When it comes to knowing what customers want, just ask Joseph Michelli. After all, the psychologist-turned-author has already delved into what makes Starbucks, Zappos, and other customer-centric companies tick.
While writing his latest book, “The Airbnb Way,” Michelli and his four-person team interviewed hundreds of hosts and guests in 11 countries. Their research also included stays in treehouses, yurts, and dozens of other listings on Airbnb. Two years later, Michelli now believes any business can learn from five key principles: belonging, trust, hospitality, empowerment, and community.
In this Q&A with Airbnb, Michelli reveals some of the top hospitality tips, moments of belonging, and entrepreneurial secrets that he learned along the way.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
Airbnb: Of all the companies you could’ve focused on after writing about Starbucks and Zappos, why Airbnb?
Joseph Michelli: “First and foremost, Airbnb is the 21st century. It’s the company to study and understand where human experiences are going now and into the future. I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing companies, with Mercedes-Benz being the last one. It was time to take a different look at business. At some point in my career, I wrote about the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which I think has been the gold standard for high-end hospitality for some time, so it was exciting to tell a story of the current and future [of hospitality].”
Airbnb: What’s the one principle from your book that you hope a host will adopt first?
Michelli: “For me, belonging is at the center of Airbnb. It is a differentiator [and] a human need ... I love how Airbnb designs for trust, but if [hosts] did nothing else but create belonging in every instance, trust would follow. Then you build community. I think belonging is the root of it all.”
Airbnb: You write about how you and your wife “even imagined what it would be like to live near [Superhosts] Dan and Deborah.” Can you talk more about that?
Michelli: “Not only did we stay in [Dan and Deborah’s ‘Danville’ listings in Geneva, Florida], but prior to the book’s launch, I brought my entire team to Danville, [which includes an airplane hangar, treehouse, and yurt]. I wanted to share it with my team, then you kind of worry, “Will it [be a] letdown?” But it certainly was not. It was very much the same as when I was writing the book …
Airbnb: You also dedicate a chapter to examining how Airbnb aims to create economic opportunities for hosts globally. Why did you name this section as empowerment rather than entrepreneurship?
Michelli: “Whether they think of themselves as being in business or making a small space available to somebody, I think a lot of people who are [hosting on] Airbnb may not think of themselves as entrepreneurs. [I chose the word empowerment], because the property is a source of power for people.”
Airbnb: You and your team interviewed about 300 hosts, with ages ranging from 24 to 75. Of the 45% who are running their listings like small businesses, what did you notice about newer hosts who might’ve struggled at first but who ultimately kept going?
Michelli: “I think part of it is perseverance. Airbnb is really good at encouraging people to constantly challenge their mindset … A lot of the people I talked to have really understood that this is a process to learn, that not many people were born to be successful in business, and you really do need to learn the steps, humble yourself, and get support. We were surprised by how many people were plugged into their local networks … It’s being connected to people who are in the throes of the same challenges. I was struck by a couple who are at the hub of their community. They are so plugged into thinking, ‘How do we cause all businesses to succeed in our area? How do we make our community stronger?’”
Airbnb: Are there any clear signs of when to make that leap from side gig to small business?
Michelli: “I think a lot of them did talk about tipping points, dipping their toe in the water to see if this was right for them. They experienced it, and it was far more gratifying than they thought. Any fears they might have had preliminarily were overshadowed … I see that’s the evolution of moving toward a more strategic business. As for when you go from a side gig? A host might wonder: ‘Well, it’s making good money. Are my other sources of income as gratifying? Does it give me the personal lifestyle control that I get from Airbnb? What else is possible?’ Once those questions start to line up, I think there is a tipping point that says, ‘This is my job. This is not just a side gig anymore.’”
Airbnb: Did you come across any tips for coping with—or better yet, preventing—hosting fatigue?
Michelli: “We talked to hosts who told us that they needed to take time away. Hosting—as rewarding as it is—is a demanding process. You need to be emotionally present with people to host them, to welcome them. It takes a great deal of energy to host and not just open your place up to somebody. Hosts said as soon they could, they found people who they could occasionally offload [routine tasks] to or partner with so they could get away—that was essential to them. A lot said traveling themselves and being hosted was one of the things that helped them with not just feeling like they were on one side of the transaction.”
Airbnb: Your team also talked to about 300 guests. Is there a gap between what guests want and what hosts think that guests want?
Michelli: “If you are a super good host, I think you are probably really plugged into what guests want, and you’re delivering it. But I think not every guest wants the same thing and that’s probably pretty important. In the book, we talk about using Danny Meyer’s example of reading the invisible signs. (An invisible sign could be showing you care about me by leaving me to myself … It’s that level of how much involvement you want to have with the host.)
“Most of the time hosts (and guests) want a clean environment, and they want someone to care that they’re there. And how that’s demonstrated varies, but I think they want people to be responsive and to try to guide them … It’s why they think many hotels have lost their souls, and there’s an absence of human connection. I think most hosts get it.”
Airbnb: Any last takeaways?
Michelli: “At a macro level, I think hosting may be one of the most noble things we can do. In a world where there is a lot of division, hostility, and cynicism, I think being able to welcome people into an environment we’ve created for them—and doing so without prejudice and judgment, hopefully learning from and sharing with others—is an incredibly noble phenomenon. I think meeting hosts changed my own perspective of some of the news I watch in the evening. If only more host stories could be told to counterbalance the more cynical view that we take on the world, we’d be better off. That’s what I came away with in this whole journey. It wasn’t my intent to better myself, but I really did feel like I got a great gift in the writing of this book.”
Save 22% off the list price of “The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging” (McGraw-Hill) with this exclusive deal for Airbnb hosts: https://800ceoread.com/AirbnbHost. Enjoy free shipping in the U.S. and a special invitation to a free webinar. Hosts in the U.K., Canada, and Australia who prefer not to pay for shipping can still access the free webinar by emailing a proof of purchase to email@example.com.
What other lessons about hospitality, belonging, and entrepreneurship have you learned? Join the conversation, and chime in with your thoughts below.
@Airbnb @Joseph512 Thank you for the terrific article. With each interview question I asked myself questions. I'm a remote host, so how do I promote belonging? If I can’t read the invisible signs in person, does my home have invisible signs that make a guest feel they belong? Do my guests feel I care that they’re there, and does that make them feel they belong?
As for my community, its history as a charming village in Maine means there have always been locals and summer people. The silent contract between the two – locals provide services and summer people bring economic opportunity – requires mutual respect. It’s incumbent on me not only to pay the bills on time, but to show respect for the work I receive in return. I’ve discovered in the five years I’ve been hosting that the local tradespeople have a keen interest in joining me to ensure the guests are well taken care of. And that it takes time and attention to build those relationships. I’m looking forward to reading your book.
Wow Ann72, you embody the best of home hosts we interviewed. Your instant willingness to ask yourself questions to explore new possibilities is at the heart of leadership, service, and business success. Thank you for inspiring me.
Thank u so very much for this helpful interview! It filled some little cracks of my own hosting approach. Yes, Id never see my self as an entrepreneur! Also the topic of hosting fatigue that can affect my service, also a problem with great people with bad hygiene and how to disclose it in the most proper way. Never the less I managed once successfully and got a good review. Oh boy that was a relief, but still, after the guest left I had to deep clean the room for days and days