A company is not a family with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky (Transcript)

ReThinking with Adam Grant
A company is not a family with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky
May 21, 2024

[00:00:00] Brian Chesky:
I do think a company, I agree is not a family, but I do think that there can be a bond that can be deeper than a typical work contract.

[00:00:11] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking my podcast on the science of what makes us tick with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Brian Chesky, CEO, and Co-founder of Airbnb. Before building a global hospitality brand, Brian spent his formative years thinking about how to build things and lead teams. He studied industrial design at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design, where he captained the hockey team.

[00:00:47] Brian Chesky:
I've studied a lot of elite teams, and what I've noticed is even in the most professional context. It all comes back to that word trust.

[00:00:56] Adam Grant:
I've been impressed by how far Brian has gone to earn trust. He's widely admired for his thoughtfulness in building cultures and his care as a leader.

Brian, let me start by asking you, how in the world does a designer end up running a huge company?

[00:01:18] Brian Chesky:
Maybe a little bit by accident. There was this huge mo movement in RISD and the design community early two thousands about how design was becoming more empowered. You had like the design renaissance at Target.

Of course, Apple was probably the biggest example. The Volkswagen reissue bug. I like to joke, the only two people who don't ever become CEO are the designers and the head of HR. So design just didn't really have a voice. And I remember my co-founder and I, Joe, who also went to RISD, thought to ourselves, why doesn't design just run the boardroom?

Why don't we just start companies? And that was kind of my ambition, you know, since RISD. So it felt like the gears in the world were turning and those gears were turning in San Francisco. So I have this crazy moment in my life where I pack everything in the back of an old Honda Civic in the middle of like late 2007, and I quit my job with not more than a thousand dollars in the bank.

And I grow up, get up to San Francisco, and Joe tells me the rent is $1,150. I don't have enough money to pay rent. But there's this design conference coming to San Francisco that next weekend, and all the hotels they were recommending for the conference is sold out. And so that's when we had this idea.

We said, well, what if we just turned our house into a bed and breakfast for a design conference? Unfortunately, I didn't have any beds, but Joe had three air beds. We inflated the air beds and we called it an air bed and breakfast, and that's it. And. I, I never thought by the way that this would be the big idea, Joe and I thought this was gonna pay the rent to buy us time before we thought of the big idea.

[00:02:49] Adam Grant:
I remember Joe talking about what a big question trust was in the early days of Airbnb. Just like almost not even being able to fathom the possibility that somebody would open up their home to strangers. And in some ways, Brian, it seems to me that that was foreshadowing. Um, the way that you've led, because I think a, a huge part of your job as a CEO is to, to earn and keep re-running the trust of your, your employees.

You had to figure out how to get like people to, to trust strangers with their homes. What, what was the spillover from that to figuring out how to earn trust with your team?

[00:03:25] Brian Chesky:
I think at the end of the day, that's part of the role of a designer. You know, I think ultimately what we designed was a system of trust to allow, you know, we didn't invent the idea of a house.

We didn't invent the idea of staying inside of a house. Like this is not a new idea, but we designed the first system of this scale to allow people from every country nearly in the world to live together for the first time. And I always thought. It was gonna come inside out that like whatever happens inside the building, happens outside the building.

And so we thought of Airbnb as a community. And maybe the way to think about it, Adam, is we thought of it as a community starting with our employees. We didn't see our employees and our host as completely distinct communities. It was kind of more like just inside out like a solar system, and maybe you were, you know, closer to the nucleus or a little further from the nucleus.

But in every communication that I did, every decision that I made, it was always rooted in the idea is what we're trying to do, and we always thought of Airbnb as more than just a product. We kind of thought of it as a movement, an idea, and that it needed to be bonded together with people that believe and have faith in what we're trying to do.

So that is exactly what we've been trying to do since probably that first weekend.

[00:04:45] Adam Grant:
Where it really became clear to me that this was a, a pillar of your leadership was during Covid. Uh, I think that in a lot of cases, a crisis is a test of leadership and culture, and you wrote what I thought was the single best layoff note.

And by the way, I don't even have a category of good layoff notes because it, it's almost like an oxymoron.

