At just 8 years old, Airbnb has exploded onto the scene as one of the world's most famous hospitality companies. Growth of such magnitude traditionally took decades to achieve in the industry, with only a few contenders ever fully rising to the top. But Airbnb's breakthrough digital innovation has allowed them to achieve a ubiquitous presence in the market in less than a decade.
...But Airbnb's success is not simply because of technological advancements. As a company, they have had to also innovate when it came to inventing fresh strategies in building their accommodation database, changing consumer behaviour and mind-set, and marketing a product that they did not actually own.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Airbnb's General Manager for Northern Europe, James McClure, to hear his insight on best practice for navigating this new way of doing business, and how Airbnb is constantly evolving and innovating to stay ahead of the curve.
Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part series of interviews. You can view part 1 here.
Would you describe Airbnb/yourself as a disruptor?
We get called a disruptor a lot, but that is in the eye of the beholder. For some, the connotation is that we are distracting people away from traditional hospitality. However, we see ourselves as an additive to the hospitality industry - hotels are still doing well, we just provide an alternative way to travel. For instance, we help when there is when there an overflow of travellers for large events, such as when the Olympics are in town.
What are the biggest obstacles to growth for businesses in the sharing economy?/ Are there any limitations on your ambitions to growth at Airbnb?
We have an awareness of where some of the opportunities and benefits are. As more and more individuals have started coming into the sharing economy, customers have started seeing it as an option for their lives. But normalising it is still a challenge, for both suppliers and customers.
To help court people into becoming an Airbnb supplier, we spend a lot of time in the community bringing in people as hosts. We discussed with potential suppliers the benefits of sharing (with current hosts explaining that letting a room paid for a new camera, or a recent holiday).
In terms of early promotion, we started with Facebook, which became a broader online strategy and brought on our early adopters; this all led to further expansion.
What's the key to innovation at Airbnb?
Being clear about our goals and the vision we have for our company, including the ability to make people feel as if they belong anywhere.
We also ensure that there is no real distinction to Airbnb employees and our hosts when we run the business; we view the hosts as our partners. Our host community gives us great ideas and feedback.
It is this network that is at the heart of our product development. Our community of partner hosts also connects with each other continuously online, which gives them a strong and ongoing community with tips for first-time hosts, such as cleaning, etc.
Social media has been fundamental to promoting Airbnb but can it also be a poisoned chalice?
Social media enables our community networks, along with word of mouth. It's also good for feedback - otherwise, our ads would be just going into a vacuum. I’d much rather know people's genuine reactions and feedback, rather than just hearing from yes men.
How important are digital technologies to enabling you to achieve your ambitions now and in the future?
As a website based business, it is in our DNA. Our shop front is tech-based, so user experience is paramount. This is along with payment platforms and search platforms, which are at the heart of what we do.
…..And how much is about culture, people, and organisation?
Most companies have core values, ways of working, and/or statements of truth.
The founders of Airbnb worked on all of these factors before hiring their first employee. They carefully considered how they would go about choosing employees, how we would work together as an organisation, etc.
Our core values are tangible, integral, and evolving - they have been thought about long and hard. We still continue to hire with these values in mind.
How important are digital ecosystems to your current success and to future growth at Airbnb? How do you see partnerships opening up new opportunities, services, and markets in the future?
Without ecosystems, we would not exist - as they are vital to our business. Partnerships come in phases; for instance expanding payment methods into other countries, and/or services to help hosts, such as partnering with key exchange companies that offered transfer lockers.
This along with marketing partnerships has allowed us to offer more people the means to afford scaled promotion. We only choose these partnerships as long as they benefit our community by making life easier by extending their options – but we offer nothing that we would not recommend to a friend.
Do you see yourselves as a tech business?
No - we are a hospitality business enabled by technology. We want people to feel the experience of comfort and hospitality - which is the key. Technology is just what allows this to connection to happen.
James McClure is Airbnb's General Manager for Northern Europe, overseeing Airbnb's market growth. Prior to Airbnb James had a stint at Arthur D. Little strategy consultancy before 8 years at Google in London, Sydney and Singapore; most recently running their APAC Emerging Markets business.