All great ideas need protecting.
That’s the premise behind intellectual property (IP) law, and the very reason why IP attorneys exist. It’s their job to ensure that an intangible asset is both protected from being copied and fully facilitated for productivity. And what asset is more intangible than sharing? Just ask Ben Lee, deputy general counsel for Airbnb, a company that happens to be one of the world’s largest sharers in the world.
Every day, Airbnb allows hosts to open their homes to guest arrivals, a number that’s reached roughly 150 million as of press time. Lee ensures that the hosts maintain the company’s stellar reputation, and that the guest arrivals find the sharing experience they were seeking when they booked the Airbnb product. So what could go wrong with sharing your home with out-of-town guests?
As with any new and novel concept, the answer, of course, is plenty. “We counsel all issues for product design, including regulatory issues, privacy, data protection, etc.,” Lee explains. “A typical day is looking in multiple directions.”
Lee heads a series of product-counseling teams, groups of lawyers who counsel the designers, engineers, and creatives who think-tank Airbnb’s products from concept to launch. These lawyers are often the conduits through which product development flows. Acting as both specialists (imparting the specifics of copyright law, for example) and generalists (contracts, torts, etc.), they vet issues that may arise within any given project, including preventing disasters before they get set in practice and setting safeguards around core considerations.
Lee helps oversee several modestly sized teams around the world, and each team has a different purpose, depending on where they are located. Regional groups coordinate corporate efforts within their larger geographical area (Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, and East Africa, for example). Local teams, on the other hand, manage product details, as those are affected by the unique country and culture. Each team then provides Lee with feedback and commentary about how Airbnb is functioning within their jurisdiction. Lee uses that information to resolve issues in a way that, as much as possible, marries the concept of opening one’s home to complete strangers with the culture of where it is operating.
From that perspective, Lee’s team is infinitely larger than just the company’s internal network. In his role as leader, Lee sees himself not as the head of a critical aspect of Airbnb’s legal organization, but rather as part of a support staff to the designers and engineers who maintain the existing product and those who are busy crafting new ones. His immediate team also maintains a strong connection with marketing to ensure that both departments are aligned in their efforts as products move forward.
“There’s a lot of strategic work to do, so I’ve sat down with the teams to set levels, evaluate where they are and where they should be, create to-do lists, and look for cleanups that need managing.”
“There’s a lot of strategic work to do, so I’ve sat down with the teams to set levels, evaluate where they are and where they should be, create to-do lists, and look for cleanups that need managing,” Lee explains.
While the work of his in-house teams keeps him occupied on a full-time basis, Lee also keeps his attention on the company’s bigger picture. As much as possible, he listens to the millions of people who use Airbnb products on a daily basis.
“I lead by serving the people I work with, by being a good partner to whoever needs the support,” he says. “As such, I’m available constantly to everyone, from the junior staff engineer to the top management strategists. And I keep my ears open so that I can hear from as many people as possible, including the Airbnb customer-facing staff. They have a valuable voice in how the product evolves, and I try to empower that community, too. Those end users have such an insight into how the product actually works. They are the ones who tell us how they define our product where they live.”
The capacity and willingness to be open to new ideas is part of what brought Lee to Airbnb. “I’m not that interested in the conventional way of doing things,” he says. “When I was at Google (2006–2010) and Twitter (2010–2016), it was figuring out creative, crazy solutions. I like looking for unconventional solutions against seemingly intractable challenges.”
Airbnb products offer a fair share of challenges. The original product—sharing one’s home with unknown but well-vetted guests—launched in 2008 in San Francisco and has since spread to more than 65,000 cities in more than 191 countries. Available rentals comprise everything from studio apartments to castles (there are nearly 3,000 of those available), and price points range from hostel-level to five-star, ultra-luxury status. Company servers that are constantly upgrading exhaustively review every step of each individual booking. Considering that there have been billions of connections made between hosts and guests (with billions more to come through the newly introduced product, Trips), the relatively small number of complaints demonstrates that those human and digital oversight mechanisms work well. They protect the fundamental asset of the company: a shared trust in the human race.
It’s not surprising to learn that trust is also key to Lee’s sense of community. The mission of Airbnb—creating a community through the sharing of resources—is one that resonates with his personal mission, too. He was attracted to the company’s vision of building a global community and his previous IP, IT, and Silicon Valley experiences allowed him to choose the people he wanted to work with. “That’s what brought me here,” he says. “Airbnb is an inspiring platform and a very inspiring place to work. It’s exciting to watch how the product issues out in the larger world.”
In that work, Lee shares his insights, imagination, and creative solutions with anyone involved in Airbnb’s activities. The newest product, Trips, takes home sharing up a level to a form of tour guiding, encouraging hosts to showcase sights and scenes unique to their location. The Trips product opens the population of Airbnb participants to vendors of services, each of which will add value to the primary product, but may also pose new challenges—legal or otherwise. Lee believes his teams are more than up to facing those challenges. Extending the successful initial product into new capacities is, after all, a great idea. And Lee is looking forward to both protecting it and facilitating its way into the greater Airbnb community—not to mention the global one.
We congratulate Ben Lee for his recognition by Modern Counsel. This is a well-deserved honor.
—Daralyn Durie, Partner