Don't F%$k Up the Culture

What is "culture"?


Most companies talk about culture even before they understand what culture actually means, let alone their own flavor of it. In this Cult Brand episode Douglas Atkin, former Head of Airbnb's Global Community and the man who wrote "The Culting of Brands", which virtually created the entire Cult Brand segment, takes us through his culture journey at cult brand Airbnb. 

This will be a treat for Brand professionals and enthusiasts all over the globe. 


Thanks to our friends at Symphony Talent for supporting the Cult Brands Series of podcasts. 


PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION sponsored by:

Disability Solutions helps companies find talent in the largest minority community in the world – people with disabilities.


Announcer:

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's time for The Chad & Cheese Podcast.

Chad:

Hey, guys. We have Douglas Atkin with us today. That's right. Talking cult brand and how not to fuck up your culture. If you don't know Douglas's work, first and foremost, where the hell have you been?

Joel:

Can't get enough.

Chad:

Yeah. He's a cult brand expert, former global head of community at Airbnb, held a position as partner in chief community officer at meetup.com, and literally always one of the smartest people in the room.

Douglas:

Oh, you guys, you guys.

Chad:

Yeah. That's right, that's right. Joel-

Joel:

We're the best unpaid hype masters in the industry.

Chad:

Yeah, no kidding. Right? Have I mentioned Douglas actually wrote the book on cult brands?

Joel:

You have mentioned that once or twice, yes.

Chad:

Dude created the category for God's sake. This is the fifth installment of Douglas's How to Live Your Purpose series, which these podcasts are intended to be a compliment to what he's writing over on medium.com. You can go to the pod notes on chadcheese.com, click on the link and you can read and listen. Welcome back, Douglas.

Joel:

Welcome back, Douglas, from the sun-kissed landscape of Tuscany. I'm sure sipping on some fine wine while you chat with us.

Chad:

I don't know if you can tell I'm excited. Today's show is centered on don't fuck up the culture, so Douglas let's start out with the very basics on this one, shall we? What is culture and why is it so important?

Douglas:

Right. That's a really good question. What is culture? Because everyone talks about culture, and I think a lot of people think they know what it is. But the moment you try and say, well okay, define it then, people kind of go and say "um, um, um" and then say, "Well, it's sort of fun in the workplace, I guess," which, to be honest is absolutely what it's not. Yes, you can have fun in the workplace, but that's not really a good definition of culture.

Douglas:

There was a moment at Airbnb in 2015 where we noticed that the culture was getting wobbly. It had been famously strong but there were cracks appearing. I wanted to figure out why, and then I realized, well, hang on a second. We talk about the culture, it's wobbly, and investing in it. But what is it exactly? What is this thing we call culture? Over 2015 I'd been there for about three years I guess, the company had grown at two to three X, meaning that it was twice and three times as many, between twice and three times as many customers, hosts and guests, revenue, bookings, and the people to run it all.

Douglas:

That's a massive, massive growth, hyper growth, which is great. But when you're growing that fast it's going to create strains especially internally, and especially to things like the culture. The culture is something that, as we've talked about before, the founders have taken extremely seriously and invested literally millions of dollars into it. And they've not done things in order to preserve the culture. They didn't acquire Wimdu when it was dangled in front of them by the Samwer brothers in Germany, which was a turnkey operation copycat site that the Samwer brothers, this is their modus operandi, had built in Europe just for the purpose of getting Airbnb to buy it.

Douglas:

But the three founders met them, two of the facilities, met all the people and said, "No, we can't do this because it'll probably not just not fit our culture but destroy the original, because this place is so different from us and we think more toxic." So that was a big decision by the way, because that was a turnkey operation with millions of customers and a whole network of employees and offices around Europe. So not buying it was a big decision. Ebay and Groupon had bought their copycats from the Samwer brothers in their time, but Airbnb decided not to simply because of the culture.

Douglas:

It made business sense to buy it in the short term, but long term not to do it. So the culture was valued extremely high at Airbnb. And they'd done things like One Airbnb, which I've talked about before, which is when we fly in millions, not millions, thousands of employees from around the world to basically hang out for each other for a week. That's its main purpose is to get people to meet each other, engage with each other, get to know each other, create the sort of... the thing which I think culture is basically.

Douglas:

It's basically a sort of rich social soup with many ingredients in it. But basically it's the result of all the millions of interactions between people as they decide things together, interrelate with each other, engage with each other, all those things. Critical moment happened in the fall of 2015 when an advertising campaign was posted on posters in San Francisco, and immediately there was an outcry literally within an hour or two hours of it being posted. As people were coming into work, the internet went ablaze about this campaign.

Douglas:

If you look at the campaign now, you probably think, well, why was there so much fuss? But for the people in the company it seems totally alien to us. It didn't seem like it was coming from us. It was very confrontative, a little bit arrogant-

Chad:

Ah.

Douglas:

That was in the campaign, was to change a political opinion basically about a ballot measure that would essentially have banned Airbnb in its home city in 2015. And so it was to try and change hearts and minds, but it was doing it in a very, what felt, alien way to us. So within hours it was pulled down, and there was a big inquiry. We had a meeting in the main meeting room with Airbnb with hosts and with as many employees as could attend with the founders.

Joel:

Why was it so aggressive to the employees? Was it the messaging? Was it just the activity of-

Douglas:

The tone of voice was very adversarial but also very arrogant and sort of snide. So people looked at that and said, "But that's not me. That's not us. We're not like that." The hosts were furious because they felt it wasn't like them either, and they felt it would jeopardize their position legally in the city. Anyway the reason I'm mentioning this is that it was an event that was waiting to happen, because during the course of that year I'd been hearing a lot of grumblings and moaning from people who'd been there for a while.

Douglas:

And when I say for a while, a tenured employee at this point was one who'd been there for a year or more. Most companies a tenured employee would've been there for five, 10 years, 20 years. But anyway these people were saying, "Oh, my God. We're growing so fast. In the haste, we're putting bums on seats without really checking thoroughly enough that they're a good cultural fit." One of the things that created the most complaints was seeing a lot of engineers, in particular we think it was, walking around with Facebook T-shirts on or Google T-shirts, or Pinterest T-shirts on.

Douglas:

Our visceral response was we don't care if you worked at Facebook or Pinterest or Google. They're not as good as us, and they're different. And the fact that you think that it's a good thing to wear that T-shirt means that you don't get it and you don't belong. The tenured employees visceral response, because in everyone's mind there is a very strong culture and it's very different from those companies. So why wear their T-shirts? Have you got nothing else to wear, for crying out loud? You're an engineer. You're paid a fortune.

Douglas:

Anyways there were these sort of grumblings and things. Joe asked me, Joe Gebbia, one of the three founders. True, he's seen as the sort of heart and soul of the place really, the one that cares the most about these kinds of things. He asked me to go out and start talking to people to see if there was an issue with the culture. And when I sat down to do that, I thought, huh. I asked lots of questions actually, one of which was the one you asked a moment ago, which was what is culture?

Chad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas:

Because if I'm going to be talking to people about it, what am I talking to them about? Anyway these are the questions I realized I had to be asking of myself and ourselves, which is what is culture? If it's so important to use and we're investing all this time and money into it, shouldn't we know what it is that we're investing in?

Chad:

Exactly.

Douglas:

We know what product is. We know what people is. But there's this nebulous, vague, misty thing called culture and we haven't even defined exactly what