What I understood about building a business after working for seven years at Airbnb
In 2012, shortly after Airbnb bought our startup, I heard one of the founders of the company (Joe Gebbia) give instructions to a designer who needed to change the layout of the main page: “Do what the Internet never did before” . I remember very well how I thought: “What does this even mean? Is this the bar here for everything that is being done? ” Looking back, I can say that Airbnb’s main growth engine was just that kind of thinking - combined with six other key components, which I will discuss below.
I came to Airbnb as a developer, and then joined the team that was still being formed, which was responsible for the private messaging function. At that time, the company had a couple of dozen developers, several designers and two very cute dogs. Over the next seven years, the company grew to thousands of employees around the world, countless cute dogs and began to be valued at more than $ 30 billion, and I managed to work together with wonderful people on many interesting tasks. Leaving the company a few weeks ago, I wrote down the most important lessons I learned during this time, and only after that I plunged headlong into my own endeavor. I soon realizedthat you need to share these lessons with everyone who is trying to start their own business. I do not promise that all this will be applicable to your situation, but I can say that what I described was the basis for the success of Airbnb over the years.
Translated to Alconost
1. The competitive advantage of culture, values and rituals
We, both as consumers and as candidates in search of work, are increasingly choosing companies that match our personal values. From the earliest days, Airbnb has devoted great attention to culture, well-defined values, and weird rituals. Over the years, I have observed how well it worked as a competitive advantage and enabled to hire the most best talent , quickly use the emerging opportunities and overcome emerging obstacles on the way. Most important of all, it turned out that it was easy for leaders to remain faithful to a long-term mission, and a team to recover from them.
How did Airbnb form a strong culture? Using three key components:
- Founders' obsession with the idea of a strong culture. Cm. Example A and Example B . This is the most important thing - especially when the company is growing. If you focus on culture, it will determine who the first few employees (who will participate in shaping the culture) will be, what values you will set for yourself (consciously or unconsciously), and how much priority it will be many years later.
- A solid understanding of self. At Airbnb, a code of core values was written for this, on which a small working group worked for about three years. These values measure success (are we really fulfilling our task), they are used in hiring (one of the selection stages is checking the candidate for compliance with core values), in evaluating effectiveness (they are included in the peer review process) and when considering large transactions . Each employee of the company can list the values by heart.
- Rituals. “Cookies time on Tuesdays”, “Tea drinking with a beginner”, “Master's bar”, “Human tunnels”, “Fun facts” - silly, but regular rituals help employees to strengthen social ties and enjoy their workplace. There is no need to philosophize here - try and see what works and what doesn't.
One of the first Airbnb rituals in action: “Official Friday” and “Human Tunnel”
Here is a great video to help you begin building your own values and culture.
The main conclusion : pay great attention to the culture of the company (and team).
2. State the problem exactly
I would venture to say that the formulation of the problem and its bringing to all is the most important step in solving any problem. More than once I had to see how simple projects with an indefinitely formulated task go round the week and even months - and complex, but with a clear statement of the problem, race at full speed. This became especially apparent after the closure of unsuccessful projects: in nine cases out of ten, the main reason for the failure was the lack of a clear task AND (OR) of general agreement on what is the task of the team.
The main tools that came in handy to me:
- One-page template - I worked on it for several years and used it to formulate tasks and opportunities that could be presented to the team and management.
- The principle "situation - complexity - decision" is very useful in explaining any concept to a wide audience.
- The principle of "performed tasks" will help not to deviate from meeting the actual needs of customers.
The main conclusion : strive to describe the task at hand as accurately as possible and make sure that the rest of the team is on the same wavelength with you.
Tips for new employees painted on the walls during the hackathon ( Andrea Nguyen , Jeni Ngo , Katie Chen )
3. Ambitious results are the result of even more ambitious goals.
At the end of the year, looking at growth charts, we were often stunned by how close we were to achieving insanely ambitious and seemingly unattainable goals. And, calling the goals crazy, I even downplay: Brian, Airbnb’s CEO, is (sadly) known for doubling our targets as targets — often even tenfold. Either he knew something that we did not know, or such crazy goals made us think bigger and take new heights. In the second I believe much more willingly.
Five key components you will need:
- Set goals that will not let you relax . We always tried, firstly, to choose a goal that would not let us relax, and secondly, to clearly understand why its achievement will be incredibly useful for business. When setting goals, we often asked two questions: 1) the implementation of what will achieve this goal and 2) what can be achieved without any obstacles (budget, people, dependencies, etc.)?
