When asked what inspires his work, cofounder and CTO of Airbnb Nathan Blecharczyk says, “creating experiences that make the user happy.” We got a chance to hear him tell the remarkable story of Airbnb at Rakuten’s annual SOY (“Shop of the Year”) Trip seminar. This post is based on his presentation.
Pinching pennies turns into a life-changing experience
It was the San Francisco World Congress design conference in 2007. Guests from all over the world were in attendance, and the large influx of people made finding a hotel room in the city all but impossible.
My fellow cofounders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky then saw an opportunity: What if they offered up their living room as temporary quarters for conference goers? They could set up airbeds, provide breakfast, charge guests a fraction of what the hotels were charging, and save some money on rent. It was a win-win for everyone.
Three guests took them up on their offer, including a father from Utah, a woman from LA and a young man from India. But what started as a creative way to save money eventually turned into a lasting friendship between the guests and the hosts.
Still giddy from the experience, Joe and Brian decided to pursue their idea further – they knew they had struck on something brilliant. They brought me on as the final cofounder, and the trio was complete.
A Slow Start
Since the SF design conference had sparked the initial demand, we began by targeting other conferences and festivals around the US. But we soon found that we couldn’t always depend on large events to help spread the word. Airbnb gained little traction that first year.
Then a user request for a place in New York City caused us to switch gears. By choosing to focus our efforts on a big city where housing is always in high demand, we were able to start growing our user base.
Simple and Safe
We actually traveled to New York four times that year to meet with all 50 users. We took them out for drinks, listened to their stories and suggestions, and made changes to Airbnb services based on their experiences.
Each location had to have attractive photos and affordable pricing so that they would be more appealing to renters. An online payment system was added to eliminate any awkward payment situations that could arise at the end of a stay. We also offered free cancellations up to the first day, and a $1,000,000 insurance policy in case anything went wrong.
Polar opposites with a single vision
At one point, we each took a personality test and discovered that we were drastically different from one another. Our values and approach to solving problems did not align at all.
In fact, if you were to place our personalities on a pie chart, there would be a 120-degree difference between them. But because the three of us were united around a single vision, we were able to work towards the right decisions and arrive at the best possible outcome.
The Biggest Payoff
Airbnb is far more than just a cheap alternative to hotels. By choosing to stay with a host at a real home rather than a stuffy hotel in a tourist area, travelers can experience new places in a more authentic and unique manner.
They get tips on the best areas to visit, including favorite restaurants, cafes, or bars. And just like Joe did in the very first Airbnb experience, hosts will often cook breakfast for their guests.
What makes me the happiest is when we hear about the relationships that have blossomed from an Airbnb experience. Every time I hear these stories, I think back to Joe’s living room in 2007. We only hope that our users can experience the same kind of happiness. That is the end goal of Airbnb and it takes precedence over simply making money.
Startups are like marathons – pace is everything
Airbnb has hosted over 10 million guests at over 500,000 properties in 192 countries. The locations range from spare bedrooms, to private tree houses, to entire castles. Over 80% of the locations are homes being regularly lived in. And we keep growing.
It’s been rocky, and we faced hurdles along the way, but we had a long-term vision. We paced ourselves, stayed focused on the end goal, and we never gave up.