Airbnb is currently fighting to block a subpoena request from the New York Attorney General for user data. One of its biggest efforts has been appealing to Airbnb's legions of happy customers through a petition effort.
That all of this--the lawsuit, the community, and Airbnb itself--wouldn't have been possible even a few years ago is significant. Airbnb is a model of the people economy, a company loved by its users. It makes sense that Airbnb would lean on its community to fight the subpoena request for data of the roughly 15,000 users in the state.
What's notable about this situation, however, is how Airbnb is garnering this support: One of its users posted a petition online at Peers.org, a website for "grassroots organization that supports the sharing economy movement." Last I checked, the number of supporters was 108,554, just shy of the 110,000 goal (and well beyond the initial goal of 20,000 signatures).
So what's the takeaway? The Internet and digital grid have made the world flatter than ever. Small, disruptive companies can now wield significant influence and rally groups of people to challenge the status quo. Can you imagine trying to match Airbnb's support through volunteers armed with clipboards at city centers and college campuses? It would cost far more and take more time and the results would likely fall short.
In many ways, Airbnb's fight reminds me of the 2008 presidential campaign. Barack Obama, by all accounts an underdog, used social media to get the word out, rally his supporters, and raise money. It seemed amazing at the time for a presidential candidate to ask millions of people, not a handful of millionaires, to open their wallets for a movement. But even more amazingly, it worked. Obama raised half of a billion dollars from three million donors, who made a total of 6.5 million donations. The average donation was $80. That's power in numbers, and it simply wouldn't have been possible without the digital grid and a nascent, though powerful, people economy.
What does this mean for entrepreneurs? There are three lessons here:
- The grid has made the global community local, allowing any group to get together online and amplify its collective voice. Your customers can be a powerful ally, now more than ever.
- Entrepreneurs can connect with people in ways that weren't possible, from crowdsourcing a new product direction to improving a website.
- Access to the grid--and to a network of customers and supporters--is an important tool for overcoming resistance from incumbents. This is the most important takeaway, and Airbnb is not an anomaly. Sidecar, Lyft and Uber face similar pressures in several states. Those companies are realizing that, as sharing economy start-ups, their legions of loyal customers are among their strongest assets.
It's an exciting time and technology has made it easier than ever to build a movement. Engaged communities are the rule, not the exception, among the most successful disruptive technology companies. Whether you're in the business of disrupting the status quo or making an existing process better, entrepreneurs should harness the digital grid to create a village. Your supporters are passionate--and it's time to unleash them.