• Chad and Cheese

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 it is. And how is it made? How do you make more of that culture?

Chad:

Yeah.

Douglas:

And also how do you unmake it? How do you destroy the culture?

Chad:

How do you fuck it up?

Douglas:

How do you fuck it up? Yeah, we'll come to that in a minute. And what I realized it's definitely not fun in the workplace, which is that default chronically unhelpful definition that most people use. And then I was also asking the question is the culture as strong as we keep telling ourselves it is? Or if not, what's hurting it? And then finally what is our culture? How is it defined? Is it caring? Is it aggressive? Is it nurturing? Is it sink or swim?

Douglas:

When people responded to that advertising campaign and said that's not us, well, what is us? We should be able to define ourselves to ourselves, our culture. So I went back, I talked to a few people, then went back to both Joe and Brian and said, "Yes, there is something wrong going on, and I want to go back out there and interview some more people." Let me go back to a moment to this whole don't fuck up the culture. I called the piece I wrote in Medium How to Live Your Purpose: Don't Fuck up the Culture because it's a phrase that was used a lot in Airbnb, especially by Brian Chesky, the CEO and co-founder, but by all of us really.

Douglas:

And that's because Peter Thiel who is famous or infamous in Silicon Valley, he was co-founder of PayPal then has a huge venture fund. In 2012, he handed over a 200 million dollar check to the founders. It was one of the biggest single investments the organization had had in its young history. As he was handing it over, Brian asked him for advice. So think of that for a moment. You've got this guy who's made billions, who's been incredibly successful, who's invested in what became incredibly successful companies. This founder is asking him for advice. Basically he's saying, "How do we preserve and grow your 200 million?"

Douglas:

And the thing that Thiel responded with was don't fuck up the culture, which is not what most people would have responded with. Most people would've said make the best product you can, hire the best people, all the normal stuff you hear. But no. He decided... What's your runway? All these kinds of things. He obviously considered culture was the most important thing that they could fuck up, but also could be one of the biggest things that contributed to a big return on his investment. What most leaders do actually though, they don't put that as a priority.

Douglas:

Culture has become a sort of nice if you can get it thing. It's not something that's on the top three, four priorities that a CEO of a leader of any kind-

Joel:

I love in your story where you say culture is typically an investment by HR to have some fun things in the office and it'll take care of itself.

Douglas:

Yes, exactly. That's what most leaders are focusing, quite rightly, on things like the best product and all these kind of things. And they sort of hope the culture will be a nice outcome of it all. Maybe a little happy outcome of running the organization well. And if there's a problem, just throw some dollars at HR and they'll run a few parties and put a beer keg-

Joel:

Go buy a ping pong table.

Douglas:

Yes, and a beer keg on Fridays or something.

Chad:

I like that one.

Joel:

Yeah, I like that one too.

Douglas:

Peter Thiel and the founders before and since then have had the right attitude to culture, which is it requirements investment as much as the best people, investing in the best product, product development, research, all these kinds of things. All the things you see as a leader as the things you should be investing in, they put culture very near the top if not the top as something that needs conscious attention and application of dollars, time, and energy to be successful.

Douglas:

So I wrote an email actually to Brian and Joe over the Christmas break in 2015 saying the culture is fucked. Because as Joe had asked, I'd gone out and talked to some people, and I came back and realized that things weren't good. The truth was I was saying the culture is fucked as a bit of an emphasis point. The truth was it wasn't fucked. It was still very strong, but it was getting wobbly, and getting wobbly was not something that we would ever want to tolerate.

Chad:

I think it'd be great for companies to understand how you identified the culture was getting wobbly, because you say it, but it's like how did you know? And then what then did you do about it?

Douglas:

Okay. Good. I went out and did this tour with this colleague of mine, Dave O'Neill, around the world to many of our offices. Interviewed over 300 employees, making sure that I was interviewing people of all tenures, people who joined just a few weeks ago to people who'd been there when there was... back in 2009, 2010, whatever. Also, every discipline, engineering, marketing, partnerships, whatever. Different nationalities and geographies, and different levels, from the most senior people in the E staff all the way down to the most junior. And I asked the same questions of everyone and got them to do the same exercises.

