does culture really matter?

We welcome back best-selling author, branding expert and former Airbnb global head of community, Douglas Atkin on this Cult Brand Series episode of The Chad & Cheese Podcast.

This podcast is a companion to Douglas' series authored entitled Purpose Must Come First on Medium.

Enjoy this SmashFly exclusive.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION sponsored by:

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Joel:

All right. All right. All right, let's get ready to pod. We got Douglas Atkin back-

Chad:

Yeah.

Joel:

... for our fourth show installment.

Chad:

Dude, the cult brand hits just keep coming kids. Today, we welcome back our friend Douglas Atkin, former global head of community at Airbnb, partner and chief community officer at meetup.com. And all around, incredibly smart, branding icon, dude.

Joel:

And he's just a good guy too.

Chad:

Knowing that Douglas is going to be on the podcast, I mean, I just can't sleep the night before.

Douglas:

Could we do this every morning? I just... I need you to say all these things every morning to me so I can have a good day.

Joel:

We can record it, man. You can just pop in your iPhone and listen to this everyday.

Chad:

No, that's not good enough, I want to have some more Douglas time. That being said, this is the fourth installment of Douglas' How to Live Your Purpose series, which is really intended to be a compliment to your writings over on medium.com, Douglas. And most importantly, again, this is about how to become a cult brand and stay a cult brand. You know, we all have the why, kind of like the Simon Sinek why, but this is the how. How do you you actually make that happen? So again, welcome back Douglas. Thanks for coming back on the show.

Joel:

Great to have any Douglas.

Douglas:

Oh, it's my pleasure, I love talking about this stuff.

Chad:

Well today's show is centered on, this is one of my favorites, being relentless, focused on the longterm. So in a short term profit and board driven world, how in the hell is that even possible today?

Douglas:

I know, I know. It's... but I mean, think about it. When Airbnb... I joined in 2012, late 2012, when there was about 150 people there in HQ. And it was a classic Silicon Valley startup. So, craziness every day. So build on top of that the fact that almost everything we're doing at Airbnb's never been done before. You're inventing stuff up, you're making stuff up every day as you're going along.

Chad:

Yeah.

Douglas:

So even within that context, your being faced by daily craziness. What I loved and admired about the founders and my colleagues was that we would always try and make decisions that favored the longterm. Or what we called plan "B" decisions, there's a separate podcast you've done about this. But Nate describes these decisions really well. Which is, normally the pla-

Douglas:

... what we call plan "B" decisions, we take, because they do favor the longterm in some way... they're better for the culture, they're better for our hosts, they're better... they live our values and they will achieve our mission, our purpose.

Douglas:

If you do plan "A" though, however, the way something is normally done, it won't do any of those things. So we always make plan "B" decisions. But plan "B" decisions don't exist, you have to invent them because they've never been done before. And as Nate says, told me once, "It's like there's a path before you and you can 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." So Nate told me that one day when he was trying to describe... Basically, I had asked him and the other two founders to think of all the meaningful moments in the company's history, and by meaningful moments, I mean those moments where you did something with meaning, on principle.

Chad:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Douglas:

Often there was a big risk attached. Often there was a big short term cost to it, like short term cost of money or not being able to launch a product on time or whatever it was. And that was one of them. He said, "Basically, we make plan "B" decisions in forging our own path." And actually one of the first things that the founders did for their... the first hire they wanted to make, this is way back in 2008, was another software engineer. And there was only three of them at the time and they were trying to hire this software engineer because what was also happening at the time is they were in "Y" Combinator, which is an incubator in Silicon Valley, a famous one.

Chad:

Pretty popular.

Douglas:

Yeah, very popular. And Brian and Joe were flying to New York every weekend to talk to hosts and find out what they needed and would telephone back to Nate, who is the CTO, who was the programmer, and get him to often change the site overnight, more in line with what the hosts needed to be good hosts.

Douglas:

So... but they... and then we had a long list of products and innovations they wanted to make to the site and so on. So they really needed this first engineering hire and that, actually, I'll just read you something that Brian told me about this. He said, "Our first engineering hire, we desperately need an engineer but we still waited four or five months, maybe six months, till we hired this guy Nick Randy because we wanted to hire somebody we felt could represent the culture. So that had a cost of growing slower because of an investment in the culture." This is still Brian talking. "Culture's really a short term price you pay for longterm results, very long term. Like, you pay a short term price not to hire your first engineer because you believe, in the longterm, that they'll hire 10 more people that will represent the culture."

Douglas:

So imagine it, there's only three of you, you're in startup mode, incubation mode, you're trying to get product made. You would think, like most startups, you would hire... any engineer will do, basically. Any decent engineer will have them. But no they deferred all the products that they wanted to launch so urgently until they found the right one, the right person who they felt shared their values and would perpetuate a strong culture.

Joel:

And Douglas, so we have a lot of recruiters that listen to this show.

Douglas:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Joel:

And they're sitting there thinking, "What in the hell? My job is to find people as quickly as possible." So to that recruiter that says, "I can't worry about culture, I got to fill this rec immediately, or as fast as possible." Your answer to them is what?