- Someone must be directly responsible for the goal . Achieving the goal should be a work task for a specific person. If there is no name next to the number, such a goal will not be achieved.
- Think in perspective. Defining the goal for the year in terms of the growth and mission of the company, we usually repelled from the time horizon of 5-10 years. Over time, more attention has been paid to the impact of our work on those for whom we work (although this did not always work out perfectly), this is what Brian recently spoke about in a published open letter.
- Gather a multifunctional team around the goal and give it resources that will help achieve this goal. Your first priority as a leader is to choose the right team, direct it in the right direction and vigilantly ensure that nothing interferes with the work.
- Celebrate success, do not punish failure. Realize the original intention behind the goal: it should push forward, not kill. If the goal is not achieved, but you come close to it, congratulate the team and move on to the next ambitious task.
The main conclusion : when setting goals, think wider.
4. Start with an ideal case and build on it.
One of the varieties of Amazon’s reverse working methodology has taken root extremely well in Airbnb: first you determine what the ideal user experience will look like, and then, starting from that, go in the opposite direction.
A classic example that I witnessed when I was hired is a project codenamed Snow White. Inspired by Disney's approach to working on the first animated film, Snow White, the founders of the company began to consider Airbnb not just as a website or service, but as a story - with a beginning, middle and end. "Snow White" was one of the first films to use the storyboard technique, and so the team developed a set of storyboards for the ideal paths for the guest and the host and identified key emotional moments. Such storyboards quickly took a key place in identifying our biggest gaps and opportunities and served as the basis for shaping the company's strategy in the early stages. Read more about this here and here . You can also seegreat video in which the team discusses this process.
Storyboards for the host and guest in the project "Snow White"
Or here’s a fresher example: we somehow wanted to greatly simplify the booking for guests. The process itself consisted of several stages, one of which was an unpredictable waiting period, while the owner manually checked the guest’s request. Instead of spending months and even years optimizing individual parts of the funnel for details, we retreated to the very beginning and thought about how an ideal reservation would have looked. In this case, the guest could undoubtedly book any desired room without waiting for confirmation. At first it seemed impossible to convince all the hosts to allow guests to book without approval (at that time only 5% of bookings were “instant”). Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that it was in this direction that the company should move in the long term, so we directed all the resources of the team to this.
A couple of key components of this process:
- Write down or draw what the ideal user path looks like. In our case, before delving into short-term optimization, we outlined the ideal booking process on paper and wrote an example blog entry announcing a new feature, as if it had been implemented. Thanks to this approach, the task takes very concrete shape in a matter of days.
- Create a diagram. To make the task more understandable, find a way to break it down into parts that you can work with. In the instant booking example, the biggest difficulty was giving owners more control over who could instantly book their room. We divided this item into tasks like “I CAN” (“Can I use it?”) And “WANT” (“Can I use it?”) And worked on them in order of priority.
- If you feel insecure, collect more data. Often a significant change scares colleagues and even some users. However, I recommend not giving up right away, but looking at the real data. Test your assumptions by doing a quick experiment, researching users, or looking at historical data. As one of the tested hypotheses, there was an opinion expressed in the company and beyond that the trip booked instantly would turn out to be much less high-quality (that is, it will be less communicative and more formal), which will damage long-term growth. A quick review of the data clearly demonstrated the opposite, and this, along with several other key measurement points, helped the team endorse the new approach.
The main conclusion : look for the possibility of step-by-step changes in functionality - imagine the ideal and work on the basis of it.
5. Think of your organization as a product
Moving up the ladder in the company that creates the product, you quickly learn that the most important thing is the proper organization of employees. The structure that you attach to the company can help a lot in fulfilling the mission and become a huge obstacle. From my experience, I can highlight several key components of a successful company organization:
- Focus on specialized multi-functional teams with a clear mission . In my experience, this makes the greatest contribution to efficiency. We need independent teams that can move towards the set goal as autonomously as possible. Missing resources (e.g., designer, data, budget), additional intergroup dependency and conflicting areas of interest significantly reduce the effectiveness of the team (at first this may not be obvious). Think about how many times the team will have to contact other departments or wait for them, and try to reduce the number of such cases to a minimum. A well-functioning team is like a black box that issues regular updates and does an amazing job.
- Set the right goals . Much has been said about goals ( SMART goals , OKR , etc.), but it seems to me that teams still underestimate the importance of setting the right goals. Based on my experience, I can say that the right goal is the difference between lightning-fast progress and the endless outflow of customers. In my case, the following rules work best: 1) there should be as few goals as possible - ideally only one or two, 2) goals should have quick feedback loops so that you can immediately see the results, 3) there should be a direct connection with the growth of the gross performance of the company, (4) goals should be easy to understand and (5) they should not let you relax.
