This is an excerpt from Empower: How to Co-Create the Future. The full 200+ page book is available by donation!

“People join cults not to conform but to become more individual”

-Douglas Atkin

excerpt from book

David Passiak: We met years ago in New York when I reached out after reading your book The Culting of Brands, which looked at the cult-like followings of brands such as Apple, Ben & Jerrys, and Harley Davidson. Research for that book laid the foundation for your work in Meetup and Airbnb, and building movements that reached millions of people.

The Culting of Brands explored two questions: Why people have this cult-like commitment or loyalty, and what do you have to do to get that level of commitment or engagement? Can you tell us some of the lessons learned from your research that might apply to creating any type of community or community-related brand?

Douglas Atkin: The key lesson for all communities is what I call the great cult paradox, which is people join cults not to conform but to become more individual. Most people think the opposite is true—that people join because they’re psychologically flawed or socially inept. This is due to the media’s portrayal of cults (which is generally destructive). Most members of cults and cult-like organisations join for the same reasons that we join anything.

As we grow up and become individuals, we realize that to get on in the world you have to shave the rough edges off of you, your identity, just to get on at school, not to be bullied, to form groups of friends, get on with your family, at work, etc. This doesn’t mean that your individuality completely disappears, but rather that you compromise in a way to fit in, unless you can find a group of people who share the same differences you have.

Basically, what cults say is, “Hey, Douglas, you’re different. We’re different in the same way. Come and join us.”

David Passiak: You mention the Marines and corporate cults. How does the loyalty, sense of belonging and purpose, identity formation through differences etc. relate to building community in the workplace?

Douglas Atkin: People say when you don’t feel at home somewhere in your job, you edit yourself because you don’t feel secure or safe enough to express yourself fully. It’s normally only with your closest friends or members of your family that you can do that, unless you’re lucky enough to find a company, or a church, or Meetup group, or whatever it is that makes you say “A-ha! I’ve finally found where I feel at home.” What that basically means is I feel psychologically safe and secure enough to be myself like I normally am only at home.

At Airbnb, we have the Belong Here project. This includes the “Belong Anywhere” vision for our community, which is our tagline and also a collective vision for the world we want to create. Belong Here applies the same vision for employees. Brian Chesky, our co-founder and CEO, wrote an essay that was widely shared on social media titled “Don’t fuck up the culture” on the advice Airbnb’s investors gave him. Culture is so important as you grow. Everyone needs to belong.

DOUGLAS ATKIN is Global Head of Community at Airbnb; Co-Founder and Board Chair of, a Global Movement for the Sharing Economy; Founder of the glueproject, a blog and venture about social glue; and Board Member of, the world’s largest LGBT movement. Previously, he was Co-Founder of Purpose, an organization that mobilizes millions for social change, and Partner and Chief Community Officer at Meetup—the world’s largest network of communities.

Douglas is also a former brand strategist and partner at leading NY and London agencies and the author of The Culting of Brands: How to Turn Customers into True Believers, a book about how to build cult-like community around almost anything. He lives in San Francisco with his partner, Matthew, and two beagles.