Belinda Johnson joined the Airbnb team in 2011 and was named the company’s first COO in 2018. Previously, she was general counsel of Broadcast.com, one of the first companies to stream media programming over the Web, and was a senior VP and deputy general counsel at Yahoo! She also serves on the board of directors of PayPal. When Belinda was in fifth grade, her father quit his job in the mortgage industry to start his own company—an example that made her feel at home in the world of entrepreneurs and founders.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
Start from the outcome you want and work backward. That’s something I learned at Airbnb, because we have a design-led culture. Some disciplines begin with the problem and iterate from there, and I think that ultimately leads you down a less creative path. Instead, I try to envision what I want the world to look like and then figure out how to get there. It’s been a game-changer for me in terms of how I think about complex issues.
For example, one of my first projects as COO was to design what we call our operating system—not the platform, but the way we run the company itself—and one of the design principles for that initiative was that it should be simple enough that a new hire can understand it on their first day. I think working backward from that goal led to a far better result than if we’d just tried to move forward from where we were.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Learn from unexpected sources. A lot of tech companies look to their fellow tech companies for examples and ignore other industries, like government and academia. Early on in my time at Airbnb, when I was running policy, Alfred Lin recommended I talk to the head of policy at Wal-Mart. It seemed counterintuitive, because it’s a completely different business, but I found a lot of useful parallels in terms of the way they moved into new cities. Their approach was very local, almost like a campaign structure, and that influenced how we designed our policy organization.
If I could give founders a few other pieces of advice, particularly about hiring, I’d tell them to always hire for what they want the company to look like three years from now. Things evolve quickly in those early days, and you can out-scale yourself before you know it. I’d also tell them to never hire someone who seems to think they’ll be “the adult in the room,” which happens sometimes when experienced people join early-stage companies. You want wisdom, but you also want an open, flexible mindset. If someone comes in thinking they’re the adult among kids, they’re starting out with constrained thinking, and that’s the opposite of what a founder needs.
Finally, I’d tell them to find people who will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Brian Chesky set that expectation when he hired me at Airbnb—he told me right away, “I want to hear the bad news.” That defined our relationship and built a lot of trust. Now I say the same thing to my team. And when I can tell it’s not happening, I ask myself what I can do differently to make sure they feel safe giving me all the information.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
My sleep habits. I used to go to bed late and wake up early—and I was exhausted. When I started going to bed at a decent time, I immediately realized I was performing better in multiple aspects of my life. A full night’s sleep is so important for clear thinking. I wake up more alert, and I’m able to get workouts in. Now I actually love that time in the early morning, when the rest of the house is quiet. It’s when I’m at my best.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
Multiple languages. I travel a lot, and I know I’d be more immersed in different cultures if I understood more than a word or two. Ideally, I’d have learned when I was young, but I’d still love to do so in the future.
It wouldn’t work well for language, but my favorite way to learn is to sit down with people I admire and pick their brains. I have a Google doc at the top of my bookmarks where I keep track of all the people I want to talk with. When I hear someone on the news, or read an article, I’ll jot down their name. Then I refer to that list when I’m thinking through something, and I try to connect with whoever I think could help.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Right now I’m reading an advance copy of Blitzscaling, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. There are some references to Airbnb in it, because it’s about the kind of rapid growth we’ve been going through, and I’ve enjoyed reading about other companies that have been down a similar path. I’m hosting a fireside chat with Reid soon, so my copy is full of notes on the questions I want to ask him.
I also do a two-person book club with my 13-year-old daughter, and right now we’re reading a book called H2O, by Virginia Bergin. It’s casual—we just talk about the parts we like, and try not to get too far ahead of each other—but it’s fun. She’s picked all of our books so far, but I think I’m going to start making recommendations as she gets older.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
All the time. Practically everything is a judgment call based on data, experience, instinct or some combination of the three. You have to get comfortable working with limited information and knowing the difference between the decisions where you can course-correct and the “one-way doors” where you really need to learn more before you make a call.
I try to set an example for my team by owning my mistakes and talking about what I’ve learned from them. I tell them that as long as they’ve gone through a good process, it’s okay to be wrong. When people aren’t afraid to make mistakes, they feel empowered to move more quickly, and they learn far more. It’s liberating to realize, “What’s the worst that can happen? I may fail, but I’ll learn a lot along the way.”
What unit of time matters the most and why?
This very minute. You can’t control the past, and spending time on it is usually about regret. You can’t control the future, either—you can plan for it, and that’s part of what I do, but worrying about all the “what-ifs” is unproductive. You can control this moment, though, and try to be present.
I don’t do that very well yet, but it’s something I’ve been working on, especially since I had kids. If you aren’t present with them, you’re going to miss a lot. It’s easy to get distracted by work and your phone, but those little moments while they’re growing up are important, and they go by pretty fast.
- Start with the outcome
- Get your sleep
- Don’t hire ‘the adult in the room’
— Belinda Johnson, COO, Airbnb