[00:05:05] Brian Chesky:

[00:05:06] Adam Grant:
And I was just blown away by the caring compassion you showed in those notes. And then in the efforts that you made to help people find jobs that you had to let go of. Can you tell the story of when did you realize that you're gonna have to do layoffs?

And then what went through your head as you were putting together that communication?

[00:05:24] Brian Chesky:
Airbnb's like a very global company, and we had a business in China late January and now February we see our Chinese business drop 80%. The business drops like 8%, like it's a crisis, right? A company dropping 80% in a matter of weeks is like you're in a 18 wheeler on a highway and you slam on the brakes, and then we see that it spreads to Japan.

We can literally see the virus. Like spreading around the globe through the dropping of our business, and it started in China, it moved to the rest of Asia, then predictably to Europe. Over the course of 80 weeks, we lost 80% of our business. And the context of this and how much this rocked our world was eight weeks earlier, we were in the process of going public and we were gonna be one of the biggest IPOs of the last decade, and then suddenly eight weeks later there were articles asking, is this the end of Airbnb?

Will Airbnb exist? Everything moves so quickly. It's one of these moments where like in the matter of weeks, what you do will be remembered and indelible marks will be left forever. And so I wrote down a series of principles and I gathered an emergency board meeting and I said, here are our principles that are gonna lead us through the crisis.

I can't run every decision by you, so I'm gonna tell you how I'm gonna operate. And if you go to these principles, I need your trust. The faster we wanna move, the more trust I need. We're gonna preserve as much cash as possible 'cause cash is oxygen and we're losing a lot of altitude. We're gonna act with all stakeholders in mind.

So we're not just gonna like think of the company, we're gonna think about our guests, our hosts, our employees. We don't wanna be villains of the crisis. Not that we, we heroes, but we don't wanna do actions to be villains. We wanna play to win the next travel season. You know, and I wrote all these principles down. One CEO told me, “At some point in your life, you're gonna have to do a layoff every CEO does. And if you do, you have to move quickly and you have to cut deep enough and cut once.”

And so I always remember that. And a lot of CEOs, they don't cut deep enough and so then they create a series of layoffs and there's never any closure.

And I think it creates a permanent malaise and fear inside the company. So I said, okay, we're gonna actually cut maybe even a little deeper than is intuitive, but I'd rather cut a little deeper and give people more severance and more time, and I don't want people in purgatory. I went through all 2000 names myself, of people that were laid off.

I didn't know every single person, but I made sure that people knew, even if you were laid off, that I made that decision in the long run. Like I didn't jus delegate. Okay. Hit a target. I try to do my best. As painful as it was, some leaders want to detach themselves emotionally. They don't wanna like get too close to employees unless they have to fire them.

And I have always felt like you should get as emotionally attached to something as possible. And if you can still make a decision after being emotionally attached to it, then you'll have the most possible information that you should make decisions with emotion. Just, just do it in a very thoughtful way.

I basically like looked at a bunch of people who'd done layoff letters, and I noticed something about the way companies lay people off. It's pretty inhumane. It seems like a human being didn't write it. It feels like a, like a, like an AI prompt or something.

[00:08:33] Adam Grant:
Yeah only before there was AI.

[00:08:35] Brian Chesky:
Yeah. AI is more compassionate than most of these layoff letters, and I think what ends up happening is that the CEOs get very risk averse.

They're not vulnerable, they're afraid to say the wrong thing. They don't actually speak from the heart. The lawyers and the HR people like, and everyone rounds the edges off them. And I said, instead of that, I'm just gonna write from the heart. I tried to explain exactly why we were doing this. I basically had a weekly all hands meeting with the employees, like a town hall.

I would get asked every week about layoffs and I said, everything's on the table. I don't have an answer yet. It wasn't really wanted to hear, but what they mostly wanted was me to be present as a leader and I brought them on the journey. And by the time we did do the layoff, I explained exactly why we were doing it.

We gave people a year of healthcare. One of our team members had a brilliant idea. I said, what if we created like an outplacement agency inside the company where we had recruiters work on placing employees at other companies. Then I started calling my fellow CEOs who were doing well, companies that weren't in travel, and I basically said, “Hey, we have like great people.”

