Airbnb: A tech company that is not a tech company at all

You can offer a room for the night, or you can offer human connection. You can focus on selling products or you can focus on serving a purpose. In both cases, the second choice is the way to go for Airbnb, and this is what makes them uniquely successful.

When Brian Chesky set out to build the business that revolutionized the way people see vacation rentals, and that flipped the hotel industry on its head (long overdue), there was a clear idea at the heart of it: He wanted to create human experiences, not just provide a place to stay. The magic of feeling like a local, of exploring new surroundings armed with tips and recommendations from a person that lives in the place that you are visiting cannot be replaced by stale, hotel decorations and impersonal, automated check-in systems.

He and his two co-founders knew instantly that they had tapped into a goldmine when they realized that their common mission was founded on a human need rather than on a product opportunity.

In the young life of Airbnb, the three friends have had a few opportunities to prove themselves worthy of their purpose, and their company’s purpose worthy of success. 

When a crisis hits an organization, its purpose gets challenged. The magnitude of the Covid-19 crisis has challenged many. How deeply rooted your purpose is determines so much. 

In a podcast interview on The Bid, Brian discussed the importance of purpose (and I paraphrase): If you don’t work in full awareness of your purpose, of your why, you lose yourself when times hit hard. You have nowhere to go to. You have nothing to hold you above the waterline and all you end up doing is taking business decisions. But a crisis requires principal decisions: Ballsy, dangerous decisions that cut close to the heart with implications that give shareholders sleepless nights and partners cold feet.

When the covid pandemic hit, Airbnb found itself in a terrible bind: Practically overnight, customers requested over 1 billion dollars in cancellations; money that Airbnb had on hold and that landlords and hosts were relying on to pay their mortgage with. This was a difficult situation that required much more than just making a business decision. Such a situation required a decision that came from a place of purpose because it touched upon human values, existences and livelihoods. Fortunately, Brian and company are completely connected to their principal values, which come from an incredible awareness of their purpose: They knew that they were responsible for the system they had created, and that the human experience they were providing was not limited only to the “good times;” it had to be expressed explicitly, and especially, in the “dark times.” Against typical business practices, Airbnb issued refunds and paid out 250 million dollars in support funds to Airbnb hosts.

Most business advisors would strongly disagree with this move as it cuts into the bottom line and threatens the existence of the company. But Airbnb stood by its decision. This act made Airbnb’s purpose visible to the world, and people realized one thing: WE WANT AIRBNB TO EXIST. 

YES. When we embrace our purpose in our business so loudly and boldly that we let it inform our craziest, maddest and strongest actions, we get affirmation and acknowledgment from the ones we serve and the ones that are allied with us.

Companies like Airbnb, who invest time and resources into discovering their purpose, build a strong mission and embed it in their daily actions, will weather almost any crisis and come out even stronger (often with even more allies by their side). 

While others invest in business decisions: short term gains, price slashing, desperate marketing campaigns… the principle-strong, purpose-founded, mission-driven organizations will put human values first. When people are afraid, when times are uncertain, people want human promises. They want helpers, supporters, listeners. They don’t want greedy, scared, nervous business people that don’t look out for anyone but themselves.

I am more than positive and hopeful that Brian and his team will set an example for millions of people worldwide. They have demonstrated that transformation can occur within a tech company that is focused, not on its tech, but on a purpose that lives at the center of its organization; tech is just the enabler that makes the purpose visible and experienceable.

Why Story Purpose Index: Airbnb 95/100

Bottom line: A tech company that has understood that its products are just the way a deeply set purpose is brought to life so it can be shared with the world to create great experiences that improve lives. Airbnb has proven time and time again that it is willing to abide by its principles not just in good times, but especially, in crises when others put their purpose on hold. Bravo.

Link to podcast interview:


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