Douglas:

Well normally that recruiter, and I know because I've been in exactly that situation, that recruiter is saying that because the manager is usually standing on their desk and saying, "I need this engineer, I need this marketing person right now, otherwise we're screwed. We won't launch this. We won't be able to do "X", "Y" and Zed." Right? So it's for really good reasons why they're desperate to hire. But we don't. I mean, from the outside, Airbnb looks like this meteoric... At the time, by the way, we were growing, and this is when I was there, which is 2012, '13, '14, '15. We were growing at 200 to 300% per year.

Douglas:

Meaning that we had twice, or three times as many, people, customers, revenue, listings, hosts, guests, every single year. So it was as Marc Andreessen, the VC guy, called us, like he called eBay, hyper growth company. So we were going hyper, hyper growth. And this is still true, we would never hire someone without checking they fit the core values first. Because everyone in the company knows that no matter how urgent their hiring need is, for whatever they need it for, it's not so urgent that you're willing to sacrifice the powerful culture that helps deliver the purpose or the mission.

Douglas:

Because yes, you may solve a short term problem, but you'll create a much worse, longer term problem. Where, in a couple of years, you look around and say, "What have we become? This is not what we intended. This isn't who we are. We've got all these high performing assholes," as my colleague called them, "... really good at their jobs and make a lot of impact but don't live the values. And this is not the culture that's going to deliver our mission."

Douglas:

So what I would say is, even in a hyper growth company like Airbnb, where we were growing way faster than 99.9% of companies in the world, we still paused on hiring and made sure that ,for new hires, and it's absolutely true now, they get six to eight skill interviews. Say I'm an engineer, there'll be interviewed by six to eight engineers to check that I'm a really good engineer.

Joel:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas:

Then I'll get two interviews, core value interviews, that are being... that are given to me by non-engineers, by people not in my discipline. And what those interviews are for is to check that your personal values are aligned with the values that are shared at Airbnb. And if those core values interviewers think that you may be a good engineer but you don't embody those values, they have veto power. So... and this also happened to me once as a manager. I wanted to recruit this grassroots organizer, one of the best in the Obama campaign, I think. I urgently needed her to parachute into a city and to mobilize hosts. And she went through all the interviews, I knew her skills were brilliant but she had two core values interviews and they turned her down.

Douglas:

And of course my first response, even though I should know better, was, "What the fuck? It's like, I need her to fly in tomorrow, you know? It's like, this is crazy because there's going to be this..." Some legislation was being passed in three weeks time, I really needed her to go in there tomorrow. But then I calmed down and thought, "Okay, fair enough. We all live with this. It would solve my immediate problem but will create bigger, bigger, much worse problems, longer term. And I'd rather deal with a short term issue than the longer term one."

Chad:

I mean, this came from the top. That the core values... I mean, the founders. So we're talking about recruiters but really we also have a ton of DPs, and directors of talent acquisition, that listen to us. It's really on their shoulders to focus on this, being relentless for the longterm, right?

Douglas:

It is, yeah. And so, yeah, no, the founders keep talking about it all the time. And I mean, as I say, it's built into our values. Our first value is, champion the mission. Which, our mission is our purpose. Which is, create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And there's a... There's three behaviors under each mission and under each value, by the way, core value. And one of the behaviors under that, champion the mission, core value is, always favor the mission in every decision you make. So it's built into our values and everyone is held accountable to the values. Old and young, whatever seniority, whatever discipline, whichever country you're in, you have to live the values, specially if you're a leader.

Douglas:

Because as leaders tend to make the big decisions and are more visible and if they don't embody the values, which includes championing the mission and making decisions for the longterm, then why would anyone else?

Joel:

Douglas, do you have any insight into what that extra set of interviews meant to recruiting? In other words, I think on the surface you would say, "Wow, if engineers knew that not only do they have to pass the skills stuff but then they have to take a values interview." I think you would say, a knee jerk would be, "Well I'm not going to even bother with interviewing with Airbnb if they're going to put me through that kind of rigor." But my guess is this probably helped you recruit better people, and more people, because of that extra hurdle.

Douglas:

Oh yeah, yeah. No, it's the opposite effect. People want to work at Airbnb because of the culture of the values, they say that. It's... They're kind of famous. And it's a fantastic differentiator actually. It helps us recruit in a highly competitive market, particularly in San Francisco, it helps us recruit the best. And by the way, it's not just recruitment. This, again, is going to come up in another podcast but it's recruitment, it's reviewing and it's rejecting as well, the three "R"s. So once you're in Airbnb, your reviewed not just on how much impact you've had, what you did, but you also reviewed about how you did it. So... And it's 50/50. So did you do all these things whilst living the core values? And if the answer is no, then you'll be given a warning and fired if you don't change your ways.

Douglas:

And this is true also of people on the leadership team. There were two or three people in 2015, 2016, who... I talked to a lot of people in the company at the time. A lot of people were grumbling about them because they felt that they had somehow got through the filter and really didn't embody the core values and didn't really seem to be championing the mission. And the decisions they're making too didn't seem to be... they seemed to be favoring short term growth rather than the longterm mission. And eventually those three leaders were let go. And now leaders in the company are given much longer core values interviews by more senior people, including, sometimes, the founders.