Douglas:

One of the first things we did was I basically said... I was trying to find out is the culture as strong as we think it is. One way to find out is to ask a really open-ended question, which is why are you here? You could probably get a really good, better paying job elsewhere, because at the time we weren't paying that much. Because we had a strong culture, everyone wanted to come and join. Especially in Silicon Valley and in London, it's a very competitive market. So I said, "You could probably leave and get more money. Why are you here? And why are you staying?" And I gave them cards to write down the top two or three reasons.

Douglas:

And so every time, apart from one person, just one person out of the 300, said I'm here for the money.

Chad:

Just one?

Douglas:

Just one. Yep.

Chad:

Wow.

Douglas:

I think he was kidding himself, to be honest. That what he was telling himself. But anyway, he shall remain nameless. Everyone actually wrote the same things, which was, and I'm just looking at some of these cards now that I took photographs of, people, culture, values, the mission, and things like I can make an impact, I really love my colleagues. Here's an example of one: Why am I here? I love the vision, and I'm very sure that Airbnb's mindset is the right way to go long term. I love that Airbnb cares for their employees and makes sure everybody lives the vision. The vision. The culture. I'm here for the culture.

Douglas:

That was good. That was encouraging. That was qualitative evidence. I also had quantitative evidence. Twice a year we run this survey called Murmur where we ask a ton of questions. There's a very high rate of filling these things in, these surveys, believe it or not. It's like 95%, 96%.

Chad:

Wow.

Douglas:

89% of people agreed that I am proud of the culture at Airbnb in the fall of 2015. So clearly the culture was very, very strong. But as one of those respondents said in that Murmur survey, I've written it down here, he said, "After all the talk of not fucking up the culture, I can confirm that it is thoroughly fucked." Okay. So, yes, it's strong but there were signs like that, that people were getting nervous about the culture wasn't as strong as it used to be.

Chad:

Yeah. So was this individual... had they been around a while and they'd been able to see what the culture was like and where it was going? Is that how you could gauge some of that?

Douglas:

Exactly. Obviously the people with more tenure thought there was more of a problem, because they had been like I had. I joined when there was about 150 people in HQ. The founders are in every meeting. You basically see each other all the time and interact. It's a small group. 150 is what's called the Dunbar number. 100 or 150. Named after an anthropologist, I think, or a sociologist that's called Dunbar. He said that's the maximum number of people that you can remember the names of in an organization.

Douglas:

It's the reason why the Romans had centurions and sentries. They had 100 soldiers with one centurion because they could create strong bonds. You knew each other, you depended on each other, there's a mutual reinforcement, all those kinds of things. So obviously the tenured people, yes, they could see more of an erosion of the culture. The next thing I wanted to do was to find out, well okay, I will need to know two things. What built the culture? What erodes the culture? Specifically at Airbnb, what is making the culture stronger, if anything? And what is making it weaker, if anything?

Douglas:

So the best way I... This culture is this amorphous thing. This miasma. This fog called culture, and no one could really touch or grasp it. I had to use a metaphor, and the metaphor I used was a balloon, a normal party balloon. And I said imagine that you have a balloon in front of you and the air in the balloon is Airbnb's culture. So you can make more of it. You can blow more air into the balloon and have more culture and a bigger balloon. Equally though, leaks can occur in the balloon and the culture will leak out. What I want you to do is draw a picture of a party balloon, which they did on a big piece of paper. And I said I want you to identify the things which are making more culture. What is the stuff in the air there that's making the balloon bigger and stronger?

Douglas:

And then also identify the things which are making the culture leak out. So I'm just looking at one of these right now, one of the hundreds that were drawn. And I'll read you some of the things that this particular person put in, in terms of inflating the culture. All right? The first one is our mission. Our mission is the purpose of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Good people, mission driven people. One Airbnb, which is that big meeting, annual meeting I was telling you about where we all get together for a week of getting to know each other. The founders, big contributors.

Douglas:

What else? Drive, ambition, big ideas, and opportunities. That kind of stuff. Then I asked what are the deflators? There were things like leaders and E staff. E staff is the management team, the department heads who report to the founders. Leaders in the E staff who just don't get it, and then under that, people who don't live the values. Lack of trust with all these new people. We don't really know where they're coming from. And let me have another look here. Hiring non-mission oriented people, putting business before the mission.

