Airbnb COO leaving company as it navigates regulatory pressure, seeks to go public next year

Real Estate

Airbnb is losing a key executive ahead of its expected public debut in 2020.

Belinda Johnson announced Friday, in an email to staff viewed by CNBC, that she is stepping down as COO on March 1. In the email, Johnson said that she needs to prioritize more time to spend with her family.

“It starts with one question I’m asked at every fireside chat, panel or media interview: ‘How do you balance a successful career with being a mom?’ Sometimes it’s the first question, sometimes it’s the last, but it is always asked,” Johnson wrote in the email.

Johnson, 52, isn’t leaving Airbnb entirely. She will join the company’s board of directors as its ninth member and third woman.

But it’s a big loss for the home-sharing start-up. Johnson has been at the company since 2011, and has been called “Airbnb’s Sheryl Sandberg,” a reference to the Facebook COO who works closely with CEO Mark Zuckerberg. She was Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky’s first executive hire.

Chesky credits Johnson with helping the company see through the noise and working with regulators.

“Growing up, I just assumed that when people don’t like you, you should avoid them. Belinda taught me better. She told me that we should meet the people that don’t like us. As she said, ‘It’s hard to hate up close,'” Chesky said in a statement.

For eight years, Johnson has served as Chesky’s de facto No. 2. Before taking the COO role, she served as chief business affairs and legal officer and steered Airbnb through regulatory and legal turbulence. In large part due to her, Airbnb has taken a different approach with regulators than other gig economy start-ups such as Uber — one of collaboration.

As a result, Airbnb has positioned itself as a friendlier disruptor and has worked with regulators on policy. Still, the company is facing a slew of regulatory disputes over taxes and rental rules with a number of city governments, including New York. Most recently, Airbnb lost a ballot measure in Jersey City, New Jersey, that would regulate home-sharing companies.

“Once Belinda transitions out of her role as COO, she will join our Board of Directors. Though we intend for her to serve on our board for a long time to come, I have told Belinda that she can return to Airbnb as an executive if she ever wishes to do so,” Chesky said in his statement.

Airbnb exec Belinda Johnson speaks onstage during Universal Belonging at The Theatre at Ace Hotel during Airbnb Open – Day 2 on November 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

Johnson’s email to staff touches on the challenge that many working parents face. She wrote that her job often consumed too much of her time and caused her to miss out on key moments with her children.

“The work was all-consuming … to some this might sound awful, but it wasn’t. The work and what we were accomplishing made me a happier person and thus, I decided, a better mom and wife,” she wrote.

But she also wrote that all-consuming work had a downside when it came to her family. She tells a story in the letter about sitting recently with her daughter at the dinner table as she talked about college applications.

“As I was watching her I realized, she’s not a child anymore, she’s a young woman,” Johnson wrote. “When did that happen? I can never get back the missed birthday parties and the school plays where my husband saved a seat that remained empty, and the time a dragonfly landed on her cheek and didn’t fly away. I’ve seen a picture of it, but I wasn’t there. She will be gone to college in less than a year. Her younger sibling is fourteen. This will happen again in three years. I want those years. I want to be there when the dragonfly lands on her cheek and doesn’t fly away. That is the urgency I feel now when I wake up in the middle of the night.”

Airbnb is shaping up to be the most anticipated public debut of next year. Unlike high-profile debuts this year of money-losing unicorns Uber and Lyft, which have struggled in public markets, Airbnb says it has been EBITDA profitable for the last two years.

A source familiar with the company’s finances said that Airbnb has been cumulatively free cash flow positive since its inception more than a decade ago and had over $3 billion in cash on its balance sheet as of last month.

Airbnb was last privately valued at $31 billion, according to Pitchbook. Earlier this week, Chesky told CNBC’s Jim Cramer that Airbnb could choose a direct listing over an IPO in 2020.

Airbnb said it will not replace Johnson in her position. An Airbnb spokesperson said the company is conducting an external search for a vice president of operations.

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