Young Upstarts

All about entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, ideas, innovation, and small business.

[Interview] Joseph A. Michelli, Author Of The Airbnb Way

To label Airbnb a success story is probably one of the key business understatements of our era. Starting with a spare room and sensing a unique opportunity, its three founders created a multibillion-dollar company that profoundly altered the hospitality industry and became a driving force in the sharing economy.

Organizational consultant and customer service expert Joseph A. Michelli reveals the secrets and strategies that fueled Airbnb’s meteoric rise in his new book, “The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging“. As he shows, Airbnb’s founders harnessed the power of design thinking and a firm belief in providing exceptional customer experience. What they created transcended our concept of hospitality into a global culture that blends the digital and the physical, forges a vibrant sense of community between millions of husts and guests, and — as a business — inspires unprecedented loyalty.

Michelli’s study of Airbnb is the latest in his series on organizations, including his bestselling books on Starbucks, The Ritz-Carlton, Zappos and Mercedes Benz. Michelli recently sat down with Young Upstarts to share his insights on Airbnb’s approach to customer engagement, loyalty and referrals — and how they can be utilized by any industry.

Can you talk a bit about yourself? What’s your main focus?

I spend the bulk of my professional life helping leaders of mid-size and enterprise-level businesses create “craveable” customer experiences geared at increasing repeat business and referrals. I write business books about brands that entrust me to consult for them and/or tell their story. The Airbnb Way is my ninth business book since 2004. I also travel internationally, providing keynote speeches on leadership and customer experience. This summer, for example, I spoke in Singapore, Australia and South Africa.

You’ve covered some incredible companies in other books. How did you come to choose it as the topic of your latest book? In other words, why Airbnb, and why now?

I focus my books on brands that have an international footprint, deliver extraordinary customer experiences, and have a reputation for treating their team members well. Just about a decade ago I wrote “The New Gold Standard” about the luxury customer experiences being delivered at Ritz-Carlton Hotels. At the time, hotels were essentially the only way to secure travel accommodations. Airbnb was just getting started.

For me, Airbnb represents the future of customer experience delivery. It leverages a well-designed technology platform that enables people to effectively use and share their valuable assets and encourages personal and varied human connections. The company also provides a fascinating perspective on how a business can go from three air mattresses to a $38 billion dollar valuation in just over a decade.

We just have to ask: Have you had experiences with Airbnb yourself, and if so, how did they influence the book?

I enjoy staying in Airbnbs and the book includes stories from some of the remarkable people who have hosted me. Most of the book, however, is told from the perspective of Airbnb leaders as well as hosts and guests that my team and I interviewed. Airbnb hosts have reaffirmed my positive view of humanity and reminded me that the commonalities people share are greater than our differences. It’s easy to lose sight of that truth; particularly if you spend much time reading the news or listening to political discourse.

In your book, you talk about Airbnb’s five leadership lessons. Can you talk about them in brief here? And of course, why these five?

I focus on five broad categories that represent the DNA of the Airbnb brand, and then present lessons in each category. Those categories are:

1. Belonging. Every business leader and service professional should strive to create a world where each person they serve feels they “truly belong” on the company’s website, in their stores, etc.

2. Trust: Trust is a precondition of all relationships. It can’t be commanded or demanded. It must be offered to be received, and it is fundamental to ever business interaction.

3. Hospitality: You may or may not work in the “hospitality” sector but you likely are in a hospitality business. If you serve people and seek to deliver “service with heart” — you have to develop hospitality skills.

4. Empowerment: Business and relationship success hinges upon helping others achieve their goals. That success often requires partnerships and enabling others to leverage their resources.

5. Community: As much as people talk about being “self-made,” I am convinced that no one succeeds alone. Airbnb is a testament to the importance of caring for — and about — the communities that ultimately will care for you.

Do you think Airbnb is just a passing phase, though, and will burn itself out, as Uber seems to be doing right now?

I don’t think you can put the “genie back in the bottle” when it comes to Airbnb. Travelers are enjoying the cost benefits of Airbnb options, homeowners are deriving much needed income, and we are all increasing our reliance on digital marketplaces to conduct commerce. There are well-funded competitors going after Airbnb’s market share, but Airbnb has the frontrunner position. Home sharing has been around for millennia, and I suspect it will be around for many more millennia to come.

What Airbnb has done is to streamline and mobilize our ability to find vast options for travel accommodations and travel experiences. The innovation and product expansion stewarded by Airbnb’s leaders situate the company well for the challenges the company is facing and will face in years to come.

To learn more about Joseph A. Michelli and his new book, visit his website.

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Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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