Douglas:

So what had been happening actually... Once they did all these things, I went back to these inflators and deflators and said let's talk about those a bit more. So you're saying putting business before the mission. Can you give me an example? And there were several common examples that were quite controversial in 2015. On of them was a big bet they made about expanding vacation rentals. They hired a guy from Google, really nice guy, good guy actually. And they wanted to expand the number of listings in vacation locations, so things like ski areas and seasides.

Douglas:

The trouble with that is that those properties tend to be purpose built and run by property managers. They're not necessarily the homes of real people which they're letting out for a few nights, or a bedroom, whatever. Okay? Property managers aren't like hosts. Hosts are personal and local, and they're spending as much time not just making sure you've got a key and beautiful place to stay, but making you feel welcome, making you feel like a local-

Chad:

They want you to belong. Right? And the property managers, not so much.

Douglas:

That felt like a big investment that was not just not forwarding the mission but possibly undermining it by hiring non-belong anywhere hosts basically. And then another one of those big business decisions was one called 100% instant book. Now on the surface this looks like a really good thing for users, which was just like a hotel you could find an Airbnb host and listing and instantly book it. You didn't have to wait the normal 24 hours for them to respond that you often have to do.

Douglas:

So that sounded like a good idea, and it was a good idea from a business point of view too, because we had a pretty low what's called browse to book rate. It was a conversion rate of about 60%, so 60% of people who browsed then actually made a booking. So we wanted to increase that rate obviously as any business would. But a lot of people felt it was undermining proper matching between guests and hosts, guests who would get on with hosts and would like their recommendations on restaurants, or gigs to go to or places to go, and an interaction between the host and the guest that was very, very important.

Douglas:

So there was that. Plus also some people had been hired in E staff who people generally felt were not living the values. They weren't the core values, which we'll talk about in another podcast. The core values are very, very important to building the culture and to achieving your mission. And they felt these people didn't take them seriously. There were two or three of them. Just in their day-to-day interactions. For example, one of them was "be a host", one of the core values. They felt that some of these leaders weren't host-y enough. They weren't there to help you do your best. They weren't there to make you feel like you belong and part of an important team. They were in it just for the money.

Douglas:

So there was a lot of that. Now, all of this... That was quite a good technique in both identifying what built and undid the culture, but also defining what Airbnb's culture was too. Another technique I used that was really good, really helpful, is what I called advice to the founders. I said to these people, "Look, I promise you that whatever you write down I will show the three founders," which I did. And I said, "I want you to write at the top of the page advice to founders, and then I want you to write what you want them to continue to do, what you want them to stop doing, and then what you want them to start doing."

Joel:

Very cool.

Douglas:

Which is good. When you work in a company, you never get to talk to the leaders often, and especially give them a piece of your mind. What you want them to start, stop, or continue doing. Anyway, the advice to founder were things like continue to constantly reflect on and prioritize the culture, stop talking a big values based game but then prioritizing short-termed values-less projects with the resources and attention. So that was an example, that last one, of you say you're living the values but then you go and do things like vacation rentals, which don't have any values in them at all.

Douglas:

So you're talking out of your ass basically. Another one was advice to founders: continue to make values driven decisions and holding others accountable to do the same. When they're talking about others here, they're particularly talking about the people who work for you the founders. Hold these department heads accountable to making values driven decisions because we don't think they are.

Chad:

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Joel:

It's easier than ever before to create video. Yet, companies seem confused about how to use video to build and employ your brand. What is your advice to companies who want to leverage video?

Roopesh Nair:

Keep it very, very genuine and the only way you can keep it genuine is by making it basically come from people who actually work for you and actually not very tailored. The more you can leave it loose and let people express themselves using video, the more genuine and connecting it would be. Yeah, it's good to give people guideline on how they want to communicate about the brand and ensure that you're hitting the top points out there, but frankly, getting it out here to ensure that your co-creating your videos with your employees is the right way to go. And then bringing that content into your engagement as you think about it.

