Hello and welcome to Community Tea, a new series where I dive deep into all aspects of community building with community professionals across all industries.
I recently talked with Katherine Morillo, a Community Engagement Manager at Airbnb, where she is responsible for growing Airbnb’s community members and nurturing relationships with brands and other stakeholders. I sat down with Katherine to talk about all things community and I was surprised and delighted by the twists and turns in our conversation. By the end one clear theme emerged: not only are your f*ckups important to growing as a community manager, but they can also be a rallying point for belonging and camaraderie in your community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, you’re working with Airbnb now. How did you come about that role?
In 2019, I was hired as a contractor to help with Airbnb Experiences. I had to produce a series of events all over the Americas [North, Central, and South America] to gather hosts and do workshops, presentations, networking—regular community events. Everything was going really well. I organized events in Cuba, Hawaii, Argentina, and Canada, which were always fabulous. I have a bachelor’s degree in advertising and marketing, so I’ve always been around events and I’m always talking to stakeholders, but never really in the sense like, “Let’s focus on creating connections.”
Airbnb Experiences community events in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Miami (Images by Katherine Morillo)
You created an experience for people who create experiences.
Yes, and it was wonderful. And now, I work with Airbnb Homes, which differs from Airbnb Experiences.
Where do you feel your work with community began?
It started way before my current job. In one of my early jobs, I had to plan research surveys and I felt that to do that, I had to build a rapport with the people in the focus groups. So I strategized on how to make sure that these people would want to actually participate and make them feel that they are part of something important. And when I started working on social media, I noticed that I could directly connect with people and talk about other things, not just the brand. I then moved on to this blockchain startup, where I did marketing and advertising. Part of my strategy was to gather people and bring them to our office so I started organizing blockchain meetups. And we were all like, “Let’s try to understand this technology. Let’s figure it out together.” And that helped create a community of users that helped us shape the brand.
And that was your first taste of community.
Back then, I didn’t know that it was like a community. I was operating under the mindset of a marketing coordinator. But when I worked with Airbnb, I started asking questions like, “What is a community? Like, am I managing a building?” But I realized that I’d been doing this work this whole time.
That resonates with me. The language around community was hijacked by marketing and social media. We didn’t even have the language we have now two years ago.
I’m a marketing person so that’s what I’ve always thought. Community has so many marketing principles so I had to ask, “Where’s the line here?”
Airbnb team in Cuba (Image by Katherine Morillo)
You grew up in Puerto Rico. What’s a defining memory that you have about community?
I worked for a while in this co-working space. So, there were many people going in and out. We had our own floor, but we were still part of that group coming in and out and they always organized events in this storage room. They had what was called a “F*ckup Night” where they shared stories of failures, sometimes horrible, sometimes it was funny. Everyone in the circle had to do a presentation, and it was nice to hear those stories because it was still early in my professional career. Some of them were high-level executives and I thought, “Oh my God, this successful person f*cked up a lot.” Just hearing about their failures really shaped me.
The real value of community is being able to meet other people and relate to their vulnerability. And what did you think about its design?
I loved how it was so black and white. Like, you were there to share your f*ckups. And a community was born out of that. It was also brilliant from a branding perspective. Their thing is we live life without filters, and you do that by sharing stories of failure.
Speaking of f*ckups. What’s a f*ckup you’ve made that you’re willing to share with us?
In managing communities, I’ve learned that there isn’t much room for mistakes.
And when community managers f*ck up, it tends to be very loud.
Yeah, there’s no subtle way to f*ck up as a community manager. It becomes news everywhere. Like I’ve learned not to share confidential information via email because anyone can share what you just wrote. Once, a person even took a screenshot of an email that wasn’t supposed to be public. And they posted it on Facebook. But if I do have to share something confidential, I have to specify what they can share with others and reiterate why so and so is confidential. They don’t necessarily understand the complexities of sharing confidential information so I just learned to be honest.
Airbnb Experiences community event in Buenos Aires (Image by Katherine Morillo)
And how do you take care of yourself as a community manager?
I always tell my community members my hours so they know my boundaries. But I still find myself working outside of those hours; it just can’t be helped. I also try to get as much sleep as I can, and even now it isn’t enough. I also like running, walking, and yoga—basically, small things that make me feel good and not guilty.
That’s a perfect way of putting it. Do you have any advice for anyone who is hoping to get more into community work?
I would say connect with other community managers, like joining a club or a community of community managers. I joined one and it was so helpful and liberating to be able to connect with other community people. Because as an emerging industry, there are not a lot of resources for us to find the right answers or support. You have so many challenges and many people questioning your work. So, it’s important to find a support system that can talk the same language and understand the same languages.
Are there other events or places where you meet up with other community managers that you recommend?
I’ve never been to CMX in person, but I’ve been to their virtual summit and it’s a great place to learn and connect with so many great people. And from following other community managers, you get access to all these things that are advertised online on Eventbrite and I think some of the most amazing connections come from those spontaneous events.
Many thanks to Katherine Morillo for sharing her experiences and knowledge with us.
Read more from Katherine Morillo on Medium.