Ask Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, about the key to building a successful company, and he’ll tell you a story about those famed early days. These were the eighteen-hour days, the sleeping-on-air-mattress days, the binders-full-of-maxed-out-credit-card days. This was back in the summer of 2009, and it was at this point that the three founders finally admitted that they were in desperate need for some outside assistance.
It was time to hire their first employee.
But did Chesky hire the first Berkeley computer science graduate that walked through the door? Nope. Instead, Chesky combed through thousands of applications. He spoke with hundreds of applicants. After four grueling months, they finally found their guy.
Why did Chesky spend so much time hiring a single engineer?
“I think bringing in your first engineer is like bringing in a DNA chip to the company,” Chesky said in a speech given at Stanford in 2014. “If we [were going to be] successful, there were going to be a thousand people just like him or her in that company. It still wasn't a matter of getting somebody to build the next three features we need the ship for users. There was something much more long-term and much more enduring which was, ‘Do I want to work with one hundred thousand more people like this?’”
The principle of prioritizing the right people over the temptation of scale and speed is imperative to running a successful company. It’s what defines the culture of the workplace. Culture grows not from instant gratification or short-term impulses but a commitment to larger, deeper underlying philosophical principles. It’s what Chesky often attributes to Airbnb’s success. The Airbnb founders made decisions on a long-term time scale, and the results followed. They established a core set of values from the very beginning, consulted those values every time a difficult decision came their way, and found themselves at a $30 billion valuation less than 10 years later.
“Integrity, honesty—those aren’t core values,” Chesky says in his Stanford speech. “Those are values that everyone should have. But there have to be like three, five, six things that are unique to you. And you can probably think about this in your life. What is different about you, that every single other person, if you could only tell them three or four things, you would want them to know about you.”
Every company will have their own core values to build their culture around. For Airbnb, these are five that guide them to this day.
Chesky doesn’t compromise when it comes to hiring: he was physically present during every single one of Airbnb’s first 300 hires. He often circled back to one particular question: “If you had ten years left to live, would you take this job?”
Though this question may sound absurd to some, that’s kind of Chesky’s point. If you’d obviously rather travel through Spain, or spend time with your family, or even just sit around and read, the job’s not for you. But if you believe so much in the mission of the company that it feels as if it’s your life’s calling, then that’s the type of person Chesky wants spending his days at Airbnb.
While “champion the mission” is a principle any company can get behind, “be a host” adheres closely to the specifics of the Airbnb experience. “Be a host,” to Chesky, means hospitality runs in your blood. It means opening up a part of your life to help another is second-nature, and that prospective employees see the hospitality industry as a fundamental good and an industry to constantly iterate.
As Chesky said in an interview with TechCrunch in 2013, “every frame matters” means “irrationally paying attention” to every little detail. Sometimes, Airbnb takes this to the extreme. In 2012, Chesky read a biography of Walt Disney in which he learned about the storyboarding process that Disney went through while filming “Snow White.”
“When you have to storyboard something, the more realistic it is, the more decisions you have to make,” Chesky told Fast Company. “Like are these hosts men or women? Are they young, are they old? Where do they live? The city or the countryside? Why are they hosting?
Eventually, Airbnb went as far as to hire a Pixar animator to depict three of the company’s processes, hanging the boards in a highly visible spot in Airbnb’s main offices.
Yes, you read that correctly. Being a “cereal” entrepreneur remains in the hallowed list of Airbnb’s core values because of an early story in the company’s scrappiest days. At the time, Airbnb was nearly $40,000 in debt, and struggling to attract more than a couple of bookings per day on the platform.
This was around the 2008 Democratic Party and Republican Party conventions, and the founders came up with an idea that was so stupid it just might work.
“What if we made a breakfast cereal for like the Democratic National Convention?,” Chesky wondered. “And we came up with this Obama themed cereal. And we called it Obama-O’s, the breakfast of change. Then we came up with a Republican themed cereal for John McCain. We found out he was a Captain in the navy. So we came up with… Captain-McCain’s, a maverick in every bite.”
They sold the boxes for $40 each, and sold out of the Obama-O’s almost immediately. They nearly pulled themselves out of debt, and in the process received national press coverage for their platform.
So how does this come back to core values? Chesky sees this creative scrappiness as a necessary trait, even as Airbnb grows into an absolute mammoth. The spirit of “cereal,” in other words, ought to be with them as long as the company exists.
On their website, Airbnb defines “embrace the adventure” as the following:
It means to always maintain a childlike approach to work: be open to new ideas, willing to move on from stumbles, and excited to try again.
All these principles, of course, won’t necessarily apply to you and your company. But Chesky’s central point here is one any aspiring entrepreneur can take away: culture is integral to any company’s success. Setting culture aside, or treating it as a secondary concern, will be harmful in the long run. In order to set up a company for long-term success, it’s necessary to plan for long-term success. And that means establishing a strong culture built on principles that are unique to your company. And for Airbnb, that includes, among other things, a belief in the power of cereal.