Roopesh Nair:

And I'll give a shout out to our friends at Altru here. I think something like that is the best way to actually achieve really bold videos than necessarily doing video shoots and things like that. I mean, video shoots have their place when you build those corporate videos, but if you really want to use video as a marketing content then it needs to be curated in a very genuine way.

Chad:

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Douglas:

On the same sheet actually someone said start, here we go, start holding other executives and leaders accountable when they fail to operate with a values driven mindset. These are all open-ended. They could've put anything down there. These employees could've put down there I want more money, I want a better restaurant in the building, whatever it was. No, they put things down there about the culture, the values, and the mission. So I was able to go back to the three founders in the spring of 2016 saying I can tell you most of the things I now think we need to know.

Douglas:

I can tell you that the culture is strong but it's getting wobbly. And I can tell you why it's getting wobbly, and then we can then have a discussion about how to fix the wobbliness. So what I was able to say was what's making the culture strong and we need to do even more of is, number one, the mission. Having a mission, which is belong anywhere, that went beyond business goal to making the world a better place, was a massive draw to people working at Airbnb and staying and working really, really hard. It's why they got up in the morning.

Douglas:

The values were really important, that we had some and that we tried to live by them mostly seemed to be good. But there was a problem with the values which I'll come back to in a minute. Having founders that really lived the missions and the values and who prioritized the culture was a huge inflator. There was a feeling, by the way, that the founders were doing almost everything right. The only thing they were doing wrong is not holding their direct reports accountable to the mission and the values and the culture.

Douglas:

So the people thought that Brian, Joe, Nate were making business decisions that built and achieved the purpose and the culture. But their people weren't. And then other things, having mission and values driven colleagues. What they called the missionaries rather than the mercenaries. Having a workforce of missionaries who believed in the purpose and the values as much as you did, rather than having a bunch of people who were there just for the money, mercenaries, was what would make a strong culture.

Douglas:

And then experiences, things like One Airbnb, and the world and so on. But these were the culture destroyers that we had to fix immediately, otherwise the culture would start disappearing out of the balloon rapidly and the whole thing would deflate. So we said you've got to deal with the leaders who do not live the mission and the values. They either need retraining or re-incentivizing or firing. I can report that within a year, 18 months of that conversation the three big offenders had left the organization, which was good.

Douglas:

The colleagues who don't live the mission or values, I think actually that was a misunderstanding amongst the employees. Even some of those people wearing bloody Facebook and Google T-shirts were there for the mission and the values. It's just they hadn't done their laundry or something. I don't know. Anyway, we gave them Airbnb T-shirts and they wore those instead. And then the other big thing I mentioned before, non-mission and values led big decisions. They revised the whole vacation rentals thing. The 100% instant book goal was also revised. And I'll come on to it later but other metrics which valued the mission were given more equal priority, which I'll come back to.

Douglas:

Now, the core values is the other thing, which is really important. People said we're here for the core values. They make the mission possible. They make the culture strong. But they're not good enough. We have real problems trying to put them into action. Sometimes they were even abused. There was one called embrace the adventure. Embrace the adventure meant basically that you should be bold. Do things that have never been done before. Be courageous, all these kinds of things. But leaders sometimes, even on the E staff would say things like, "I'm sorry. To get this done we've got to work the weekend. But hey, embrace the adventure."

Douglas:

That's not using the values. They were totally abusing them, which made it even worse. That made many people think, well, screw this. If he or she is not taking the values seriously, why should I? So some of these next steps were totally in the hands of the founders in things like, for example, changing the big goals to reflect achieving the mission, the big business priorities, and reviewing the leadership to make sure that they were also on track with the values and the mission. That was in the hands of the founders.

Douglas:

The other thing that we could do together though was make the values better, because as I said they were good but not good enough. People thought that there were too many of them, which to where we had six. The most that people could remember were five. When I asked them, "okay, tell me what the core values are." And they go, "Be a host, champion the mission, embrace the adventure, um, uh." There were too many. And also some of them were, like embrace the adventure and cereal entrepreneur, were sometimes a little too cutesy and not specific enough at defining the behavior that was required of people.

