Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands: How Belinda Johnson Ended Up As COO of Airbnb
A fifth year associate quits her law firm job to go in-house and ends up gaining massively valuable skills that one of the world's hottest startups needed 15 years later
In 1996, Belinda Johnson was at a career crossroads. She was five years out of law school and working at Littler, a well-known Texas Biglaw firm. From the outside, her career was going well. But Johnson felt like something was … off.
After law school, I put on my power suit and worked at a series of law firms. By the time I was at my third in six years, it dawned on me that a traditional law job wasn’t for me. Source
The problem wasn’t necessarily the subject matter. Her problem was with law firm work generally. They offered “narrow specialization, monotonous cases, and mountains of endlessly proliferating paper documents that could not be taken out of the office.” Johnson wanted something more dynamic and interesting. As she recounts:
I was living in Dallas, and everyone was talking about this entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who was starting a streaming-content company that would later become Broadcast.com. We happened to work out at the same gym, so when I saw him there, I summoned my courage, went up to him, and said, “I would love to understand what you guys are doing and how I might help.” I was 29. It was a pretty bold move! Source
The startup didn’t need an in-house lawyer yet but they were looking for good people. Johnson was fascinated by the company because it was involved with this new thing called The Internet. She didn’t know exactly what she’d be doing at this startup, but she knew she wanted in.
“I fell in love with technology,” Johnson later said. “And I really liked the mentality of startups who have everything difficult, sometimes chaotic, but never boring.” When she told her friends and family that she was leaving Biglaw to join this startup called AudioNet (later renamed Broadcast.com) they all thought she had lost her mind.1 Why would she spend so many years to earn a law degree, get a high-paying job at a great firm, to walk away from it all? The lawyers at her firm were even more perplexed:
Colleagues from the law firm where I quit for this project asked: “Are you sure?” They thought I was crazy, because in fact the Internet then seemed to everyone just another crazy idea without a solid foundation. Source
Of course, none of that stopped Johnson. In 1996, she took the leap and joined the startup. Three years later, it was acquired for billions of dollars by Yahoo. But that’s not where the story ends.
Because being an early employee at a startup that gets a huge exit, was not how Johnson made her mark. To fully appreciate her legacy, we’ll need to discuss what happened after that acquisition, and how it helped her find Airbnb.