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Airbnb CFO Laurence Tosi Shares How to Think Like a Founder

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Alumnus Laurence Tosi, chief financial officer of Airbnb, spoke at Georgetown University on Wednesday, Feb. 8., about the changing environment for business and what distinguishes the best companies from the average companies. Tosi spoke with Reena Aggarwal, Robert E. McDonough Professor of Business Administration, director of the Georgetown Center for Financial Markets and Policy, and vice provost for faculty, in an event sponsored by the center and the McDonough School of Business Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series.

The next business decade will change history, Tosi said. Technology is enabling micro-entrepreneurship by increasing efficiency. Business students are gravitating towards companies and industries that align with their values. And innovation is occurring at a rapid speed.

How should students adapt in response to the changing industry?

“Think like a founder in everything you do, no matter what you do, no matter what industry you go into,” Tosi advised. “What does that mean? Embrace the pace. Learn [and] change all the time. Read. Listen… Assume nothing stays the same… Think in quantum not in increments. Don’t think about what the next little change is; think about the next 10 years... And also be bold. Be different. Think about things not in the same way. Don’t duplicate what other people are doing.”

In 2008, three students living in San Francisco who were struggling to make their rent thought like founders and created Airbnb. After blowing up air mattresses, the trio built a website and listed the spaces online. Three years later, Tosi said, 800,000 guests had stayed with Airbnb over 1.9 million nights. 

“By 2016, those three airbeds had become the largest hospitality network in human creation,” Tosi said.

Tosi also discussed the core qualities that all great businesses share. The most important thing, he said, is that they are product-focused. Tosi said that companies also should have a culture of innovation, be relentlessly opportunistic, have growing customers, and be able to identify adjacent markets.

He also stressed the importance of balancing being a great company and being a great place to work.

“Look at what [employers] are doing for their employees, look at how they’re investing in you as people, look at what they’re going to do to help you innovate and learn… If you have great people and it’s a great place to work, they’ll make it a great company,” Tosi said.

“But if you don’t have great people and it’s not a great place to work, they’ll eventually betray you. That’s what happens when your people start to leave. But if you’re a great company and people don’t want to work there, the same thing happens. So you need to keep the two in balance.”

Aggarwal asked Tosi, who earned his undergraduate degree, MBA, and J.D. from Georgetown University, about the value of a Georgetown education to his career.

“Here at Georgetown, everybody is equal. There are no factions and things like that. You can work your way through over time,” Tosi said. “If you can keep that in your spirit as you build teams and do things over time, you’ll be the best person in the group to work with [and] you’ll also be the most enlightened.”

Before joining Airbnb, Tosi served as chief financial officer and managing director at the Blackstone Group. Earlier in his career, he worked as the chief operating officer for the Global Markets and Investment Bank Group of Merrill Lynch & Co.

 

— Lindsay Reilly

Global