„You can’t sell anything if you can’t tell anything.” — Beth Comstock, Former CMO & Vice Chair, GE


Dear all

Likely unnoticed by most in Europe, AirBnB co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky recently announced that AirBnB was scaling back Product Management and replacing it with a Product Marketing function. This created a bit of a stir among tech workers on Twitter.

Working hard to convince our clients that Product Management is a critical function for any company trying to develop digital products, I was surprised as well. So I went back and asked our brand new AI product bot its opinion about who should be on a product team.

Trained on a solid base of product knowledge, the answer was as expected: „In a strong product company, it is important for a product team to have access to three constituencies: Product, Engineering, and UX. These three groups play a crucial role in the success of a product. …“

With Botsy trained on recent human-written or -curated materials, this probably reflects the profession’s shared view.

What, then, is driving Brian Chesky and Airbnb? The video of his statements at Figma’s „Config 2023“ conference (link to the YouTube video provided below) puts the tweet storm into perspective.

The discussion originates from the lessons Airbnb learned during its struggle to survive amidst the pandemic. This taught the company the importance of clearly defining its product’s purpose and being able to effectively communicate its story to make a significant impact.

During the discussion, Chesky elaborated on how the expansion of their business units and the proliferation of departmental roadmaps led to increased complexity, resulting in what we would describe as a „feature factory.“ He also shared how the bootstrapping exercise during the pandemic helped refocus their efforts, resulting in $3.5 billion of free cash flow last year.

The key points I took away from the inspiring discussion:

Success is in making something that people really want. To achieve that, it takes an integrated approach and a deep understanding of the problem to be solved.Data and metrics can contribute, but only in the context of a product hypothesis.

It is key to get the core of a product right: „…we don’t have permission to work on new things until people love our core service. If they’re complaining on social media and they’re calling customer service, they don’t love our core service; so we need to get our house in order first.”

Chesky (disclosure: he is a designer by training) also elevates the role of design in focusing and simplifying products. In his view, „simplifying is distilling something to its essence“; to be able to do that, „…you have to deeply understand it, its physics, first principles. …“ According to him, „Design is not just how something looks; it’s how it fundamentally works.“ (incidentally quoting Steve Jobs almost verbatim)

To achieve success, it is essential to concentrate on a few significant aspects rather than implementing numerous minor improvements. Chesky puts it clearly: „…the more people we added, the more projects we pursued, the less our app changed, and the more the costs went up.”

He also considers the top-level (strategic-) roadmap his responsibility as a CEO. It has a three-year horizon, is detailed and fixed in the short term, and is fuzzy and adjustable in the long term.

The ability to tell a story is important to him. Features that are not marketed run the risk of not being understood, and the resulting data may lead to killing them.Product Marketing, according to Chesky, has the benefit of combining Product Management and outbound marketing. And in this context, „… make no mistake, product managers are critical, …“ (Phew, relief!)

In short: the evolution of Product Management is – at least in Brian Chesky’s view –driven by a deep problem understanding that transcends metrics and data – and storytelling. A change brought about by elevating the role of designers and adding marketing to get the message right.

For me, as the former head of Apple’s EMEA Product Marketing (albeit two decades+ ago), the discussion felt a bit like a deja vu. For the rest of us, it may mark the beginning of a journey to products driven by a deeper problem understanding instead of the improvement of sometimes arbitrary metrics. That in Steve Jobs‘ words „… comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.“

I believe that the conversation with Brian Chesky is thought-provoking and very much worthwhile watching, at any rate. But don‘t take my word for it. Here are the links to the video and two more perspectives on Brian Chesky’s statements.

Leading through uncertainty: A design-led company – Brian Chesky (Config 2023)

The video that started it all.

Click to view!

Things that were worth further thought and discussion

Collected by Meta’s Max Wendkos in a Twitter thread.

Click to view!

Is product management going away? Why Airbnb got rid of its PMs

LogRocket’s Joel Polanco weighs in on the discussion.

Click to view!

Enjoy the hot weekend!