The San Francisco Bay Area has a been a leader in lingo for half a century. Haight-Ashbury hippies taught us something could be “mind-blowing” or a “bummer.” More recently, Valley techies have snuck a number of new words into the mainstream: “bandwidth,” “friction,” “firewall,” and “user” (as vile a word as “consumer” IMHO). There are two pieces of confusing language that I often get asked about given my role at Airbnb: “disruptor” and “sharing economy.” When I joined my first tech company nearly three years ago as an “intern/mentor” at age 52, I had no idea what “ship it” meant and I thought “traffic” was just something I was seeing more of in the Bay Area.
CALL ME AN "ENABLER" NOT A "DISRUPTOR" No one ever called me a disruptor as a boutique hotelier back in the 80s. Maybe it’s because boutique’s influence on the mainstream hotel industry took nearly two decades to emerge or because being a “disruptor” in “hospitality” sounded like a contradiction in terms. Today, every chain hotel wants a high-design hotel lobby that feels like a living room attracting a local crowd to its hipster restaurant or bar. But, just like I didn’t set out to be a disruptor in creating my first few boutique hotels, the three young founders of Airbnb didn’t intend to disrupt. They were just trying to pay their rent…by renting three air mattresses to guests.
The word “disrupt” really speaks to what is occurring on a macro level, but it gives no indication of what’s happening on the ground. Yes, Uber has disrupted taxis, Airbnb is disrupting hotels, and, before them, Amazon was disrupting bookstores and Netflix was doing the same to movie rentals. But, the big difference between Uber/Airbnb and Amazon/Netflix is what these new digital marketplaces are “enabling” on the ground. Uber and Lyft enable my CrossFit trainer — father of 5 — to add about 10 hours a week of work making money from his car inbetween clients at the gym. Airbnb enables an empty nester or a young freelancer to transform extra space into income. And, the company has also created a new set of “global nomads” who are enabled to test drive neighborhoods like this couple did in a dozen New York ‘hoods, or travel the world feeling like locals as senior nomads,The Campbells did. While “disrupt” describes the macroeconomic effect, I prefer “enable” to describe what we’re doing in people’s lives.
SHARING ECONOMY? The other piece of lousy lingo that gets even more ink is the “sharing economy.” Couchsurfing may represent true sharing since typically no money exchanges hands on that lodging platform. But Airbnb hosts charge for their space they’re renting, so how can that be “sharing”? First off, Airbnb didn’t invent this lingo and, once again, the genesis of this language comes from a macroeconomic perspective. Using technology, Airbnb can match empty homes or bedrooms with traveler demand such that we’re more efficient in sharing our natural resources. Optimal resource sharing means fewer new cars, hotels, and other products have to be produced and that, from a macro perspective, is good for the environment. While “collaborative consumption” is also in vogue as a phrase, I think the “access economy” as defined in this Harvard Business Review article is the most accurate description of this new phenomenon marrying technology and trust. Many Millennials want access without the obligation of ownership. That’s a modern version of freedom.
NO "OTHER" I experienced the enabling nature of Airbnb in Paris in mid-November. Our second annual Airbnb Open brought together 5,000 hosts from 110 countries. It was the largest number of nationalities at any company-sponsored conference ever outside the U.S. and the magnitude of the home sharing movement was on full display. This article outlines how Airbnb has become the leader at the front of this home sharing parade and how we may become a Superbrand for a generation. As many of you know, I love throwing a good party so it’s been quite an experience leading this annual pilgrimage. But, yes, it was also quite troubling and stressful to be Papa Bear in charge of this event when the terrorist attacks occurred on November 13 after we’d finished our first two of three days of this World Congress of hosts. While, thankfully, no one in our group was hurt or killed, you couldn’t help feel the pain of Paris and the fear that pervades “otherness” around the world today. This just reconfirms my commitment to helping create a world where we can all “belong anywhere.”
RE-DEFINE YOURSELF I was introduced to another lingo-minded way of looking at leadership after the Airbnb Open. An Airbnb employee told me that he’d always known I was a “leader,” but given the way I handled the aftermath of the attacks, I now had become a “role model” for him. We follow leaders. We emulate role models. Words are persuasive and powerful. Whenever I’ve been challenged as a leader and felt like I wasn’t showing up in the right way, I’ve thought of myself as a role model and it has miraculously shifted my behavior. It works with parents and children. The moment you think of yourself as a role model, you’re a little more patient, a bit more thoughtful, and probably less reactive. So, when in doubt as you’re teaching your fellow leaders, ask them to spend a month banning the word “leader” around your organization and replacing it with “role model.” See what happens as a result. Want to learn more? Read this Psychology Today article around role models and leadership.
THE GIFT OF IDEAS It’s the holidays, which means we’re giving each other and ourselves all kinds of presents. My favorite presents — to give and receive — are books, always in the old school form. I love the smell of a fresh book and the way it sits on a shelf yearning to be opened. Here are my top 5 business book recommendations for 2015:
Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future - Ashlee Vance. Intense, idealistic, awkward, and inspiring, Musk’s mission is to prevent the human race from destroying itself. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a little time with him and this book captures him very well.
Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time - Jeffrey Pfeffer. My favorite, opinionated Stanford Business School professor, Pfeffer tells it like it is. No sacred cows amongst leadership theories in this book. If you’re a skeptic and appreciate data/evidence that defines great leadership, you’ll enjoy this book.
Why We Work - Barry Schwartz. TED Books only publishes a few books a year and like TED speeches, these books are concise and thought-provoking. Barry’s “paradox of choice” speech impacted me greatly a few years ago and this new book speaks to the underlying motivations that inspire great work. If you want to understand how to transcend a job or career to find a calling, this is a brief academic yet accessible path.
The Age of Aging: How Demographics are Changing the Global Economy and World - George Magnus (originally published in 2008). As I mentioned in my last newsletter/blog, I’m fascinated by striving to be a “modern elder” as we’re rethinking what it means to age and possibly retire the word “retire.” Society is aging. Power is youthening. What’s to be learned?
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China - Evan Osnos. We took the top dozen Airbnb leaders (including the three founders) to China for a week in September and it truly illuminated how the future of the world will be influenced by this one country just as the U.S. dominated the world stage in the 20th century. This book isn’t just a business book as it truly explains the sociology of modern day China.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN Finally, since language has been a key theme of this post, let me champion a relatively new phrase that is meaningful especially this time of the year: “digital detox.” More than sixty years ago, philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote the following prescient paragraph: "We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we might let go of them any time. We can use technical devices, as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.”
My holiday wish for you, dear reader, is to unshackle yourself from your smartphone for a day or three. Just type an “out of office” message that tells people when you’ll resurface to the digital world. Tony Schwartz’s Op-Ed in the most recent Sunday New York Times entitled “Addicted to Distraction” shares an insight you might find enlightening. For most of us, this is the time of year when we can disconnect from our habits and maybe waste some time in a bathtub with our favorite book or, better yet, our favorite squeeze. Here’s to our year-end digital detox to remind us that the most neglected fact in business...and maybe life...is that we’re all human.
Here’s to our year-end digital detox to remind us that the most neglected fact in business...and maybe life...is that we’re all human.