What is it like working for one of the world's best start-ups?

What is it like working for one of the world's best start-ups?


Text: Janice Sim Amelia Chia

The team at Airbnb Singapore talk about working culture at a start-up, career progression, and the personality traits one needs to have

When Airbnb launched in August 2008 in San Francisco, it opened up a whole new dimension to our holidays. We were no longer confined to cookie cutter hotel rooms in touristy neighbourhoods, and had the option of living like a local in someone's house. From cosy one-bedroom apartments to a sensational glass tree house, the choice is yours.

Born out of a new generation of travel and the needs of millennials, Airbnb has gone from a small start-up to a burgeoning company with over 3,000 employees and 3 million lodging listings in 191 countries. Airbnb calls our sunny island state their Asia-Pacific headquarters, offering employment to about 200 lucky folks. Their office in the CBD is a vibrant space that encapsulates the local identity of the Singapore community and redefines what an office should look like. There are open light-filled spaces, benches and beanbags, and colourful meeting rooms inspired by actual Airbnb accommodation around the world — including a boat shed remodelled as a meeting table.

Airbnb singapore

What does it take to be part of a young, dynamic team in one of the world's most successful start-ups? We rounded up three creative souls from Airbnb — Robin Kwok, country manager; Samya Deb, creative director; and Evelyn Koh, food team manager — to tell us more. 

AUDIO EXCLUSIVE: Listen to our full conversation with Robin Kwok (Country Manager, Airbnb), Samya Deb (Creative Director, Airbnb) and Evelyn Koh (Food Team Manager, Airbnb).

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What's the main difference between working for a start-up like Airbnb as opposed to a company that has been around for many years?
Samya Deb (SD): When you work for these established companies — and we all did — you follow a norm of repeating success. At Airbnb, it's all about breaking the norm. You have to fail, test, and learn, that's how you progress. That's the key difference.

Evelyn Koh (EK): For us in the employee experience department, we bring in a lot of best practices and programmes, and try and curate it for the employees in Airbnb. But because of dynamic nature of the job, we have to make sure that it fits into their daily life and not disrupt the work they're doing.

Robin Kwok (RK): From a business manager perspective, I'd say businesses that are more mature are moving from zero to 100, while we are really moving from zero to one, and then from one to the next level. That means looking at growth opportunities, figuring out what unchartered territories are and how to approach a new market while working and collaborating with local groups. 

Airbnb singapore

Do we need to adopt a mindset shift when working for a start-up? 
RK: Airbnb is a very dynamic and collaborative environment and no day is the same. Some of the things we look for in people that are applying to Airbnb; first and foremost, someone who can really roll with it and understand the ambiguity as well as be excited about new opportunities. I also look for a great attitude. Someone who can work cross functionally, across regions and in different teams, and a positive mindset. When they step foot in the office, they know that they're going to be solving some big problems and challenges for the company.

SD: You need to cope with a fast-changing environment. That's very important — it's not for the faint-hearted. When I look for someone in the marketing and creative team, I normally ask this question: "What do you want to do for Airbnb?" At Airbnb, it's more important that we understand your talents, and that you have skills, and you're a passionate person. 

Airbnb singapore

EK: The difference between working in a legendary company versus a start-up like us is that you need to be bold about it. The tasks at hand might seem impossible, but it's actually very doable, as long as you have the guts to do it. For example, the programmes we roll out — we don't know how people will respond, whether it'll have a good ROI or not. But if you don't try and take a leap of faith, you'll never do anything. 

I see cupcakes outside! What's the working culture like?
RK: Thanks to Evelyn and her team, they created Wow Wednesdays, where we have a snack break [which explains the cupcakes] and bring in local food, have people share stories, and the background on their food. We believe food brings people together, and that's one way where the environment is set up to do that. 

Airbnb singapore

SD: One of the big things about our culture is that of acceptance. No matter who you are or where you're from, you're equally treated at Airbnb. I really mean it because I've worked in different companies, and at some level, you wonder if you can open your mouth. When you're working with different colleagues from different countries, it really matters a lot. Here, there's a platform to speak up. We constantly also do cross-functional projects with various teams. 

EK: And we don't just call Airbnb employees "employees", we call them "airfam" — walking into the office is like going home. It's like a giant home for them. The level of belonging is there. With the food team, for example, we do things like how your mother or a host would. 

What's the career progression like in Airbnb?
RK: Our Singapore office has about 200 people, it's our Asia-Pacific hub and we have six offices in total around the region. When it comes to career progression, I look at it as your opportunity to define it. When you work for a start-up, there's no cookie cutter path. There's no path that's handed to you over email. We provide opportunities to you in different forms and it's up to you and your manager to create that path. We do believe in project assignment, which allows someone to experience a different group or function — where it lasts for one to three months, and you can work at a different office or team. We also have opportunities where you can spend 10 to 20 percent of your time working with another team, helping out with say, data analytics or learning about finance. 

A final word of advice for someone who's looking to join a start-up?
SD: Sometimes, I meet people and they're interested in Airbnb, but instead of telling me about themselves, they're trying to over-impress us about how much they know about us. We're actually interested in hearing about things we don't know about ourselves, or about them. That's where the real connection happens. I need to be excited about you, just as you are excited about us. 

Airbnb singapore

RK: We really value diverse perspectives, thoughts and backgrounds. People should feel comfortable when they're interviewing with us and sharing their skill sets. A big part of our community is all about stories, so if they want to try and be a host or a guest to see what's it like to use our platform — that's a big plus as well.

EK: Don't be afraid to fail. Be bolder and be yourself. Anybody can be themselves as long as they're working at Airbnb. Some people might say, a tech firm is like an introvert's nightmare. But at Airbnb, if you're an introvert, go to your corner and we respect that corner. That's the great thing about working here.  

For more information, visit Airbnb
Read more stories in our Career Special