Surfing Disruption at Power Forward with Airbnb's Chip Conley

By Rosanne G. Dunkelberger
Photos by Kay Meyer

Airbnb’s Chip Conley took Tallahassee business leaders “surfing” into the future on Jan. 31 as the fifth speaker in the First Commerce Credit Union Power Forward Speaker Series, Tallahassee’s largest annual business event.

Conley created the second-largest boutique hotel chain in the world, Joie de Vivre, and then joined the executive team at Airbnb during five years of explosive growth. He remains with Airbnb as a Strategic Advisor. Conley has also written several bestselling business advice books featuring a psychological spin. Ever-eclectic, the 57-year old took up surfing a few years ago and said he found several similarities between the freewheeling sport and today’s business environment of change and disruption.

Likening disruption to waves — made bigger and rolling in faster than ever because of technology — Conley urged the crowd of more than 800 who filled Ruby Diamond Concert Hall to hop on a board and “hang 10.”

The first surfing/business analogy Conley told listeners was comparing storms to difficult times. “The best surfing is during storms,” he said. “Sometimes the greatest innovations tend to happen in some of the darkest of times.”

Surfers are not regimented by tee times, rules or dress codes, but rather a fellowship with unwritten rules, Conley related. Embrace what he called a “rebel spirit.”

Surfers also “need to understand what’s going on beneath the surface,” he said. Business leaders must be able to differentiate between a short-term fad and a long-term trend.

“The corporate graveyard is full of … boardrooms who didn’t learn how to surf,” he said, citing companies such as Borders, MySpace, Blockbuster, BlackBerry and Kodak as former behemoths that are either out of business or dramatically downsized after they were swamped by change.

Technology, Conley said, is able to boost a small idea into a global phenomenon almost instantaneously. He illustrated that point with a PowerPoint slide showing it took 75 years for the telephone to reach 100 million users, while the mobile phone was able to hit that mark in just 16 years. For Facebook, it took four years and six months to get to that reach, and Instagram, just two years and four months.

Even companies on the top of the business world right now are “constantly going out there and surfing again,” he said. Facebook expanded its offerings by acquiring Instagram and What’s App. Another example, he said, is Netflix: “About 10 years ago they disrupted themselves” and their stock took a hit when they switched from sending DVDs in the mail to streaming. Now Netflix is doing it again by venturing into original content.

After setting the stage with these stories, Conley shared an exercise to help attendees “discover the true essence of your business.” In it, two people in the company sit down and ask each other: “What business are you in?” They then go back and forth asking the same question five times, but the answer must be different every time. Using Airbnb as an example, he said the first answer was “We’re in the homesharing business,” which became “extended stay,” “turning strangers into friends” and “living like a local” until finally it was refined into the “belong anywhere” business.

Conley referred back to the exercise during the question-and-answer portion of the program when he was asked how a brick-and-mortar business could encourage people to shop locally. “Guilt won’t do it,” he said. Using an independent bookstore as an example, saying you’re just in the business of selling books is shortsighted. “Amazon is easier and less expensive” he said. But creating entertainment with readings, or supporting the local community by donating a portion of the profits is something Amazon can’t do. Ultimately, Conley said, that local bookseller might determine “we’re not in the bookselling business, we’re in the community-building business.”

Conley’s valuable insights offer takeaways like these to help our area business leaders think strategically and continue to Power Forward! 

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First Commerce realizes the power of small businesses as the backbone of our region’s economy and community. That’s why we created the Power Forward Speaker Series as just one way we support entrepreneurship by keeping our business leaders inspired. Power Forward quickly grew to become Tallahassee’s largest annual business event. Past speakers in the Power Forward Speaker Series have included NFL legend and entrepreneur Jim Kelly; Randi Zuckerberg from the Facebook startup team; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc.; and Barbara Corcoran of the entrepreneurial hit, “Shark Tank.” For more information about Power Forward, visit

past speakers at Power Forward


First Commerce Credit Union has proudly supported the communities we serve for 75 years. Headquartered in Tallahassee, First Commerce is a full-service financial institution currently serving more than 50,000 business and members in Northwest Florida and Southwest Georgia. First Commerce has 12 financial centers – eight in Tallahassee, one in Marianna, and one in Thomasville and two in Valdosta, Ga. First Commerce was named “Top Credit Union of the Year” for 2014 by the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) North Florida District Office. Business products and services include SBA 7a and 504 loans, commercial vehicle and equipment loans, real estate loans, lines of credit, credit cards, ACH origination, merchant & payroll services, payroll & employee expense reloadable cards, wire transfers, free business checking, interest-bearing business checking, community checking, online & mobile banking, BillPay, remote deposit, real-time text/email account alerts, CDs, IRAs, savings & money market accounts, and more. In addition, First Commerce offers a wide range of financial planning and investment services through our subsidiary, Six Pillars Financial Advisors, and commercial & personal insurance through First Commerce Insurance Agency. For more information, visit or call (850) 410-3559 or (850) 488-0035. First Commerce is federally insured by the NCUA and is an equal opportunity lender.