And then we created this thing called Alumni Directory, where we allowed employees to opt in to basically allowing recruiters to reach out to them for other companies. And the last thing is, I used the word that no one ever uses in a layoff letter. I said, I love the employees. And I really felt that, that the, at that time.

[00:09:57] Adam Grant:
I think we’ve all seen some leaders who just lack empathy. There's another factor though that that comes out in some of the research. I'm thinking about some Molinsky and Margolis work showing that there's also a possibility of empathic overload. That some leaders feel so awful when they're imagining how hard this is for their employees, that they actually get overwhelmed by that, and then instead of focusing on how they can show care, they end up having to manage their own emotions.

[00:10:27] Brian Chesky:

[00:10:23] Adam Grant:
And I, I wonder if that's also a piece of the puzzle. What do you make of that?

[00:10:28] Brian Chesky:
The way I interpret that is to say that this is an intense experience and I think people deal with it differently. Some people can't find their own voice and listen to voices of others. Some people get paralyzed, you know, the fear and avoid things.

It's hard to open up and you shut down. I think it's like one of the most intense experiences for a leader. To deliver really bad, heartbreaking news, and there's not really a lot of good ways to prepare for it.

[00:10:56] Adam Grant:
I don't think I'd ever seen a CEO before say, “We're not only gonna give you generous severance, we're also gonna give you additional severance based on how long you've been at Airbnb.”

Um, I thought that was a remarkable way to reward people's loyalty and, and recognize that dropping the one year equity cliff and saying, “Hey, if you've been here, we're letting you invest”. Basically, that was unusual, covering health insurance. Uh, through the end of the year, the job support and outplacement that you, you spoke about earlier, imagining what are all the challenges that losing your job could create and how can we be there for you?

How did you get to that?

[00:11:33] Brian Chesky:
Especially in the United States, this is like one of the biggest medical crisis of all time. We didn't quite know the ramifications. People probably need healthcare. I don't know how long this pandemic is gonna go on. But having just like a few months of healthcare is not gonna be that helpful.

So we're gonna give you a year of healthcare. Okay. That's okay. What else do I want? Well, okay, I have healthcare, but what I really need is another job. Okay. So to get another job, I need resources. So we're gonna have a recruiting team internally, I had to make sure my communication to make sure that they would leave with dignity, and also to know that their contributions matter, which is the way I, I ended the letter.

Here's how I ended, “When we started Airbnb, our tagline was travel like a human. The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we're about is belonging and at the center of belonging is love. To those of you staying, one of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered and they'll be always a part of Airbnb's story.”

“I'm confident their work will live on just like this mission will live on. To those leaving Airbnb, I'm truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that brought you to Airbnb, that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you from bottom of my heart for sharing them with us.”

[00:12:56] Adam Grant:
The one thing I hesitated on was the word love.

[00:12:57] Brian Chesky:

[00:12:58] Adam Grant:
And I hesitated on it because I think that when you start to talk about love. It sends a message that you think your company is a family, which is just unrealistic, right? I don't know anybody who fires their kids or furloughs their siblings. And I'm curious about why you chose the word love and what it meant to you?

[00:13:21] Brian Chesky:
The reason I used the word love is 'cause that's what I felt at the time. I wrote that letter fairly quickly. I didn't have a lot of time, and so I wrote what I felt and that's what I felt, and I was pretty emotional when I was writing it. And it is true that a company's not a family. In fact, we had to make that pivot.

We used to, we used to refer to ourselves as a family, and then we did have to fire people or they'd have to leave the company and yeah, you don't fire members of your family, ultimately, I write what I feel and I felt this sense of protecting people, even people that were leaving, that they weren't totally leaving Airbnb in every sense of the word.

I mean, they were leaving with equity. They were leaving with everything on their resume, like we created an alumni network. We have a very, by the way, robust alumni network, which is very unusual for a company. There's a bond that's extremely deep.

[00:14:13] Adam Grant:
I. I think what you're describing in psychology is called companionate love. I've just never liked the term.