Douglas:

So we went on a... The next year I went on an adventure to do a whole zero basing of the core values and redefine them and rebuild them, which will be the subject of another podcast. Now we come back though to... That's what we did in terms of finding out what was building the culture, what was hurting it, and then the action we took to address those things. But I want to come back to two things which I haven't really, I don't think, talked enough about. One is what was the definition of Airbnb's culture, and then secondly, what is culture itself?

Douglas:

Because I found, I learned through this experience to have I think what is a better definition of culture that most companies might be able to use more easily than what's around. The thing I learned about Airbnb's culture was basically that through all those exercises I did, Airbnb's culture could be defined as being one that's totally focused on delivering the mission and it is very caring and very daring, meaning that this whole idea of being a host was expressed in that value. It was not a culture of fear. It was not a culture of intimidation. It was a culture of making you feel like you belonged, and in doing so that you would do anything to be able to make you be the best you could possibly be, nurturing you to the point where you delivered your best.

Douglas:

Unlike some cultures which could be things like scaring you to the point where you delivered your best, ours was caring. Not scaring. And daring was another part of the culture, which is we keep doing things that have never been done before. In every department in every way we would, as I've talked about in another podcast, we would do plan B's, not plan A's. We would forge our own path and do things that'd never been done. We were always daring ourselves and daring others to do stuff that had not been done before. So it was a very entrepreneurial culture basically, but one that was very caring.

Douglas:

Plus, there was this freedom to be myself. Because I was welcomed and recognized and loved for who I was and felt like I was part of a team who liked me and celebrated me, you're in a safe space. It enabled you to relax a little bit and blossom. You were basically trusted and given the space to get the job done in the way that you felt that was the way to do it best, which was fantastic actually. Very few companies deliver that.

Douglas:

So what is culture then? What is the purpose of culture? The purpose of culture is to deliver the purpose primarily, and it does this by creating and incredibly driven, motivated team of people who are very cohesive, meaning that they are extremely good at working with each other to deliver on the mission. Why? Because they all value the same things. They all share the same personal values, which are enshrined in the core values. And those core values have defined a way of working with each other, how you behave, how you make decisions together, that's known. Sort of, duh, of course we need to do it that way, because we all know that. That's what it is.

Douglas:

This culture is this, as I said before, incredibly rich social soup where everyone knows why they're there, and what they're doing, and how they should relate with everyone else, and everyone knows that we're all in the same boat together, all going in the same direction. So you've got this driven, focused, direction given team to make the purpose a reality. Rather than places without a strong culture are often places where you're arguing over and over again about the same things, fundamental, basic things, like why are we here? What are we doing this for? How should we make our decisions with each other?

Douglas:

You're not wasting any time doing that anymore. That's all been decided. Now you're just part of this team focused on making the purpose a reality. So what is culture? Let me go be back to describing what that is. I actually think there's both visible, tangible things of culture and invisible. Invisible are actually ultimately the most important bits, and they're what I call... By the way, where this definition is coming from is I and a couple of others looked at all the academic definitions of culture that are around, and then some of the definitions that companies have used and so on.

Douglas:

And I either found them too academic and obscure or too simple. There was nothing that I could or that we could use as a method, like a template for culture that we could all use and know what we were talking about. So that's why I took the best bits of what I found and came up with this. The invisible and visible. Invisible aspects of culture are the shared assumptions that we all have about how we behave with each other, relate to each other, and decide things together. It's those unwritten things, unspoken things that make it like a of course we know how to do this. We all know this. We're all in the same boat.

Douglas:

Now, those shared assumptions about why we're here, what we're doing, how we're relating to each other, they are driven by very undefined... These invisible aspects and shared assumptions are defined by very visible things, specifically the purpose and the core values. The purpose is this very visible thing. In our case it was creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And it says that's why we're here. If you want that to be reality, come join us and be part of the team. If you want to do something else, that's great. You can find that in another company.

Douglas:

But we are here for this reason and this reason alone, creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And then the how, we're going to get that, is our core values. And we have these core values. There were six. Now there's four. And these are the guardrails, if you like, or the definers of those shared assumptions. They define how we decide things together, how we relate to each other, how we talk to each other. Things like be a host. The core values now have three behaviors each, which are very specific about... very good at defining exactly the behavior that is expected of you.

