Growth needs more than a vision. Working with some of the world's top business leaders responsible for driving growth, I see lots of companies with great visions and values. But it's the ones that are focused enough to align their activities and resources around them that ultimately win. Companies like Airbnb don't just let growth happen, they deliberately design it--as I found out while researching my book.
From renting out air beds and whipping up breakfast in 2008 to receiving more than 150 million guests in less than a decade, Airbnb's growth has been supersonic.
Between 2014 and 2015, its growth doubled, and in the same year the company took on as many new staff as it had hired since its inception. While such rapid growth generated impressive headlines, it became clear that if the company was to continue at this pace of headcount growth, its unique culture--the magic sauce behind its brand that had got them so far--would be at risk.
Airbnb's culture is built on a foundation of core values centered around the uniqueness of the global community and the lessons that its founders, Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk had learned along the way. Values such as "Be a Host" and "Embrace the Adventure" had been simple, understandable keys to getting the company off the ground in the first place.
Hitting the pause button
The firm's top leadership were worried that their culture would be eroded by the rapid pace of their growth. So they decided to stop, take a deep breath, and decide how they could sustain growth and at the same time protect the company's unique culture. The decision was made to stop and to "grow by design."
Here's how they did it
Design the future
Airbnb's leaders looked across the business and saw a large amount of duplication of work and areas where people were not clear on roles and responsibilities. People were stepping over one another. The overlaps were damaging their focus. The company had grown so rapidly that no one had time to stop and simplify. They thought about what Airbnb would look like in the future, exploring in detail what the business would look like if it were to double or quadruple. This creative process led them to questions about how they would operate and with whom they would partner. Most importantly, they asked how Airbnb would maintain its culture.
Make tough choices
To tackle this last and critical concern, Airbnb started by defining its organizational philosophy, looking at what it would centralize versus decentralize. In some cases, leaders also made tough decisions to stop incremental increases to headcount. This choice led to a deeper look into Airbnb's existing resources and how they were utilized. As they looked at the future organization of Airbnb, they asked what would it look like if they started again from scratch. They insisted there be a logic for every single role. The aim was to do fewer things better and get more from the resources they had.
Focus on the core
With Airbnb's Growth by Design philosophy in place, the company began to focus on leveraging and growing its existing team and not simply recruiting more people externally. As leaders looked at the future organization, they found that too many of their current employees were involved in setting up partnerships. As they were growing their brand, they were being approached by a multitude of companies in every market where they had a presence. Potential partners came in lots of sizes and varieties, from music festivals to airlines. This inflow of interest resulted in their setting up too many small partnerships in too many locations.
A focus on bigger, more impactful partnerships meant fewer people were needed--but Airbnb decided not to lay off employees. Knowing that the vacation rental area needed people, the partnership-focused employees were re-skilled. This decision created new career opportunities for them and reinforced their commitment to the growing company.
Focus liberates us for growth
Airbnb's experience is a great example of how focus liberates a business to align people with capabilities needed for future growth. Part of that is about empowering other people to say no and helping them align their effort with what is most important to the business. It was focus that enabled Airbnb to re-orient its growth path and build the capabilities so that it could host over 150 million guests while retaining its unique culture.