Q&A: Joe Gebbia, co-founder and chief product officer, Airbnb

Airbnb is a marketplace for people to list rooms in their homes to rent out to others, set up by Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky and Nathan Blecharczyk in 2007. The company does not reveal profits but has more than 340,000 rooms and apartments in 192 countries for rent.

Marketing Week (MW): Airbnb has accommodation in 35,000 cities worldwide. What’s next?

Joe Gebbia (JG): We started by sharing our home with guests [for a charge] and the concept has spread now to more than 300,000 people worldwide. But we have only scratched the surface, we have a way to go before we are satisfied with the number of people using Airbnb.

When people look for a place to stay they go online so we want to design an elegant solution to that. That happens through the web, and more than ever through mobile, [so we want to] create awareness and simplify it, making it a really easy product for people to use.

MW: You say Airbnb is part of the ‘sharing economy’. What does that mean?

JG: The sharing economy is about people, person to person. Sharing economy companies are stewards for this peer to peer sharing, for a community of guests and hosts. We don’t provide the homes or the hospitality, we are just the facilitator to connect you with a place.

For companies to participate it’s important that they find a way to be facilitators and stewards, people sharing with somebody who has something with someone who wants something.

If the sharing economy was a giant coffee-table book it would be 800 pages long and we are literally just starting chapter 2 of this 800 page book about the next century. I couldn’t begin to tell you the creativity people will have about unlocking idle resources in the next couple of years.

MW: This is the third company you have started. What is the future for you?

airbnb-screenshot-2013-250

JG: My role has changed over the years as the company has grown and we’ve hired amazing people. We intend to build a company that will possibly outlive us, our models are companies like Disney and Nike and Apple, companies that have outlived the founders who started them. If we are to be successful that is the type of company that we would create.

MW: Thirty per cent of your traffic is via mobile. What are your other growth areas?

JG: Last year the business tipped and we did more business in Europe than the US so that was a big deal. We had to figure out how to build the site in a way that feels local to a German, an Italian or a Dane, so we had to localise in interesting ways. Now the same things are happening in Asia so we are applying the same local treatments there. This time next year, I think we will be talking about Asia.

We have growth in markets where there are no hotels. So we have actually created accommodation where there were previously none.

We’ve also had a surge in unique listings, for example castles or private island and boats – we have more than 1,000 boats all over the world.

MW: While you have investors, you also raised capital for the business by selling cereal. Can you describe what you did?

JG: The cereal story was wild adventure. We made $20,000 from cereal, by selling 500 boxes of [re-branded] Obama Os at $40 a box [during the US election] so that is how we funded the business through breakfast cereal. It is totally us just being ourselves, applying creativity to something that was timely in the world.

We have often said that one of our principles is to make something people want to talk about. No matter what we do, whether it is cereal or Airbnb, make it something people want to talk about, make it so original and creative that people can’t help themselves to want to share it.

MW: What advice do you have for people wanting to start a business?

JG: It has never been easier to get your idea off the ground. The price of starting a company is the lowest it’s ever been and the supply of talent and resources out there is probably the highest it’s ever been.

There are more mobile developers out there than before and more designers, so if anything this is one of the greatest times to try an idea out.

It is important to marry the problem that you are solving [with the solution], if you are so close to it you can understand and empathise with it in a very personal way. When times got tough for us, it would have been tempting to quit but we were so close to the problem [of people needing a place to stay when all hotel rooms were full], it was so personal to us we couldn’t stop, despite how much adversity we were facing.

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