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In the first of a new series exploring the value of entrepreneurial experience, IIE’s Jeff Skinner talks to Airbnb’s Abhishek Garodia
Abhishek Garodia founded PlayEnable, an ecommerce platform connecting fitness enthusiasts with activity providers, in March 2012. He launched it as a minimum viable product (MVP) within London Business School’s incubator and then iterated using active feedback from sports facilities and consumers.
Three and a half years later he moved on to a job at Airbnb, where he is now the business development lead for global partnerships. We caught up with Garodia to discover how his start-up experience gave him the edge when it came to landing a great in-house role.
“The incubator exposed me to a great network,” he says. “I went to a lot of speaker sessions and met a lot of smart entrepreneurs from various sectors as well as investors, many of whom were interested in helping or getting involved.
My time at PlayEnable gave me a very deep appreciation for sales and business development - I really enjoyed the feeling of meeting potential customers and closing deals. When it was time to move on, I knew I wanted to stay in tech and so applied to roles like that because I’d be able to convert my experience into an offer.”
“My founder experience was a really big differentiator at the interview stage with Airbnb because, like PlayEnable, Airbnb is also a two-sided marketplace and relies on similar supply-and-demand dynamics.”
Being an entrepreneur helped Garodia ace case-centric interviews. “They ask you certain questions about your approach to various situations, such as how I would approach partnership X” or “How I would close a deal”. I was able to draw on a wealth of experience from all the successes and failures I’d had in my intense few years at my start-up.”
Often, he says, interviewers were less interested in the details of the partnerships and more interested in his approach when things didn’t go as originally envisaged – “which happens very often”. He describes his approach to partnerships as “salesy” and agile, being able to embrace the way the partnership team operates in the moment. “I adopted more of a sales and build approach,” he explains.
Like many of the candidates he was competing against in interviews, Garodia had an MBA. But his time with PlayEnable was viewed as an asset, giving him an edge over rivals who had just finished their masters but had no little real-world experience. “I don’t think I’d have got the offer from Airbnb if I hadn’t created PlayEnable,” he claims.
“It really counted. There are quite a few of us at Airbnb who have run businesses in the past. People really tended to focus on what I’d learnt – and they were interested in what I was saying. The interviews went on a lot longer than normal because it was more of a discussion than the usual boring one of asking questions from a checklist.”
So there was a resonance with the people who were interviewing him? “Yes, exactly. I didn’t have to manufacture stories, just come up with something. I had an answer for every situation that they put to me.
Once in the role, he applied lessons he’d learnt with his start-up. Firstly, he says, having had very limited resources (he put £25,000 of his own money into the business and gained another £25,000 of funding), he knew the importance of focusing his energy on the right things.
Secondly, he focused hard on making sure he had a large enough pipeline of strategic partners, and on KPIs. “It’s something I wish I had done more in PlayEnable but at least I understood how important it was. It’s really helped me prioritise. Any tech company expects you to be resourceful. I always try to find a way to solve the problem. The aim is always to keep going rather than getting stuck.
“Having fewer, very focused KPIs that are linked to the success of the business is essential. No matter what the discussion is, I go back to, ‘How is this going to help the overall KPI?’ – if it’s not, let’s not prioritise it right now.”
Thirdly, he could sometimes see the value in deals where others didn’t. As a single-loan entrepreneur he had constructed his own value chain through partnerships, which has proved invaluable. “One of the key things I learned at PlayEnable was how to figure out who the best person is to speak to and how to get to them. This is something I have to do at Airbnb now – how to get to the right people is critical.”
In his role at Airbnb the partners are at least willing to talk to him, whereas with PlayEnable that wasn’t the case. “I had to send out 30 to 40 emails before someone would have a coffee. Some of my other friends in business development who’ve not had this experience tend to give up after the third or fourth attempt whereas I feel I’m a lot more persistent. I change either my pitch, my offer, approach them in the right place at the right time. I believe you can pretty much win everything.”
Fourth, he developed tenacity and resilience. “I was on my own, out in the field, with nobody else to refer to – it was a very steep learning curve for me. I have a lot of respect for sales now, any external-facing goals: reaching out to these small studios, understanding their frustrations and concerns and bringing that back into the product, was valuable.
“What I brought to Airbnb was that really understanding the partner matters. Everybody has their own concern. I’ve become more empathetic – I try to understand how things look by standing in other people’s shoes. I’m also used to dealing with ambiguity, you never know what the partner is looking for. I always set expectations early to give them an idea of what they can expect.”
Another advantage has been that he doesn’t shy away from accountability. When you’re running a start-up you can’t just find excuses for your poor performance or pass the buck to someone else. “I’m very comfortable with accountability and I’ve also learned to be attuned to what might go wrong, to make sure the worst doesn’t happen or at least try to de-risk myself.”
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