Douglas:

Being a host is all the things I mentioned before. Work with other people to bring out the best of them by making them feel they're in a safe space, and that they belong and they're part of the team. That kind of thing. The first and most important visible aspect of culture are the purpose and the core values that should be written down, be everywhere, talked about by everyone all of the time, which we'll get on to in the next podcast. The next visible aspect of culture are the leaders.

Douglas:

The leaders should be like the high priests, if you like, of the culture. They should be the ones that... If the core values are defining how you should behave, they should behaving according to the core values all the time. So for example, when we didn't have leaders on the management team who were being host-y, that was a big problem because they weren't living the values themselves, which made people think, well, if they're not being hosts, why should I?

Chad:

Right.

Douglas:

Actually, what people thought was, "Goddammit, why aren't they being hosts? They don't belong here." Is actually what people thought.

Joel:

Yeah.

Douglas:

So they need to be exemplars. And the reason why the leaders are so important is obviously they're leaders. They're very visible. So they need to be living exemplars of the values and the purpose. But also the decisions they're making are also the biggest and most visible decisions that the company makes. And those decisions need to be seen to be living the purpose and the values as well. That's why the leaders are so important.

Douglas:

Now, in some companies and organizations the physical, the space you're working in, the architecture, the way people are dressed, the design of the products, the design of your presentations even, they all are there to reinforce the culture. So for example, in Airbnb's offices all around the world, I mean, you can literally go from one office to another and you'll see, they're not exactly the same, but you'll see the same themes and the same architecture and design. And the design is all about, I'm sure people know this already, but all the meeting rooms are exact recreations of hosts' homes somewhere in the world.

Chad:

That's so cool.

Douglas:

So every single meeting room in Airbnb, like for example, the ones in San Francisco, there was an airstream trailer that was a meeting room. There's this amazing kitchen from a listing in Paris with all the knives on the wall, the recipe books and everything else. First of all, they're really wonderful places, but the way the architecture was working to reinforce the culture was saying that every time you're having a meeting and deciding things you're literally being dunked like a teabag into the host's life.

Douglas:

You're literally having a meeting in their sitting room, or their living room, or around the table.

Chad:

That's fucking brilliant. I mean, it literally is fucking brilliant.

Douglas:

You can never forget that this is what you're doing here. You're creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere because you're doing it in an environment where people feel they belong in hosts' homes. So the physical manifestations are very important. But also we could always tell when people were having tours of the office, you could see these groups of people walking around. They were dressed differently. They wore jackets and had work shoes and stuff, whereas we were all wearing T-shirts and jeans and what have you. You could just tell.

Douglas:

So the physical is very, very important. The next important thing is experiences and rituals. So these are the things that will emerge over time. For example, there's a ritual every week for new employees in every office, which is after we've had our big world meeting, which is in some offices that are remote will be live streamed, then all the new employees have to stand up and say who they are and sing a song or something. But then what happens is they have to run through the human tunnel, and the human tunnel is where all the members of the office form this human tunnel and the new employees run through it and then leap onto a big Airbnb couch, and they're given an Airbnb T-shirt.

Douglas:

No one can remember how that started. It's a bit silly and fun, but it's actually a pretty good ritual and a fairly classic ritual that's saying to people you belong here now. Once you're running through literally every person and coming out the other end, you're different at the end than you were at the beginning. You now belong. So those are really, really important. And the experiences like One Airbnb, super important. Bringing people together, reminding them about the purpose and the values and doing fun things to make that more apparent is a huge part of Airbnb.

Douglas:

In fact there's a whole department today at Airbnb called ground control whose job it is to create these experiences and rituals in every office, ones where the culture is reinforced and the purpose and values are reinforced.

Joel:

Is that an HR component or marketing?

Douglas:

Now it reports to HR but it used to report directly to Brian actually for the longest time. Ground control also used to do other things that are now done since we've grown so big by other parts of the company like fitting out the buildings and stuff. But no, now it's focused very much, as I say, on creating these experiences.

Joel:

Yeah.

Douglas:

Reinforcing the purpose and the mission to everyone.

Chad:

So those meaningful moments, is that what they are really revolving around as well?

