Airbnb: Loving the challenge at a boom's pointy end

By | septiembre 28, 2017
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Love it or hate it, chances are you’ll know of it. With 200 million guests in 65,000 cities now using Airbnb (and 120,000 listings in Australia alone), the accommodation booking service is hard to ignore.

For Airbnb’s Australia and New Zealand country manager, Sam McDonagh, it’s not the first time he’s worked at the pointy end of a business in a growth boom. Although he started out as a chartered accountant, his career took a detour five years in when he was working in New York for a Perth-based corporate advisory firm.

“I’d spent two years in New York, and I was going to pursue the path of becoming a partner,” he says.

A call from the chief financial officer of the then parent company of eBay opened up a very different path.

“At that time [1999], PBL had just acquired the rights to eBay [in Australia and New Zealand]. It sounded like a pretty amazing opportunity to me, to have a seat at the table with senior folks at PBL, including Kerry Packer,” he says of his decision to join eBay.

McDonagh became eBay’s company secretary and finance director for its Australia and New Zealand’s joint venture. Eventually, he moved to eBay’s California headquarters, as the finance director for eBay.com during a period when the company grew from $1 billion in revenue to $6 billion.

“I spent six years there at an incredible time,” he says.

A career challenge presented itself when McDonagh was asked to move from finance into general management and marketing.

“In hindsight, I wish I’d done it a little earlier. It brought back my passion for growing a business and making decisions, as opposed to assisting [with] decisions that had been made,” he says.

Roles followed in Australia with iiNet and US venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, before Airbnb approached McDonagh in 2013.

Today, he heads Airbnb’s small Australian team (there are 4000 staff worldwide). McDonagh says that in this market they are effectively a marketing organisation.

“We only have a team that is big enough to support that,” he says. “Our product team is US-based, but we liaise with them on a daily and weekly basis.”

Other supports are based in Portland, Dublin and Singapore. For a boss, the set-up requires a clear strategy in terms of management.

“The challenge that it brings is that you don’t control the people you are working with to achieve the business outcomes you are looking for,” he says. “You have to manage through influence.” 

Turns out, a role at Airbnb is the first job of many staff members. Perhaps this is one reason why, when McDonagh hires, he pays particular attention to their ability to work to the company’s core values (these include “embracing the adventure”, an acknowledgement that in a fast growth company like this, processes are often in perpetual catch-up mode).

Career wise, the pace also means that for staff members, change is inevitable.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the same job today as the one they started one, two or three years ago,” McDonagh says.

“As the platform continues to grow, there’s growth in the roles people signed onto, but there are also other opportunities.

“While in Australia that may be limited to marketing, communications and policy, the opportunities we have for members of the team to travel internationally … are incredible.”

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