[00:14:18] Brian Chesky:

[00:14:19] Adam Grant:
Because I think about love as as something more personal than professional. But I think you're right that in a great community, people are bonded around shared values and a connection to each other as well as the mission, and they feel deeply valued as human beings.

And. I guess it's, it's an opportunity for me to think again, to say, “Hey, wait a minute. The, the fact that you're using the word love doesn't mean that you love each individual person or that you even know necessarily each individual person well enough to love them, but you can love a team in the sense that you feel deep affection and appreciation for the commitment they've made. And, you know, the, the community they built together.”

[00:14:59] Brian Chesky:
The idea of the company was that we're this giant community, that there's this bond. That the idea is that no matter who you are, where you are, you can go anywhere around the world and that people could open their homes and open their hearts to you, and that there's a sense of belonging that you can get and it's not maybe the love you have for your parents or kids or partner, but there's some like kind of more general notion that like everyone on this planet's connected.

[00:15:30] Adam Grant:
Last thing on the, on the layoff letter that I, I thought was striking is you really exemplified what in my world of organizational psychology is called procedural justice. Uh, where you know, even when you're delivering a, a really unpleasant outcome, um, you had a fair and transparent process. You explained exactly how the decision was made.

You also were crystal clear about what was gonna happen next. A lot of leaders, they, they don't wanna share that. Many of the, the founders and CEOs that I've worked with, they're, they're afraid that if they talk through how the decision was made, people are gonna question it. They're gonna second guess it.

They're not gonna trust it, uh, which is backward, but it happens a lot. And they haven't necessarily felt like the decision is fully defensible. So how can they possibly share all the reasoning that went into it? Talk to me about why that's wrong and why you went a different way.

[00:16:23] Brian Chesky:
I remember somebody once said, “The absence of information is filled with dirt.” And so the less you explain something and the more opaque it is, the more I think the more distrustful people will be of that information.

At most tech companies, they have these product managers. They're responsible for the product, but the product managers aren't responsible for often communicating the product that's communications or marketing. And so they typically separate the product from the marketing, right? It's kind of like at a restaurant, there's a chef and there's the waiters or whatever you wanna call it, and they're separated.

And at Airbnb we have a function where we combine those two. The product managers also have to do the marketing, but when you're making something, you have to think about how you're gonna explain it. And that's the same thing I do with everything I do, including a layoff. I'm not gonna make a decision unless I know how I'm gonna explain that decision.

I'm only gonna do things I can explain. A lot of people are afraid to say the wrong thing, and again, it's better to say the wrong thing with heart than the right thing through a committee. I just think that that is, um, not the right way to do it. There's a difference between your employees trusting you and agreeing with you.

Your employees don't need to agree with you. If you lead thousands of people, I hope they don't all agree with you.

[00:17:40] Adam Grant:
What you're saying tracks with literally half a century of evidence showing that if you have to deliver a negative outcome, if you can explain a fair process behind it, and people understand that, they're more accepting of that outcome.

They may not like it, they may not agree with it, but they're less likely to object to it.

[00:17:55] Brian Chesky:
At, at RISD, we were trained to document our process, to document our thinking that like, here's the problem and here's my solution, and here's how I got to the solution. Documenting step by step, it's actually a great way to do a lot of things in a corporate setting to document your thinking.

[00:18:14] Adam Grant:
And when you've documented it, it becomes much easier to communicate it then. There's a recent paper by Flynn and Lide showing that leaders are nine times more likely to get criticized for under-communicating than over communicating. Nine times. And I think what, what I learned from that research is if you over communicate, eventually people just think you're, you're boring and repetitive, not the end of the world.

If you under communicate, they think you don't know what you're doing and you don't care.

[00:18:43] Brian Chesky:
I mean, that layoff letter that I wrote, I was not universally advised to do it. There was a lot of concerns about me being visible and present. Again, you're gonna stand in front of the entire company. You're gonna get asked about layoffs.

You're gonna get asked about all these questions you're not gonna have gonna answers to, and you're gonna be put in a very uncomfortable position. And I said, of course I will be. And that's my job to be put in uncomfortable positions and to navigate them and to just show them that I'm human. I'm doing my very best, and to show them how I'm thinking about it.

