There have been many articles, books, and references written with the “how tos” of entrepreneurship. In most of them, the advice is pretty standard; many will say you need to gain experience in a field before you can start a business. Others advise you to always stay in control, be a boss, not a friend. “It’s not personal, it’s business,” many will say. But award winning entrepreneur Chip Conley threw out the rule book, and wrote a few books of his own. In 1987, at the age of 26 with a fresh MBA from Stanford under his belt, Conley started his own hospitality company, Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life) which quickly expanded into a $350 million hotel chain of over thirty-five locations with over three thousand employees.
Social Media’s Effect on Chip’s Rebellious Side
In 2009, Chip Conley shared his story of how social media, Facebook to be exact, broadcast his rebellious nature for the world to see. At the time, Conley was running Joie de Vivre, and had been its CEO for 22 years. He had already built the empire into a $230 million hotel chain and it was still growing. He just had one little issue; instead of being like most other people in business and maintaining an extremely professional Facebook image, Chip Conley was just being himself. Chip shares some of that story with CBS news.
Chip had attended a week-long, anything goes festival called the ‘Burning Man.’ He emphasizes that it is not the normal CEO getaway, which is likely the whole point, and the whole problem. His mission statement for the hotel chain “Joie de Vivre” is expressed in its name..it is to “celebrate the joy of life” Chip had implemented that celebration into each unique location which he had built. And that celebration was exactly what he was experiencing at ‘The Burning Man.’ Chip points out that he had attended the festival two other times within ten years, but with the absence of social media, it had never been a problem. This time, however, it was different. This time, Chip posted pictures of himself at the festival on his Facebook account. He explains,
“I accepted pretty much anyone who “friended” me, including plenty of employees, and gradually I began posting the usual Facebook fodder — links to articles, quick takes on books, emotional missives. My profile picture — a business-casual blazer-and-collared-shirt look — was uploaded by my PR team as well. I swapped it out in favor of a shirtless shot of me in a parking lot at Burning Man. I’m just not a blazer kind of guy. I consider myself a rebel. My first book —The Rebel Rules: Daring to Be Yourself in Business — preaches the value of authenticity in business, of being true to yourself. So a few pictures on my Facebook page that show me having a good time? I honestly didn’t give it a second thought.”
Chip soon realized just how much thought others gave to his rebel persona, however, when he discovered that four of the companies cultural ambassadors had fielded complaints which came from young staff members. Those staffers had apparently (unbeknownst to Chip) looked up to him as a Father figure, and were appalled to see him in a tutu. They were also a bit concerned when Chip turned to Twitter to share his heartbreak over the end of his eight year long relationship. Chip’s “be yourself” approach to life seemed inappropriate to the word of CEOs and employees. His reaction to those who suggested he take the pictures down?
“Screw that. People who don’t like it can go work at Marriott.”
Although Conley admits that he can understand the point which his PR people are trying to make, he maintains,
“What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company? Sometimes it’s straightforward — employees can’t, for example, write about trade secrets — but other times, it’s not. What if pictures emerge of a desk host drinking from a beer bong at a football game, or decked out in an S&M getup at an underground club? I’d have no problem with that, although I know plenty of CEOs who would. To me, that’s an employee’s private life. Take it a step farther — the employee is shown stealing municipal signs, for instance — and I would have a problem with it. Even worse would be if that employee is wearing a Joie de Vivre shirt. In other words, it’s a case-by-case basis.
So as for a double standard, I don’t buy it. I do think it’s important that companies have a social media policy, and I don’t think I violated the one my company just rolled out. Should a CEO be held to a different standard? Let me know what you think is right.”(CBS news 2009)
From Seedy “No Tell Motel” to Hotel of the Stars
In 1987, Chip Conley had absolutely no experience in the hospitality industry, but that did not stop the 26 year old, fresh out of college, from chasing his dreams. After becoming disillusioned with the real estate market in the corporate world, he managed to raise one million dollars to purchase a 1950s seedy “pay by the hour” Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, California. Despite the fact that everyone told him he was crazy to buy the location, ever the rebel, he refused to listen to the advice which urged him to take things easy, to cut back. And despite the entrepreneurship mantra, “location, location, location,” he continually purchased low-budget hotels in questionable areas and turned them into luxury getaways.
Conley soon turned the Phoenix into the world-known ‘Miss Pearl’s Jam House restaurant, a place luxurious enough for such rock ‘n rollers as Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Depp, and David Bowie. Conley modeled the hotel after ‘Rolling Stone Magazine’ and targeted rock bands, musicians, and movie-makers by offering free massages to the tour managers.
The rebel entrepreneur quickly won the support of many investors, who helped him to purchase several lower-budget buildings and turn them into boutique hotels. Each one of his new locations focused on the various personalities, interests, and lifestyles of the guests which would be staying there. Ideas such as new age wellness, men’s health, romance novels, luxury camping, and more were utilized into unique hotels which cater to individual fantasies and needs. Within two decades, Conley’s idea had spread into a huge chain of hotels, restaurants, and spas. Guests are invited to experience an “identity refreshment” in any one of these locations…each with its own unique theme to bring every guest their perfect experience.
The Merge to Become Commune Hotels & Resorts
Joie de Vivre was soon the largest boutique hotel chain in California, and the second largest in the world. In 2010, Geolo Capital, the same private equity firm which was founded by Hyatt Hotel heir John Pritzker, purchased a majority stake in Joie de Vivre along with a $150 million fund to acquire additional hotels. Plans to purchase another $300 million to $500 million in hotels were also included in the agreement. Joie de Vivre announced in September of that year that the new CEO would be Gary M Beasley, a partner at Geolo Capital. At that time, Chip Conley became the executive chairman and chief creative officer. In 2011, Market Matrix named the hotel collection Number 1 in customer service, beating out the Hilton, Westin, Hyatt, Marriott, Peninsula, Kimpton, and Sheraton hotel chains. That same year, Joie de Vivre and Thompson Hotels merged and became Commune Hotels & Resorts. Conley is still involved as a strategic adviser and retains an equity stake in the company.
Chip Conley has also written several books, among them are “PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.” , “Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success,” , “ Marketing That Matters: 10 Practices to Profit Your Business and Change the World” ,and “The Rebel Rules: Daring to be Yourself in Business.” After serving as the CEO of Joie de Vivre for 24 years, he is now the Strategic Adviser, and a very successful author and international speaker. He has given speeches for such companies as Google, TED, and Pixar, and was honored with the coveted ISHC Pioneer Award, the highest accolade to the American hospitality industry. Conley was named ‘Most Innovative CEO by the ‘San Francisco Business Times.’ Conley created the San Francisco Hotel Hero Awards, and also founded the Annual Celebrity Pool Todd event that has raised millions of dollars for inner-city youth programs which exist in the area where his first hotel was launched.