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Outlier’s Path

The Hard is What Makes It Great

Jess Lee enjoys telling tall tales about how much I love operationally hard businesses. It’s a statement that I’ve generally ignored, but reflected on recently while working on an internal assignment.

As an example, Airbnb is a hard business. It is a hospitality business where the company does not have full control of the guest experience. Hosts work on their own schedules rather than based on the demands of guests. Homeowners do not wake up every morning desirous of becoming Airbnb hosts. It is not easy to develop hosts into super-hosts. Did we mention that there are a number of regulatory barriers to increasing supply? To cap it off, Airbnb’s backend is a global payments company where you have to manage currency risks, which is a hard business in and of itself.

So what? Can you think of any good-to-great company that is not hard? It is hard to bring together an outlier team. It is hard for that team to come up with a novel and compelling insight. It is hard to turn that insight into a product or service offering and iterate that offering until it has a compelling value proposition. It is hard to turn that compelling value proposition into a unique one. It is hard to take all of those already hard ingredients and weave them into an economic engine that has a sustainable competitive advantage. It is hard to do all the above again and again, so the company can compound growth at scale.

From studying the rings of trees, scientists have learned that during the temperate and wet years, trees grow more width but those rings are weaker and softer. During the very cold or very hot and dry years, trees grow less width, but those rings are far stronger.  We have acknowledged that we had a hard year at our recent all-hands. Inflation, higher interest rates, and a possible recession are looming over us for 2023. We will likely have another hard year ahead. The upside is that these hard years is how we become stronger, figure out if we have a great culture, and discover if we are building enduring value.

We will be tested. If for any reason, you start to think that it just got too hard, remember what Tom Hanks playing Jimmy Dugan said in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great!