And I actually reduced a lot of anxiety even though people knew layoffs were on the table to just see, like, it was less scary to to watch a process unfold actually, than the opaque process because everything is always much worse than you imagine.

[00:19:32] Adam Grant:
Are you up for a quick lightning round?

[00:19:34] Brian Chesky:

[00:19:35] Adam Grant:
Okay. What's the worst career advice you've ever gotten?

[00:19:40] Brian Chesky:
My parents said, “Get a job with health insurance.”

[00:19:45] Adam Grant:
What is your favorite Airbnb destination you've stayed at?

[00:19:50] Brian Chesky:
Maybe recently I stayed in Venice, Italy, and Airbnb over the canal was amazing.

[00:19:55] Adam Grant:
What is your hot take on AI?

[00:19:59] Brian Chesky:
My take on AI is that it's gonna take longer than people think for it to reshape society when it does, it's gonna be more profound than people realize.

[00:20:09] Adam Grant:
Maybe related, maybe not. Do you have a prediction for how the future of work is gonna look different in the next decades?

[00:20:16] Brian Chesky:
I think the future work is gonna be way more flexible.

Uh, here's a thought I thought about during the pandemic. If the office didn't exist, would we invent it again? And if we invented the o office, how would you design them? And I came to conclusion that the office, as we know it was an anachronistic form factor from basically a pre-digital age. We're just used to going these places.

And that suddenly when you have your office anywhere and people can work anywhere. Then we had to completely rethink how we work. I don't think this like hybrid coming into office three, four days a week and everyone having to live in a commuting radius near their offices is necessarily the future work.

I think that the future is gonna be something more like very flexible. A lot of people distributed a lot more locations and then coming together periodically for burst of work, and the best people are located everywhere. I think offices are gonna feel more residential. I think that people are used to working from home, so they want a more comfortable, more residential feel and the offices that they come to.

And the office is gonna be really a venue for collaboration. And if you need heads down time. You, you can just escape to anywhere to be heads down, I'm not even sure the office is always the best place to do heads down work depends on the nature of your work. This is especially true of, of course, white collar laptop jobs.

[00:21:33] Adam Grant:
So far, Nick Bloom's data are very clear that it's probably better to be in the office three to four days a week than all five days a week if we care about satisfaction, retention, productivity, even creativity and collaboration. Letting people have time to work from anywhere to concentrate on deep work and also skip at least on average an hour of commuting a day is a net positive.

What I haven't seen yet is the test of the, the one week a month together, and then we divide and conquer. And I've watched a bunch of companies do that. It tracks well with my understanding of human psychology, which is, it's the depth of interaction, not the frequency that matters most.

And sometimes people might bond more, right? If they're together for a whole week, um, in a very meaningful burst than they might if, you know, they just kind of interacted at a surface level on a daily basis.

[00:22:22] Brian Chesky:
Imagine you haven't seen a friend in a long time, what do you do? You are like, “Oh my God, hi, how you doing?”

And you like catch up and you have like a really, you feel like this joy, but then like if you see them every day, you can like a little bit take them for granted and the conversations get transactional. So there's this, I think, sweet spot where the connections still feel special.

[00:22:41] Adam Grant:
Okay. Uh, last lightning question is, what's the question you have for me?

[00:22:46] Brian Chesky:
I'm just kind of curious what your thoughts are about like like rising loneliness in the world, especially in the United States, but really all over the world. And I'm kind of curious how you see that affecting like organizations and how that will intersect with the future of the workplace.

[00:23:01] Adam Grant:
My favorite work on loneliness in the workplace in particular, uh, was done by my dear colleague Sigal Barsade.

And she and a colleague were interested in the question of how pervasive is loneliness on the job and how do you cure it? And one of the, the most interesting questions there was like, how many friends do you need to have at work in order to not feel lonely? And a lot of people guessed, you know 10, 20, I've gotta have a real community.

And it turns out that having one friend at work is enough to significantly reduce the odds of loneliness. And what really hit home for me about that was the idea that I don't always need to have a deep connection with everybody on my team. I need to have one person. Who I know has my back, who relies on me, as well as being someone that I can rely on.

