Growing Airbnb in APAC with Siew Kum Hong

In this interview, we had the privilege of interviewing Siew Kum Hong, a seasoned professional whose journey spans across diverse landscapes, with impactful roles at prominent organisations such as Rajah and Tann, Yahoo, Airbnb and more. Starting as a lawyer at R&T, he quickly transitioned to an in-house legal counsel, contributing to Yahoo! during its formative years and glory days.

Kum Hong’s journey took a defining turn with Airbnb, where he spent a decade driving the company’s APAC expansion as employee number 2, eventually culminating in his role as China COO with significant involvement in the China office. Today, Kum Hong is an Advisor to Airbnb, as well as the Board Member of GoZayaan, a travel tech startup.

*The responses provided here have been rephrased for brevity and clarity. For the exact answers and a comprehensive understanding, we strongly recommend watching the full video podcast or tuning into the audio podcast.

Q: What keeps you busy now after your decade-long journey at Airbnb?

A: I left Airbnb in 2022 after a decade, and the past year has been a valuable break. Currently, I spend about 25% of my time with my mom, who had health issues but is doing better now. Another 25% is dedicated to self-care and exercise, something I've grown to enjoy. The rest of my time involves reading, staying current, and engaging in angel investing and advising startups.

Q: How was the transition from legal to business leadership, especially leading Airbnb's China business during the challenging period of COVID-19?

A: The transition was challenging. In my initial years as a business leader, I don't think I was very good. It was a learning curve, and I was fortunate to have the trust and respect within Airbnb, providing me with room to learn. I had the opportunity to work with exceptional operators, learning from them. The experience of leading Airbnb's China business during COVID-19 was transformative, teaching me valuable lessons in speed, variety, and continuous learning.

Admittedly, my first year and a half as a business leader might have been a C minus. I recognized my shortcomings and had the humility to acknowledge that I didn't know everything. This mindset allowed me to be more open-minded, embracing a growth mindset. I learned from great operators within Airbnb and developed a habit of questioning everything, thinking through issues from first principles, which proved powerful over time.

Q: Can you share some of the challenges your team faced during Airbnb's growth in the APAC region, both on the legal and business sides?

A: Certainly. Firstly, Asia is incredibly diverse, not a single country or region. It encompasses many nations with distinct cultures, traditions, and economic stages. This diversity affects both legal and business aspects. On the legal side, there's the challenge of dealing with both common law and civil law systems. Being a common lawyer, I had to adapt quickly, especially when dealing with civil law systems like in Japan, Korea, and China. This required versatility and adaptability.

Q: With diverse teams in the APAC region, how did you bridge cultural nuances and lead effectively?

A: The approach was to start with the company's global values, providing a common foundation. On top of that, each office's unique local traditions and culture were embraced. The understanding that every office is unique, yet part of the global Airbnb identity, was crucial. While certain playbooks could be localized, the core expectations were consistent globally. Communication about this intentional approach was vital to help teams understand the balance between global consistency and local adaptation. It was acknowledged that not everyone might find this approach suitable, and that was okay as long as both sides acted in good faith.

Q: Can you share your experience as the COO of Airbnb China during the COVID period, especially managing the team remotely from Singapore?

A: During the COVID period, I took on the role of running the Airbnb China business from Singapore starting in June 2020. However, my connection with China goes back further. Between 2017 and 2018, I served as the interim head of China during a leadership transition. This earlier experience allowed me to build relationships and trust, making it feasible to manage the team remotely. While based in Singapore, I conducted operations over Zoom, which was challenging but proved to be doable.

Q: How did you adapt Airbnb's strategies for the Chinese market given its unique characteristics and competitive landscape?

A: In China, the online space operates differently, and competition is intense. Recognizing that we couldn't play the same game as local competitors, we implemented a strategic shift. This involved understanding Airbnb's strengths, devising a different strategy, and explaining it to the team. Adapting to local needs was crucial, and managing supply in China was notably different from other markets. While still part of the broader Airbnb framework, China operated somewhat independently to move faster in response to the rapid market changes.

Q: Were there specific product adaptations made for the Chinese market, and can you provide an example?

A: Yes, there was a unique product implemented at Airbnb China that involved monetization through host advertising, termed "host paid promos." Recognizing the professionalization of supply in China, we launched a paid promo product where hosts could advertise. The success of this product, driven by machine learning and models, led to a meaningful revenue stream. Although there was global interest, it remained specific to Airbnb China.

Q: What advice do you have for companies looking to expand into the APAC region, considering legal, regulatory, and market challenges?

A: For startups looking to expand, the imperative is to grow or die. While it's essential to cover legal bases, excessive caution that hampers growth is counterproductive. Some countries pose more regulatory challenges than others, but these often coincide with significant opportunities. Intentionality and sequencing are crucial. It's recommended for startups to select a second market first before tackling the ultimate goal, like the US, to gain experience in running a multi-country business.

Q: Any advice for startups on building products, considering your experiences in the tech sector?

A: Understanding the problem you're solving is paramount. It's natural to focus on solutions, but clarity on the problem to solve is key. Many resources, both free and paid, exist to help startups understand product management, and it's essential to leverage them. The universal theme is identifying and addressing the core problem effectively.

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