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We like to think about company culture like DNA. Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, gets it:

...bringing in your first engineer is like bringing in a DNA chip to the company.

From selling repackaged cereal which raised over $30,000 to now operating in over 100,000 cities worldwide - the Airbnb story is nothing short of remarkable. And brilliant recruiting was a crucial factor.

This blog will turn Chesky’s early hiring strategies into a blueprint for success.

Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s that helped Chesky out of debt.
Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s that helped Chesky out of debt.

First hires pack a culture punch

When building a startup, the first hires are pivotal in shaping the company's trajectory and culture.

  • Going from 1 employee to 2 employees → 50% change in culture.
  • From 2 to 3 → 33% change in culture.
  • From 3 to 4 → 25%
  • From 19 to 20 → 5%
  • From 99 to 100 → 1%

The Airbnb co-founders understood the significance of their first engineering hire. It took five months to finalize. Chesky personally processed thousands of applications and interviewed hundreds of candidates.

Your first engineers, designers, and salespeople bring far more than technical skills. They bring a certain personality, leadership style, collaboration style, and mindset. It sets the tone for all future hires. As Chesky put it:

After making that first hire, there were going to be a thousand people just like him or her in that company.

Step one of this blueprint is answering the following question. After you interview an early hire, consider, “Do I want to work with a thousand more people like this?”

It's not just about finding someone who can code or design; it's about finding someone who embodies the values, work ethic, and vision of the founding team. The easiest way to have a great culture is to start with one.

Airbnb Co-founders Brian Chesky (right), Nathan Blecharczyk (middle), and Joe Gebbia (left)
Airbnb Co-founders Brian Chesky (right), Nathan Blecharczyk (middle), and Joe Gebbia (left)

Curiosity is a scarce, valuable resource

Chesky obsessed over curiosity. When asked about the key characteristics Airbnb focuses on when hiring their first employees:

There’s a number of traits that we’re looking for in candidates, but one that’s always stood out to me is curiosity…to innovate, you have to be very curious and you have to ask a lot of questions … you can’t presume you know the answer, and if you think you do, you have to constantly reevaluate.

Curiosity is an essential ingredient for startup alchemy. Execution is essential, too, but 10x improvements require solutions that are both better and different.

One way to look at this: every early hire you make should share your addiction for improving your company’s products. Here are some template questions to screen for this:

  1. What are you currently curious about and how are you exploring that curiosity?
  2. How do you stay up-to-date on new developments in your field?
  3. Who would you shadow for a day to satisfy your curiosity and why?
  4. How do you foster curiosity and continuous learning in your role or team?

It’s ok to sweat the small stuff

Chesky attributes part of Airbnb’s success to being at the interviews for the first 300 hires. Even after this became unfeasible, he focused on staying informed on employees progress and staying as available as possible:

People think that a great leader's job is to hire people and just empower them to do a good job. Well, how do you know they're doing a good job if you're not in the details? And so I made sure I was in the details, and we really drove the product.

Ways to incorporate being “in the details” into your talent strategy:

  • Involve technical staff in interviews.
  • Ask interviewees to solve real problems.
  • Build technical literacy at all levels.

Hire people so good it scares you

Chesky believes you should work in an environment that constantly intimidates you. Impressive peers that work to push the needle further,will encourage (or scare) you into raising your own bar.

Founders invest colossal amounts of time and energy into building their company. That brings a sense of ownership and protection. Many new execs struggle to handle critiques of their decisions. Chesky is not one of them:

I think that’s what the first thing is, to build a team that is so talented that they kind of, slightly make you uncomfortable to be with them, because you know you are going to have to raise your game to be with them.

It’s common to hear Chesky say:

It’s a tragedy if the founders outlive the company.

The number one risk factor for that tragedy is making quick-fix hires. Part of Airbnb’s talent strategy was recruiting people who could take over if need be.

Sure, they might be expensive. But if you’re serious about building a timeless company, taking the long term view is essential.

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