And I think that we've designed so much of work around teams that we've overlooked the importance of relationships of pairs. There may be a reason that the most fundamental unit of human relationships is a dyad, and I think that we ought to pay much more attention to those. When I think about onboarding programs, right, it's always about a group.

It's a cohort. It's about connecting to your whole team. What if we hired people in pairs? What if we actually built teams around duos that were already effective at working together? One, there's, you know, there's a real benefit to coordination and collaboration of doing that. Two, you end up with a work-life balance dividend because you have somebody who could potentially cover for you and job share for with you when needed.

And then three, you are not as lonely because there's somebody that you have joined with. So that, that's kind of my wild idea for how we tackle loneliness at work. What do you think?

[00:24:41] Brian Chesky:
Actually, it's funny, we, we, we informally do some something kind of like that. Not every time, but like I often, I often do pair people.

Like four years ago we hired two creative directors. They worked together as like a duo. One's more of a creative director and one's more of a writer. And we paired them together actually they wanted to join together. Like I remember basically him saying, well, if he joins, I'll probably join. And they came together and they came as a set.

And actually it was unusual 'cause it was like kind of almost seemed like two people in a job, but they had enough differences. It worked so well that I started thinking about this notion of duos in other areas, um, where, where it's just so hard and it, it wasn't out of loneliness. It was, but I think it's a brilliant idea.

It was literally outta this desire that, like, sometimes it's just hard for one person to be a unicorn, to be able to do everything, but if you could create duos, they could cover each other's strengths, which, by the way, Adam is basically every founding team, every startup, especially like one or two founders.

But I've never really thought about it. Systematically. And I think there's something totally to that. And also I think people are on the same journey as you because right, you're a new employee and you try to integrate the team, but like you're new and like you're the odd, odd person out. And so giving people a shared journey to be on together I think is really important.

[00:25:58] Adam Grant:
I wanna ask you about work addiction. You've spoken about struggling with workaholism. Uh, and I guess I've, I have two questions. First one is like, just describe to me what that looks like for you and feels like. And then the second is how you're trying to manage it?

[00:26:15] Brian Chesky:
The thing about a, a work addiction is like, people don't usually call it an addiction.

It doesn't look like an addiction to the average person if you're really successful, right? When you start a company. It's all consuming. You don't sleep, you don't take care of yourself. And there's this sense of guilt that sometimes arises that anytime I'm not working on the company, you could be working harder, that someone else is working harder.

There is not really a lot of separation between work and life like there probably used to be. There was an office and maybe one of the benefits of an office was it was the defined space that you went into to work and you left and you left your work at the office, and now your office is in your phone.

During the pandemic, it became a very lonely time, right? I had no one physically around me. I'm in a house by myself and I have this situation where I have to like basically feel like I have to help save the company. And I thought this was only going on for like a few months, so I said, “I'm gonna put everything on hold for a few months. And I'm just gonna work 16 hours a day, 18 hours a day, seven days a week.”

And that three months became six months. And then all of a sudden I'm like, “Okay, I'm gonna wind down.” Oh no. Now we're gonna go public. And so then we go public. But now once we go public, we're like a hundred billion dollars company.

And I'm like, “Oh my God. Like we're a hundred billion dollars company and we're break even. We gotta really grow into this valuation.” And so then I like just keep working and working and working. And it was like two, two and a half years over the point where I basically probably was working like eight, 16 hours a day, seven days a week for like maybe a year and a half.

And that's the moment I realized, oh my God, I'm still in crisis mode. I'm working every single day as if it was the depth of the pandemic, the depth of the crisis. And while the intensity and the focus has really catapulted us to a new era. Like if I continue on this path, I'm not gonna be on this path much longer.

I mean, I'm not gonna have health, my ideas aren't gonna be fresh. I actually get less productive if I don't step away, if I don't have connections in friends, I don't think as clearly, if I don't have as deep social bonds, my judgment is not as good. I'm a little more irritable and not as creative. And so I made a really important effort a couple years ago to try to do a couple things.