Douglas:

No, meaningful moments tend to be... Well, they can be. Like One Airbnb for a lot of people are meaningful moments, because it's a huge investment to the company, spending millions bringing you around the world to not do your job for a week basically. You're not writing code for a week. You're not creating partnerships for a week, instead spending the week with your friends in this big event. And all the accommodation in San Francisco. You can imagine it's huge. So for some people that is a meaningful moment. The reason why it is a meaningful moment, you're right, is because it's a decision that's often costly in the short term, but long term lives the principle.

Douglas:

The principle basically that the founders are living and the reason why they decided to do it is that there's a massive investment in the culture and they want everyone to be a host to each other and you can do that best by making new friendships and getting to know each other better. There are other meaningful moments and every company, I think, has them. They're the moments generally where a big bet has been made, often a risky one where sometimes it can be existential, an existential threat. The first one that I actually was part of was in 2013 in the fall when the attorney general in New York issued a subpoena to us to give him all of our hosts', it was 15,000 people at the time, all of their information. Names, addresses, phone numbers, everything, the amount of revenue they'd earned on Airbnb and so on.

Douglas:

And after thinking about it long and hard for a week, we said no to the attorney general. We won't do that. We're going to take you to court and squash your subpoena. At this time Airbnb was not well known. It's not the brand that it is today. In fact, their lawyers at the attorney general's office said, "Do you know what you're doing? Do you know that no one says no to the Airbnb?" And they even said, "Do you have any lawyers? They should tell you this." We actually had one lawyer on staff at the time and a couple of people that we'd retained. But the point was we thought this was an existential moment.

Douglas:

God knows what the attorney general could do when we said no. He could've turned around and said, "Okay, you have to cease and desist. You can't operate." And at the time New York was by far our biggest market. It no longer is. Now, I think Paris, or I don't know, maybe somewhere in China is. But then it was our largest market and the threat was there to basically close it down, which would've had a dramatic effect on our future, as you can imagine. And so this was a really, really tough decision, backs against the wall.

Douglas:

And at the end of the day we said we have to do the right thing. And the right thing is to stand right next to, shoulder to shoulder within our hosts and be in the same boat with same threat, which is being closed down by the attorney general of New York. We said to them, "We're not going to give your information. This is a massive data overreach. He's fishing to see if there's a problem there. He doesn't know that there's a problem, and we refuse to do it."

Douglas:

So these meaningful moments are ones that often short term create a very expensive and very risky... One of the biggest things that we knew that we had to do as a result of this was we had to spend a lot of time with lobbyists and lawyers dealing with the attorney general to squash it. But also we had to, a large part of the onus was on me actually, end of the day, to mobilize the hosts in New York to take physical action and fight for a change of law and squash the subpoena and everything else, and change culture and attitudes towards Airbnb. I spent basically the next six months full time with a team of people doing that.

Douglas:

So that was a huge, high, massive cost, whereas most companies, in fact every company that the attorney general has issued a subpoena to simply complied and then wouldn't have had to face those costs. But we did it because, as I said, it was the right thing to do. Now we look back on it and say, well, that was a meaningful moment. We lived our value of being a host. We had to be hosts to our hosts. We had to make sure that they felt safe, and that they belonged with us, and that we stood shoulder to shoulder with them, and that we wouldn't simply roll over and comply with this unfair subpoena, that we'd take the risks with them, side by side and fight it, and invest millions to fight it, which is what we did.

Chad:

Right. And that is a huge meaningful moment.

Joel:

Yeah. Huge. Another one of many, which we will still have with Douglas. [crosstalk 00:47:58].

Douglas:

Exactly.

Joel:

Well, Douglas, we know your time is valuable. You've been talking for a while now. I'm sure that bottle of wine is empty by now.

Douglas:

Actually, it's still full. I've been drinking my cup of tea. I'm desperate now for a glass of wine.

Joel:

Well, then we are keeping you away from that fine bottle of wine. As usual, we greatly appreciate the time. We will continue the series. For those listening who haven't heard the ones before this, check out the backstory and be sure to stay tuned for future episodes. Douglas, as always, it's a pleasure.

Chad:

Thank you.

Douglas:

Thank you.

Joel:

Appreciate it, sir.

Douglas:

Thank you very much. Talk to you next time.

Chad:

Excellent, Joel. We out.

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