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How navigating Netflix’s DVD-to-streaming transition helped prepare Airbnb’s new CFO for surviving the pandemic

Courtesy of Airbnb

Taking on the CFO role at a Fortune 500 company requires substantial preparation. And Airbnb’s new finance chief has been battle tested.

Ellie Mertz, an 11-year veteran of the short-term rental company, began her tenure as CFO on March 1, succeeding Dave Stephenson, who filled that position beginning in 2019 and was since been promoted to the newly created role of chief business officer.

“There are a couple of things I love about the finance function,” Mertz told Fortune. “One is being able to have broad visibility over an organization and a familiarity across functions where you can be a thought-partner. Another thing I love is actually telling a story with numbers.”

Before joining Airbnb, Mertz served as vice president of finance at Netflix. During her seven years at the company, she held several financial planning and analysis (FP&A) leadership roles. When she first joined Airbnb in 2013, she was the head of global FP&A before being promoted to VP of finance. This CFO role is her first. She's also a board member at DoorDash and Faire.

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Mertz said she's long been drawn to the tech world. “I graduated from undergrad right at the beginning of the first internet bubble," she added, "and somewhat flocked to being part of that technology revolution."

And she certainly did her part to help Airbnb revolutionize short-term stays. Cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky said she effectively was his "right hand for nearly 11 years" and that “under her leadership, our company grew from adolescence to adulthood, with revenue growing over 100x.”

‘Knowing what you can control’

A recent McKinsey report points to five priorities for CFO hopefuls: a unique vision for the role, sponsorship, developing skills in relevant areas, taking professional risks to broaden one's experience, and engaging with the board.

Building a portfolio of diversified skills played a big part in preparing Mertz for the CFO role, she said, sharing two specific experiences in her career—one at Netflix, the other at Airbnb—that helped build the stamina necessary for a finance chief.

“This seems like a very dated example, but I joined Netflix back in the days when we just offered DVDs,” she said. The company in 2011 separated its DVD and streaming offerings, charging customers for each, creating an enormous backlash.

“It was received very poorly by consumers, and we lost about 70% of market cap in about three months,” Mertz recalled, saying she learned the importance of acting quickly and with purpose, while really getting back to the roots of what a company does well. That experience also set Mertz up to help Airbnb to navigate a world crisis in 2020. "When the pandemic hit, we lost 80% of our bookings overnight, started hemorrhaging cash, and there was really no end in sight in terms of what might happen," she said.

A big part of Airbnb staying above water came from being “extremely decisive,” Mertz continued. “I would say we were ahead of the game in terms of making sure we were managing across our stakeholders, and also managing the financials to ensure that we would survive to the end of the pandemic. I think our very successful IPO at the end of 2020 is a testament to how decisively we navigated that crisis.”

The major lesson, Mertz said, boiled down to “knowing what you can control and taking action versus being paralyzed by uncertainty that surrounds you."

Post-pandemic, people were ready to travel. Airbnb earned a spot on the Fortune 500 list in 2023 for the first time. In February, Airbnb reported $2.22 billion in revenue for Q4 2023, up 17% year over year, beating estimates, and with an adjusted net income of $489 million—the firm's most profitable fourth quarter ever.

Steadying the ship

Uncertain times that include sticky inflation, geopolitical conflicts, and upcoming presidential elections could actually provide opportunities for innovation for companies with a growth mindset. So what’s Mertz’s perspective?

“Part of the CFO's role is to steady the ship, no matter what the waters look like,” she said. And keeping the balance sheet steady is pivotal to ensure that you can "fight the next fight," she added.

Mertz stepped into the CFO role at a moment of transformation for Airbnb. “We've scaled dramatically,” she said. “If you look at our financials, last year, we delivered over $70 billion of booking value, and that virtually came from one product—accommodations.” Looking forward, the company is focusing on ways to leverage its brand, the marketplace, and the guest and host communities, with the goal of delivering more products and services.

On the guest side, there’s a newer product called Experiences, where you can take a cooking or a painting class, or do a tour, during your stay. For hosts, there’s a cohosting option where a local can offer customized support ranging from cleaning or welcoming guests to full-service property management.

“My priority is to work closely with Brian, and with David, in his new capacity as a chief business officer, to enable that transformation," Mertz said.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com