The Power of High Agency: How Airbnb Overcame Early Challenges

Back in 2007, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia decided to offer air mattresses and breakfast for $80 per night in their San Francisco apartment. Struggling to pay rent, this seemed like an easy way to make a few extra bucks.

Almost overnight they had three guest booked to sleep on their floor.

This was the beginning an idea that would turn into Airbnb.

Shorting after Brian, Joe, and their third co-founder, Nathan Blecharczyk, built out a platform to do this same thing, but at scale. They had some initial success. However, they were inevitably met with the struggle many entrepreneurs building two-sided marketplaces run into:

Getting users to sign up for the platform

Airbnb was burning cash and needed money to stay afloat. They reached out to investors looking for raise a round of fund to continue trying to acquire users.

Unfortunately, every investor passed on the idea forcing them to use credit cards just to hold on for a little bit longer and try to make it work out. Brian said, “I’d wake up in the morning and have this panic…everyone thought I was crazy, no one supported us, we had no money, it was the best weight-loss program ever."

He quickly added up $30,000 worth of debt -- with no way to pay it off...

It seemed as though Airbnb was going to implode at any moment if nothing changed.

They switched their strategy to acquire users and targeted the Democratic Nation Convention in Denver. An audience of 80,000 people in hopes of gaining some traction from the attendees.

The effort paid off! There was a spike in platform usage from the event.

Well, that was until the convention was over. They failed to get any day-to-day traction or even pay off any of the outstanding debt.

But Brian had another idea, “We’re Air Bed & Breakfast. The air beds aren’t working out, maybe we could sell breakfast…So we thought, let’s just get in the breakfast business.”

The 2008 elections campaigns were right in the heat of it. Everyone across the nation was backing their candidates and Airbnb decided they were going to sell cereal, 500 boxes of Obama O's and 500 boxes of Capn' McCains.

They went to every grocery store around the area, bought the cheapest cereal they could find and filled boxes full of it. Selling them at $40 a box. People bought them as collectors items.

This provided them enough funding to pay off their debts and stay in business to develop into the company we all know them as today!

Highly talented people are everywhere around us.

There's hundreds of other people that could have build Airbnb into a multi-billion dollar company with far less struggle then what they had to go through. The reason why no one else did though was because they lacked the agency.

In psychology the broadest definition of agency refers to "something that causes something else", but in a personal sense it can be defined as:

When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something?

- Eric Weinstein

When no one believed in Airbnb, what did Brian do? Did he accept the story he'd been told? No, instead Brian doubled down because he know the longer time they had the higher their chances were to figure it out.

People with agency push through struggles and reverse the conditions that have caused the obstacles they face. It's as if they bend reality to their will. Carving out their own path without waiting for the perfect conditions to manifest themselves. This is why people with high agency always end up on a unique life path.

Most people are highly talented but have low agency -- they're just wasted geniuses.

You come across these people every single day...

  • Coworkers complaining
  • Family members constantly tied up in drama
  • Friends that swear they have been cursed with bad luck

When smart people don't take action into their own hands it's because they lack the sense of agency to do so.

The reality is people really want to be around high agency individuals because high agency is not common. They know there's something special about those people.

Without a sense of agency you may have a few successes, just like Airbnb did in the beginning days, but in the long run you will always stay mediocre because the obstacles you face will always be met with passive acceptance.

High agency is an attitude that every successful leader has.

There are no exceptions to this...

Leaders set the vision and having a sense of high agency is what gives life to that vision. It's the prerequisite for achieving anything in business and life.

People with high agency are not born or raised to have that quality. They don't have a special talent or knowledge. They aren't even masters in their domains when they begin.

Go-getters with high agency will get better at their craft and improve their talents over time eventually building themselves into experts in their domains because they've acquired enough specific knowledge along the way.

High agency is developed throughout a lifetime of working on yourself. Lisa Crockett published a research paper on agency for the University of Nebraska where she found our sense of agency changed based on three factors:

  • Life stage
  • Maturation
  • Social circumstances

It's something that is always evolving and developing with time.

High agency is a choice you make.

People with a high agency mindset act in ways that open up opportunities that didn't seem possible earlier. At the basis of it is the ability to navigate unknown and challenging situations developing a new capacities (skills, traits, and beliefs) in the process.

One of my primary responsibilities when I worked at the early stage venture fund was to help identify high net worth individuals we could seek funding from for the next fund we were raising.

Coming from a sales role prior to that it was right up my ally, but I found myself sticking to the plan I was given.

Go through PitchBook, find former founders that exited their companies in a similar industry to our investment thesis, and add them to a list.

This went on for two months the whole time knowing the Managing Directors and General Partners were meeting weekly to discuss their fundraising efforts. A meeting I was never going to be invited to as a Summer Associate.

That was until I changed the story I accepted...

A few weeks after I exhausted all the resources that were given to me I decided to sign up for a free trial of ZoomInfo and build on more list. This time with people's phone numbers and targeting a whole different group of people -- the c-suite of high revenue generating companies.

Leveraging the previous knowledge I had of building list of sales leads I doubled the potential number of people we had to fundraise from in just a week. When I handed the excel sheet of names to my boss he was shocked.

What he didn't know is that I was spending an hour or two each night building this outside of work. Taking the initiative bought me a seat at the table. From that moment forward I was included in every fundraising meeting. Spending those few extra hours outside of work building that list changed my relationship with the people managing the fund and shifted my perspective of what it meant to take initiative.

High agency people consistently improve a company's trajectory. Obsessing over quality and spending time working on the highest leveraged tasks to move the business forward.

Keith Rabois described the potential these people have scaling business in an interview with the CEO of First Round Capital by saying:

"If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on. Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously. Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them."

How can one person be this influential?

It's because these people have a natural instinct to focus on questions and building wisdom. In asking questions, they develop orthogonal thinking. Looking at problems from all different angles just trying to gain an edge. They focus on what they can control and grow their influence to change the things that concern them.

Jeff Bezos developed a quick framework to identify these types of people in your life. Just ask yourself, what friends would you call to break you out of a third world prison? These are the high agency people you want to be around. Their influence will continually compound over time.

The 3 methods to cultivate high agency.

Observing and adjusting your language and self-talk is an important aspect of beginning to cultivate a sense of high agency. There's traits and skills many of these people have in common.

High agency people display the following traits:

  • Resilience
  • Deep care
  • Intentionality
  • Relentlessness
  • Self-confidence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Insane work ethic
  • Extreme ownership

Lean into these qualities. Without them you'll struggle to develop the following skills for high agency:

  • Thinking from first principles
  • Influential communication
  • High locus of control (developed by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin)
  • Realty distortion field (something Steve Jobs was known for)
  • Creative execution
  • Rationality
  • Foresight

Three simple methods, outlined by Mental Model Practices, for cultivating high agency all focus on bringing out these traits in us and further developing these skills.

Method 1:

  1. Think of something you will do today/this week/this month.
  2. Think of what you're trying to accomplish
  3. 100x that goal
  4. Ask yourself 'What are some ways you can get 100x that goal'

Method 2:

  1. Define your 10 year goal.
  2. Write down all the ways you can achieve it in 6 months

Method 3:

  1. Think of a small goal
  2. Think of the limitations you’re telling yourself that prevent you from achieving the goal.
  3. Repeat this 3 times “These limitations are not universal, they are just in my head. They are excuses for not achieving my goal. I shall stop believing those limitations”

Try these out the next time your faced with making a decision between mediocrity and exceptional.


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