The first was to really focus on my health again, and so now I'm like really, really disciplined about trying to sleep every night, trying to, trying to eat really well. And try to exercise. Luckily when you're CEO, you control your schedule and I just really don't compromise on that.

But the second thing, and maybe the, the less obvious thing is just making time for friends and family. You know, I think that like the thing is, some of the most important things in life are the least urgent, like calling a friend that's not urgent. There's always an urgent task that can take preeminence over some deep important relationship.

I try to design my personal schedule and I design my work schedule around my personal schedule, not the other way around. And I think that's been really, really helpful.

[00:29:09] Adam Grant:
I think there are a lot of people, Brian, who would love to have that luxury.

[00:26:12] Brian Chesky:

[00:29:09] Adam Grant:
And in fact, who, who wanna see a societal shift, uh, where work is organized around life instead of vice versa.

You have the chance to shape that as a CEO for a lot of people. Um, what have you done to enforce boundaries? Give people permission not to work. Um, and how do you think about that as an organizational design problem?

[00:29:31] Brian Chesky:
We're not like a purely remote culture. You can come in five days a week, but if you don't wanna come in, you don't have to come in.

You should do what works for you. We just need to make sure you do what you say you're going to do. That's where trust comes from and we'll, we'll trust you that you do it in the way that works for you. We do give a lot of like collective vacation days. So for example, over the winter break, we give extra vacation time for the entire company to shut down.

If, if you give people a lot of vacation time but their coworkers are working and they're still emailing you, it's not totally vacation 'cause you're still being emailed. So we do these entire periods where everyone is not working, or at least as a critical mass of people aren't working. So you can truly be unplugged and not get an email. And so those are a couple things that we do.

[00:30:15] Adam Grant:
Let's talk about your new product launch. Gimme the elevator pitch, and then I want to hear about how you align people around it.

[00:30:21] Brian Chesky:
10 years ago, Joe and I were shopping in an IKEA and we walk past this showroom of a bedroom and we walk up to the bed and I remember we look at each other and we say, wouldn't it be kind of funny if you put this IKEA on Airbnb?

And that's exactly what we did. We basically created a night at the Ikea. A family of three stayed there. It was like all over the news, and it was kind of done kind of as a joke, but it was so successful. We thought, well, let's do it again. There's, there's only one Blockbuster left the entire world and it's in Bend, Oregon.

And one day we approached the store owner. We said, you should put this on Airbnb, and people could sleep there. Last year when the Barbie movie came out, we created the Barbie Malibu Dream house. We took a real house in Malibu, converted it to look exactly like Barbie’s Dream House. So we thought to ourselves, what if we developed a product where many more people could experience.

People, these icons, these brands and these celebrities that bring you into worlds that only exist in your imagination. And so our icons are extraordinary experiences from the biggest names in movies, film, tv, sports, and more. One of my favorite movies is the movie Up. Disney's Pixar Up. The first 10 minutes of that film are probably some of the most emotional 10 minutes of any opening of any film ever.

And I always wondered, imagine if somebody built that house. That's exactly what we did. We built that house to exact specification. We worked Disney and Pixar. We got there a lot of the original files and architectural drawings or just renderings, and we'd hired prop designers to design every prop, um, of that house to look exactly like the film.

But the craziest thing about that house is we also, like in the movie, are lifting it in the sky. It's a 40,000 pound house. They worked with structural engineers to figure out how to lift it in the air, and it has 8,000 balloons attached to it. The 8,000 balloons took two weeks to inflate and they're on a steel casing, and we had to find crane operators that could lift a house 50 feet in the air while basically not swinging too much with up to 11 mile winds where no props are broken and safe.

And I think the core value proposition is we allow you to step into other people's worlds. And in this case, it's worlds that typically only exist in your imagination. And we're just gonna try to make these dream worlds come true.

[00:32:47] Adam Grant:
I. I wanna know when the, the Willy Wonka factor is, is gonna be on that menu.

[00:32:52] Brian Chesky:
Speaking of Willy Wonka, there'll be about 4,000 tickets available this year, and they're gonna be golden tickets, so I get to be Willy Wonka giving out 4,000 golden tickets this year.

