As Airbnb prepares for an IPO this year, instead of doubling down on messaging about maximizing shareholder returns, the company took a hint from the Business Roundtable and announced a new approach focused on value creation for all its stakeholders. Last August, the Business Roundtable updated its statement on the purpose of corporations, saying that rather than focusing exclusively on profits for shareholders, businesses should create value for all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, and local communities. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink echoed the sentiment in his recent CEO letter, calling for businesses to do their part on environmental and social sustainability issues such as climate change.
Airbnb spelled out in an announcement on its website the five stakeholders it considers important, the priorities and principles it will focus on for each, and the metrics it will use to measure success and value creation. "Serving all stakeholders is the best way to build a highly valuable business," the statement said, "and it's the right thing to do for society."
The company listed its main stakeholders as guests, hosts, communities, shareholders, and employees. As an example, for communities Airbnb said it wanted to focus on sustainability around travel. "We are measuring the carbon footprint of both Airbnb's corporate operations and the carbon footprint of travel facilitated by the Airbnb platform," the statement said. "Measuring our impact informs our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and set a new standard for sustainable travel."
The company said it would put two of its key executives in charge of the project, and acknowledged that its new strategy is about "problems and opportunities that will take multiple teams working over multiple years to solve." The statement said it expected the strategy would invite criticism.
The implication, especially with the announcement coming in the run-up to an IPO, is that Airbnb bets creating value for all stakeholders will actually translate into creating more value for shareholders than if the strategy were to focus narrowly on shareholders alone.
Those familiar with risk management would likely make the same bet: A stakeholder approach attempts to address major risks that can upend a business and detract from its bottom line. Getting ahead of those risks means being serious about engaging with stakeholder expectations.
Airbnb's main operational risk is the safety of guests, and the company put that front and center in its stakeholder strategy. Its metrics for the "guest" stakeholder category are: number of personal safety incidents, percentage of stays where both hosts and guests have a verified identity, and percentage of listings that are verified (the goal is 100 percent by December 15, 2020).
Transparency in disclosure, particularly in reporting risks, progress, and failures, is essential to shareholder value. This is why in today's complex world, greater focus on each stakeholder and each area of risk and opportunity, and the kind of transparency that builds trust, are parts of the shareholder equation.
Airbnb is certainly exposed to reputational risk. As it disrupts traditional travel and tourism markets, it has been criticized for driving housing costs up, upending the hotel business, and putting unprotected travelers (and hosts) at risk. Local and national governments have stepped in and in many cases regulated or outlawed Airbnb-type rentals. And landlords often ban Airbnb sublets. A clear focus on stakeholders is also a step in the direction of managing reputational risks more proactively.
Airbnb notes that its announcement is only a step. "We are early in our work. And we are far from being a perfect company, which is why we want to share what we're doing," the statement said. Outlining its stakeholder map and issues, setting goals, and admitting there will be bumps in the road is realistic and also strategic. Airbnb is taking a step toward illustrating what the Business Roundtable is now defining as the purpose of a corporation. It is starting to clarify what that means, and setting out to prove that the stakeholder/shareholder conversation isn't "either/or" but "yes, and."
Maureen Kline is Vice President of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Pirelli Tire North America. This article originally appeared on Inc.com and was republished with permission.