Visionaries of the Meaning Economy is an interview series by Manuel Maqueda that explores how meaning is transforming the economy, and our future. This interview features serial entrepreneur and SVN member, Chip Conley, Head of Global Hospitality at AirBnB.
Joie de Vivre, joy of life, is the name –and the mission– of the company that has made Chip Conley rich and famous –but it may as well be his personal motto, too. The playful spark in Chip’s eyes tells the story of a man who has journeyed from being a maverick founder and CEO in the boutique hotel industry to becoming sort of the mojo-keeper at AirBnB –all while nurturing a close affiliation to notable icons of Californian hippy culture, such as Esalen and Burning Man. In fact his passion for collective manifestations of joy has led him to create Fest300, an online guidebook to international festival culture. It is in the field of social business, however, where Chip Conley has earned a place as a thought leader: he has authored several books on emotional intelligence and well-being in business, and has become a prominent figure in the conscious capitalism movement.
In this interview at the AirBnB headquarters, Chip shares his insights on transformation and meaning, explains how one can be pro-business and pro-taxes at the same time, and provides his views on the controversial misnomer of the “Sharing Economy” –among other juicy topics.
Manuel Maqueda: What is the thread of passion that runs through your diverse endeavors?
Chip Conley: The thing that gives me a sense of calling is creating transformation for people in a variety of different ways. I started a boutique hotel company called Joie de Vivre whose mission was to create joy of life for our employees and our customers. There are very few companies in the world whose mission is also the name of the company. I love that, and it created a sense of meaning for our employees because they knew that our purpose as a company was actually to help people to feel joy in their lives. So, I think that the consistent thread for me is helping people to feel a sense of transformation in their lives through whatever we’re offering them –or even the way we deliver it.
How would you describe transformation? What do the before and the after look like?
Transformation can be as intense as a caterpillar to a butterfly, but it also can be quite subtle and internal. Like when a person is wearing a new pair of glasses that helps them see themselves and the world in a new way, and allows them to embrace change. Generally speaking, transformation is change –and generally speaking people don’t like change! (chuckles). So transformation better be damn good for you to actually say “yes! that kind of change I like”.
What type of meaningful transformation are you seeking through the experiences you help curate, whether through festivals, AirBnB, or working or staying at a Joie de Vivre hotel?
Meaning for employees is a little bit different than for customers. For employees there are two components to it: meaning in work, and meaning at work. I think a lot of employers don’t think about both of these and get fixated on one or the other. Some employers make sure that people love the work they do, but the company might not have a purpose that creates a halo effect where people may say “wow, I just love being associated with the company”. I think you have to do both aspects well.
And for customers?
On the customer side I like to think of it in the form of a pyramid with three levels: at the base level we have the survival need of the customer, and above it is the succeed need. These are about having your expectations and desires met. At the top of the pyramid transformation I think occurs when your unrecognized needs are met –when the company delivers you something beyond your expectation and desires.
Organizations can become very transactional as opposed to transformational. They have to do the transactions right, but that alone doesn’t create transformation.
Some emerging business models, like AirBnB’s, are blurring the traditional boundaries between employees, employers, companies and clients to look more like partnerships that run over platforms. What is the role of meaning there?
Ebay, Etsy and AirBnB are marketplaces for sort of micro-entrepreneurs –a bunch of hosts in AirBnB’s case. The key for this to work is trust in the platform and trust in the people you’ll be transacting with. Meaning comes from the feeling that humans are generally good. When you start realizing that you can start trusting people more, and pretty soon the other is my friend, and I start to feel a little bit more close to someone who was a stranger. We are melting walls around the world, and that can give you a renewed sense of the human spirit. So part of what we are trying to do is to create more trust in the world.
Many people actually choose farmers markets or these new platforms seeking satisfying, in-person experiences and relationships. These two aspects seem to be at the core of your work.
