How I Made It: Belinda Johnson steers Airbnb through regulatory and legal turbulence
The gig: Belinda Johnson, 48, is chief business and legal officer at short-term home rental company Airbnb. She joined the San Francisco firm, now valued at $25 billion, in 2011 as its first general counsel and one of its first executives. In July, she became Chief Executive Brian Chesky’s right-hand woman, putting her in charge of global public policy, community mobilization, communications, human resources, philanthropy and compliance in addition to the company’s legal affairs.
Early Internet: After graduating from law school at the University of Texas in Austin in 1991, Johnson spent the next few years working at traditional law firms in Dallas. But it wasn’t long before tech came calling. In 1996 she joined a nascent Internet radio streaming company called AudioNet. “The Internet was so new then — this was back when I still had a Dictaphone at my desk — and I was really drawn to it,” she said. AudioNet, later renamed Broadcast.com, grew quickly, and in 1998 the company went public. In 1999, Yahoo bought it for $5.7 billion. Yahoo also got Johnson as part of the acquisition. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000 and spent the next 12 years at the Internet company, 10 of them as deputy general counsel for product, litigation and privacy.
Airbnb: By 2011, Johnson was ready to move on. She didn’t know exactly who she wanted to work for, but she knew what energized her most: consumer-facing, hyper-growth companies that were in their earliest stages, much like AudioNet was in ’96, and, to a lesser extent, Yahoo in ’99. Airbnb, then a 3-year-old company with no legal counsel and big ambitions, crossed her radar. “I immediately understood the power of its community, and that this was an amazing company and an amazing opportunity.” She came on board as the company’s first lawyer.
First counsel: Most tech companies prioritize hiring executives with technical, design and business and marketing backgrounds, which made Johnson’s hiring so early in Airbnb’s life unusual. But it also made a lot of sense. “The founders really recognized that part of what we were doing was not just changing the world, but requiring some law changes too,” Johnson said. “So they really embraced the idea of finding a partner to help clear the path for the business.”
Regulatory hurdles: As Airbnb grew into new markets, disrupting incumbent services such as hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, it became Johnson’s job to work with regulators and policymakers around the world to assuage any fears that the company was more of a hindrance than a help to the cities in which it operated. The company butted up against laws regulating short-term rentals, many of which were old “and meant to get at different types of activity,” Johnson said, “so with newer business models [like Airbnb], you run into old regulatory regimes and have to either work through it and make modifications or distinctions.” Johnson led some of Airbnb’s earliest international breakthroughs in markets such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Milan.
Ongoing challenges: With Airbnb gaining ubiquity, Johnson no longer needs to spend as much time educating policymakers about the service and how it benefits cities. But the company’s fast growth has presented a new set of challenges. A large part of her role now involves helping the company be more transparent, “and overcoming some misperceptions that may be out there,” she said. “There was a time when people thought our hosts weren’t collecting and remitting taxes, and we’ve been very proactive about going out and trying to solve this.”
Higher risk: “I think it takes a unique temperament for a lawyer who wants to go to a start-up, because generally, by nature, it’s a high-risk environment,” Johnson said. “I really love problem-solving, so I think the complexity of a business and being about to unwind that and make it simple, that’s what I love to do, and that’s what drew me to this opportunity.”
Leadership style: Johnson is a big believer in mentoring, and advises any lawyers looking to move in-house or into start-ups to talk to people who have done it before and learn from their experiences. “I think that happens a lot in Silicon Valley,” she said.
Personal: Johnson lives in Redwood City, Calif., with her husband of 24 years, writer and former lawyer Brent Johnson, and her daughters Lola, 10, and Roxy, 13.
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