Industrial designer turned multi-billionaire; Airbnb co-founder, Joe Gebbia, and the one revolutionizing idea that changed the hospitality business forever.
I have stayed in Airbnb units all over the world. Whether it was a mountain villa in Montepertuso, an Italian fishing village, a tiny apartment decorated with library books and vinyl records in the outskirts of Paris, or a hip studio that smelled of incense in New York City; I felt the comfort, the warmth, and the belonging of home in every single space.
Ever since discovering Airbnb, my desire to discover the world amplified. I developed both exponential gratitude, and minor exasperation, to this obsession all because of the variety of unique homes available to me with a single click of a button through Airbnb.
The sense of belonging to the world and being part of a community of hosts and guests that bestow trust and basic human needs, such as shelter and comfort to one another, was something truly new to me. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with this strong sentiment.
Over 300 million people all around the globe have surrendered to the phenomena that completely disrupted the hospitality and travel industry with its revolutionary and open-minded, (or shall we say ‘open-door’) concept. Today, Airbnb operates in over 65,000 cities in 190+ countries worldwide.
We sat down with co-founder, and now Chief Product Officer, Joe Gebbia, and asked him a few questions about the inspiration, the journey, and the significance of Airbnb today.
Joe, were you always entrepreneurial?
Yes! As a kid, I sold candy bars at my sister’s swim meet, started a lawn mowing business, and redesigned (and sold) my high school senior class t-shirts. This was the time of the first dot com boom, so I taught myself to design websites in my free time. In college, I started my first business, CritBuns, to explore what it takes to bring a product to market, and after I graduated, I launched my first internet company; a marketplace to help architects, designers, and creatives source eco-friendly materials. Each of these experiences taught me key lessons that I brought to starting, and building, Airbnb.
How did Airbnb start exactly?
Back in 2007, Brian Chesky and I were living in San Francisco- we were working in design, and one day we got a letter from our landlord. He was raising our rent. We knew we couldn’t afford it, so either we had to find a way to come up with the money or move. Now at the time, there was a major conference coming to town, the Industrial Designer’s Society of America (IDSA), and when I noticed that the hotels were completely sold out, I saw an opportunity. What if we blew up some air mattresses and hosted a few conference-goers right here in our apartment?
So, your home was technically the first to test the Airbnb concept?
Yes, we built a quick website and got coverage on design blogs. Emails began to arrive from around the world. We chose three guests and became the first “Airbed and Breakfast” hosts. What we originally thought would be a way to make rent, turned into an incredibly meaningful experience where we made new friends, shared meals and adventures, and started what would eventually become Airbnb.
Can you give us a sense of the scale and size of the business – are there still new markets and countries to conquer?
On New Year’s Eve 2017, there were over 2.5 million people using our service on the same night, in over 120 countries. There are billions of homes on the planet, and we’ve listed only 4.5 million of them. There are plenty of hosts we’ve yet to meet.
Let’s talk about increasing regulation. Is it a concern?
Anytime a new idea enters the world it’s usually met with some resistance. It’s natural. The 20th century is full of examples: the VCR, the ATM, the automobile. All these eventually became commonplace but they started out with controversy. Laws were passed to ban them. Eventually, as the enormous value of these conveniences became clear (a car is more efficient than a horse and buggy), people voted with their feet…and wallets, and policy makers adapted accordingly.
What are your ambitions for the business?
Housing is just one piece of a bigger story that we want to offer to help our guests. We believe that companies in the 21st century have a responsibility to give back more than grants. We have an obligation to take what we’re good at, go out into the world and directly solve for problems.
I have the privilege of overseeing the division that that created OpenHomes, a way for Airbnb to provide shelter to those in the greatest need. We take the same technology that makes it easy to book a vacation and use it to match a displaced person with someone offering to host them. Think after Hawaii volcanoes, Mexico earthquake or family fleeing war violence. The number of generous hosts now exceeds 20,000 worldwide.
Having completely revolutionized the hospitality industry – are you thinking of bringing the same approach into other fields?
We have long desired to make travel easy and magical. The average vacation takes 30 hours to plan and uses 12 services. Why? What happens if we imbue our values of authentic travel, great design, and community first approach into other areas of a trip? Imagine discovering where you can go, how to get there, and what to do offered conveniently in one place, through our app.
The Airbnb’s ‘belong anywhere’ has become a universal symbol of global freedom and mobility. How can you describe this notion?
Through Airbnb, we are now able to go places with the aim to understand and be changed — get out of our comfort zone, immerse in a different community, and get lost in the neighborhoods of the world.
What personal experiences have impacted you to become an advocate of building, and belonging to, this global community?
I’ll never forget standing in the mud hut of a Burundi woman in a refugee camp in Rwanda. This woman, holding her toddler in one arm, and the hand of her 3-year-old in the other, told me her story of fleeing violence in her homeland, walking for weeks to make it to the dusty, makeshift hut she now called home. She said it was the first time in a long time she’d been able to fall asleep at night and feel safe.
When you hear stories like this — people struggling for the basic human right to fall asleep at night feeling safe — you feel compelled to help. In that same refugee camp, I learned about the systemic problems created by lack of access to education by women and girls. It inspired me to get involved in the Malala Fund, where I now sit on the leadership council, advocating for girls’ education globally.
Airbnb has become an international phenomenon- how do you think this will help your global mission?
I think entrepreneurs have the power to not only change the world but to save it as well. Really. The global problems we face today are too numerous and complex to rely on institutions or governments to solve. There is someone out there, right now, who’s fed up with a problem, like lack of clean water, and it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that will create the solution no one else has seen before.
You have signed the ‘Giving Pledge’ along with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Are their specific areas you plan to donate to?
My early giving has targeted education, through the Malala Fund, TED Audacious Project, and scholarships at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied. But I’m just getting started. My goal is to make philanthropy cool for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial spirit drives people to improve the world around them, to solve problems that benefit others. I want to help unlock that spirit in every corner of the globe. I’m convinced it’s the thing that will solve the problems we face as a planet and enable us to thrive in this century.
You are also a designer. Who are your influences?
The work of some of my favorite creative people is all around my apartment: design and art by Charles and Ray Eames, Gerrit Reitveld, Kenya Hara, Heather Day. And on my stereo: the music of Beck and Thelonious Monk.
Tell us about your new business Neighborhood.
“Neighborhood” was born when Bernhardt Design reached out to see if I’d be interested in a collaboration. I jumped at the opportunity to do industrial design again. The brief was, “If you could design anything for your office what would it be?” After 8 years of observing what does and doesn’t work in our open floor plan offices, and a work culture built around flexibility, the ideas started flowing out in my sketchbook.
One concept stood out that eventually became Neighborhood: an infinitely configurable set of modules that are easily rearranged to form expansive landscapes or small intimate settings. The benches and low-back seating are great for casual conversation or brainstorming while the high-back seating modules create a sense of safety and comfort within an open office — a design principle that mimics how our early ancestors’ found safety in savanna-like environments.
How do you unwind with such a busy schedule?
The first thing I do when I get home from the office is feed my dog. Then I’ll sit down at my piano and unwind playing songs I know, or riff and make something new up. I’ve played sports going all the way back to little league baseball. These days I shoot hoops and practice jiu-jitsu.
All-time favorite book or movie?
One of the best books I’ve read lately is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. It explains why people affiliate themselves with causes (or brands) and offers profound insights on how to communicate your own cause better. Senna is a great documentary film about passion and drive. And I’m always a sucker for a James Bond film.
Exclusive scoop into Joe Gebbia’s favorite San Francisco experience?
Bar Agricole — definitely my favorite spot to eat and drink in the city.