There are URL’s (websites) and there are IRL’s –In Real Life experiences– and we need both! I think that the more digital we get the more ritual we need. The more we obsess with our iPhones the more we need the in real life connecting experience. This is part of the reason why every kind of festival has grown so much in the last 15 years. Sociologist Emile Durkheim described collective effervescence as what happens when the sense of the separation and ego evaporates and what comes in its place is a sense of communal joy, a sense of connection. That’s magical. That will not go away. That is part of our human DNA.
let’s talk for a minute about the so-called sharing economy. Many don’t feel that anything is really being shared, but rather that this is just a novel business model for big money wrapped in a deceivingly social name. What are your your thoughts on this?
This is like with Burning Man and the gift economy: you still have to pay $400 for your ticket (chuckles). Let’s be clear that language can mean a lot of different things. And I think sharing economy is not the best description, I think collaborative consumption is another way to put it. The sharing economy to me is when through technology we share slack resources that are not being used such that we don’t have to build and create more things, and the environment is a beneficiary of that. What you need to do is not judge the phrase (meaning economy,) but to judge the activity, and the morals or ethics of the company.
A focus of your business practice has been to foster employee well-being. Tell us more about how employee well-being impacts customer well-being.
I think this is particularly true in the service sector, which represents two thirds of the world’s GDP. I don’t see many organization that are really, really good at providing a great product or a service if it doesn’t start with treating their employees well. When you create a wonderful culture in a company it leads to employees who are happy, which leads to customers who are happy, which leads to market share growth, more profitability, and then you can invest back in the culture. So it’s a virtuous circle, and ultimately a competitive advantage.
How does this impact the well-being of the society as a whole?
We’ve gotten better about measuring and understanding the environmental footprint, but what we don’t understand very well is the emotional fistprint of a company with a terrible culture. The effect of someone who dreads going to work on everyone in their family -including the dog- is noticeable. And if it’s actually affecting a family it’s affecting a community. This becomes a bit of a downward spiral and what we are looking for is upward spirals in life. When someone is feeling a sense of meaning, a sense of inspiration at work, feeling recognized and appreciated, and works for an organization that is making a difference and doing well, both financially and in its community, it has the opposite effect. People come home and instead of kicking the dog they pet the dog.
Do you consider yourself an advocate or a part of a movement?
I would say that I am loosely affiliated with people in the conscious capitalism movement –and definitely affiliated with people in SVN –Social Venture Network- of progressively minded business. So if there is a movement overall, maybe it’s a meaning movement, but people don’t talk this way, so it’s good to have a book of that subject.
Thank you. Could you tell us more?
For me it is about how you incorporate humanism in the workplace. If today the power rests with business there is something called noblesse oblige, an obligation for nobility, an obligation for business to actually give back in a variety of ways. I believe that pretty sincerely. Frankly, I think business needs to be held to a standard today that is higher than it was 25 years ago, because we are more powerful than we were 25 years ago.
Some businesses are creating great positive change, but many people wonder if this is fast and deep enough. What are the obstacles?
I think some of the obstacles are political. If we are talking about the United States, the data is pretty obvious that the rich are getting richer. There’s a lot of political rhetoric that focuses on the idea that making some changes in the tax code or giving a better safety net to people is going to actually take away from the motivations of those who are creating jobs and innovation. But most people who start companies that ultimately lead to lots of jobs don’t do it because of tax code, they do it because of the meaning. So it’s a funny place to be, because in some ways I’m pretty pro-business but I’m also pretty pro-taxes in terms of what taxes can do, especially when they are used well.
How are you yourself being transformed by your work?
I’ve learnt more about humans. I am on the Board of Esalen Institute, but being in business, both as a leader and a colleague, I have learnt more about people than I have learnt at all of the workshops I have done at Esalen (laughs.) Being in the trenches with the people you work with day to day can be even more enlightening. Our emotions are contagious, and the higher you are in leadership, the more you influence the emotional thermostat of the room. So what that means for me is “wow, noblesse oblige again!” The more senior you are in an organization the more obligation there is for you to be emotionally healthy, fluent and creating a positive catalytic effect on other people.
Manuel Maqueda is an economist, a social entrepreneur and the author of the forthcoming book The Meaning Economy. Visit www.meaning.ec for more interviews and for the whole audio of this interview.