[00:33:02] Adam Grant:
You mentioned that, that getting people rowing in a common direction was, was part of this process. What resistance did you face and how did you align people?

[00:33:11] Brian Chesky:
My main way I run the company is I do these reviews of everything in the company. I review every week, every two weeks, every four weeks, every eight weeks, every 12 weeks. And it's basically with my directs, their directs, their directs, the basically the chain of command.

And then we launch major products twice a year. So the way we align the companies, we put everything on these deadlines twice a year. And what it does is it actually creates a rhythm of the company. It gives people a sense that they're working together on a common cause.

[00:33:40] Adam Grant:
What I really like about that is the term you used was rhythm.

You actually have a cadence for when people are gonna collaborate and how they're gonna coordinate as opposed to just assuming it's gonna happen and, and letting it either be haphazard or maybe not really treat it as anything other than an afterthought. I think in, in some ways, the fact that you have a rhythm is more important than what you put in it.

[00:34:06] Brian Chesky:
You know what I was fearful we went public? That the only identifiable milestones a company would be the quarterly earnings reports and the quarterly earnings reports are very important for investors, but it's not what I want employees to think about every, every three months. That's not what we should be focused on.

So you need to give something people something to focus on. And having this rhythm, by the way, it means I know when to give everyone a vacation. They have this period of intensity, but they know that. After that period of intensity, there's lulls where they can go away, like summer is a little slower for us, believe it or not, even though we're a travel company, at least for most people working in headquarters.

So that rhythm has become really, really important. It also gives people milestones to look forward to. The rhythm also creates this sense of shared experience.

[00:34:50] Adam Grant:
You've created at an organizational level, something that I've always tried to do in my own work life. I, I've always had a little bit of a seasonal approach to my work where I'm teaching in the fall, and then I have the rest of the year for research, writing, speaking, and all the other hats that I wear.

And it's great for coordination, um, because I know I'm gonna be a lot more interdependent with people in the fall than I am other parts of the year, particularly my students. But also, like, it keeps me looking forward to work.

[00:35:25] Brian Chesky:

[00:34:21] Adam Grant:
Knowing that like now I'm, I cannot wait to get back into the classroom.

It's been a while since I've done it. And then I know when December rolls around, like I have some projects that I'm really excited to dig into.

[00:35:32] Brian Chesky:
When there's not a rhythm, there's a treadmill. And when there's a treadmill, then it's, then you end up with that like kind of Office Space Dilbert, I think people get more existential and I think that that the vibrancy and the excitement goes away. The novelty of their work, the freshness, the curiosity, I think it starts to diminish.

[00:35:54] Adam Grant:
It makes me think that you're trying to bring a little bit of Europe into America.

[00:35:58] Brian Chesky:
One of my heroes is Walt Disney and used to say, I have a foot in the past and the foot in the future. And I think in Silicon Valley, a lot of us wanna have two feet firmly rooted in the future.

I've always wanted to have one foot in the future and one foot in the past, like understanding history and culture and where things came from. I think the best companies are gonna marry the old, timeless ideas of generations before us, with a frontier willing to have the courage to go where no one's gone before.

[00:36:26] Adam Grant:
Thank you for being generous with your time and with your stories and your insights. This is a ton of fun.

[00:36:31] Brian Chesky:
I’m really glad that we got the opportunity to have this conversation and hopefully have another in, in the not too distant future.

[00:36:40] Adam Grant:
This conversation gave me a new perspective on what it means to build a community. Community is my favorite alternative to calling a company a family. I've long seen a community as a place where people bond around shared values, feel valued as human beings, and have a voice in decisions that affect them.

Now I'd add that in a truly strong community, people continue to feel valued and cared about even after they leave.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant. This show is part of the TED Audio Collective, and this episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our producers are Hannah Kingsley-Ma and Aja Simpson. Our editor is Alejandra Salazar. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

Our team includes Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.

[00:37:44] Brian Chesky:
My optimism is that you have all this amazing new technology, these incredible new tools, and people all over the world can interact online and come together and create some amazing things, hopefully in the physical world too, not just in the digital world

[00:38:02] Adam Grant:
Or just a bunch of fake news and cat videos.