- Remember that there is no ideal organization scheme - there are only the best ideas available at the moment . At Airbnb, I went through almost a dozen reorganizations. Moreover, there has never been such an organizational scheme that would solve all problems and satisfy everyone. It is necessary to take into account the most problematic issues, to try to look into the future as far as possible - and only after that it is easy to move forward. The organizational chart will have flaws (for example, overlapping roles in product ownership, two teams with the same key metric, a team or department that takes too many resources), so mark them and implement systems that will circumvent these obstacles. Let everyone know that the organization chart will change again in the future.
“Don't be silent,” Chantell Martin, hand-drawn during the day at Airbnb's main office.
The main conclusion : form autonomous units with clearly defined goals and do not interfere with their work.
6. Keep the bar high FOR EVERYTHING
Having sailed among startups, I’m used to moving fast, agreeing to “good enough” and thinking in the short term: too many things, too little time - and so on. No one knew if the company would exist in a year. Shortly after starting work at Airbnb, one of the first managers instilled in me the ability to keep the bar at a high level, no matter what I did. Looking back, I understand that this change in thinking had a profound effect on my career.
A few examples of how and in which cases you should keep the bar at a high level for yourself and your team are the little things that often are of great importance:
- Emails . Make yourself at least once review the letter before sending it: there is always something to shorten or clarify. Here , for example, is my favorite style borrowed from the military.
- Documents are shared. Before providing wide access to a document, ALWAYS ask someone to look at it and give feedback - even if it will be one person. Formatting should be neat and consistent. Before submitting a document to management, close the comments. The document should be easy to read. Make yourself perfect your writing style.
- Assembly . Indicate in invitations the main purpose of the meeting, or better, the full agenda. If you came to a meeting, and it does not seem productive to you, point out this. Invite as few people as possible. The outcome of the meeting should be a clear list of actions. Send letters after meetings with a list of actions and those responsible.
- Presentations . Think about whether you really need a presentation - will not an email be enough? The audience should know exactly the purpose of the presentation: making a decision, getting feedback, or you just share information. This is not as obvious as it may seem. Ask viewers to give feedback on the presentation - a fresh look will always help you catch the most problematic issues. Be concise: no one wants a presentation to be delayed.
The main conclusion : often ask yourself and the team the following questions. Is it possible to act a little bolder? What needs to be done to make the task a little better? How to make the meeting a little more productive? How to make this document or this letter a little clearer? Is it possible to raise the bar a little more?
7. Less is more. Focus is Strength
Taking the leadership of the growth team at Airbnb, I found that my employees were scattered across a very long funnel. They managed to achieve something, but they could not turn around properly. The same thing was with the team responsible for improving the quality of travel. In both cases, a simple reduction in the subject area of the teams and providing them with a more specific task led to a significant increase in efficiency and a rise in morale. Strive to ensure that the teams have a clear task, around which you can rally.
In the case of the growth team, we decided to first divide into highly specialized units (some sent referrals, others engaged in the organic growth of the upper part of the funnel, others engaged in performance marketing, etc.), and then supplemented the resulting teams with resources corresponding to each subject area. Pursuing the quality of trips, we focused on one aspect at a time (response speed of the hosts, speed of checking guests, etc.), and as soon as we found a good opportunity, attacked the following problem.
If you take this principle and apply it to your product - that is, give users the opportunity to focus on one task at a time, this will significantly increase the number of successful interactions with the site. Some of the most spectacular successes in converting guests to Airbnb were related to a simple change in settings, which reduced the number of tasks users had to keep in mind. This includes, for example, opening lists of offers in new tabs (so that they are not lost), increasing the duration of the session (so that you do not have to often log into your account) and removing links that appear during the payment process (so as not to distract the user). The same thing was done on the host’s side: “Recommended” in case there were several options, default settings based on the host’s data, Adding built-in tooltips to help users feel more confident. Do not underestimate the opportunities that concentration provides.
The main conclusion : concentration is always and everywhere.
Remembering what Joe advised that designer many years ago, I can say that Airbnb did create something that the Internet had never seen before. It was incredibly interesting to see how the company grew and developed over the years. I am grateful for the opportunity to take the same road with them for so long, and especially for the fact that I had the opportunity to work with outstanding, kind and energetic people who can be found every day at Airbnb offices.
About the translator
Translation of the article was done in Alconost.
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