The Airbnb story is one of the most inspiring stories of the 21st century. It is one of persistence, determination, fear and most of all, hustle.
Let’s go back to the start. It’s late 2007 in San Francisco. Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia just moved from New York. Without employment, they were having trouble paying their rent and were looking for a way to earn some extra cash. They noticed that all hotel rooms in the city were booked, as the local Industrial Design conference attracted a lot of visitors.
The youngsters saw an opportunity. They bought a few airbeds and quickly put up a site called Air Bed and Breakfast. The idea was to offer visitors a place to sleep and breakfast in the morning. They charged $80 each a night.
When three people showed up at their doorstep, Chesky and Gebbia thought that they may have stumbled upon a big idea. Joe Gebbia’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk joined the team as one of the Airbnb founder and developed a business model around the idea.
In a few years, this small experiment would create the hotel industry disruptor Airbnb.
Back To The Basics
Designer By Default
Brian Chesky grew up in Niskayuna, N.Y., north of Albany. He was into hockey, and he also liked to draw and design new versions of Nike sneakers, which turned into an interest in art.
Brian Chesky’s high school yearbook quote was “I’m sure I’ll amount to nothing.” He thought it was funny — his dad didn’t.
In 1999, Brian Chesky attended Rhode Island School of Design, where he served as captain of the hockey team and studied industrial design. In his early 20s, Brian Chesky was a competitive bodybuilder. He’s described as still having “16-inch biceps.”
Speed Is Not My Weed
But shortly thereafter, he moved to San Francisco with Gebbia. When a design conference came to town in 2007 resulting in all the hotels being sold out, Gebbia pitched Chesky the idea to rent out space for those who couldn’t find a place to stay.
The idea succeeded and the first Airbnb guests were born: a 30-year-old Indian man, a 35-year-old woman from Boston and a 45-year-old father of four from Utah sleeping on their floor.
Soon after, Harvard graduate and technical architect Nathan Blecharczyk joined the team as the third co-founder. But they faced a major problem: the site only had two users, one of them was Chesky. They initially launched at SXSW, and only received two bookings.
After changing the website, the company launched again in August 2008, not long before the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Over 20,000 people were going to the convention, and all hotels were booked out.
Crispy vs Crunchy
While the team was able to get media attention, user traction did not follow. This part of the Airbnb startup story was what Airbnb founder Brian Chesky called, The Trough of Sorrows. Neck-deep in debt, Airbnb was in dire need for funding.
To fund their startup, they began selling election-themed cereals. The Airbnb founders managed to make a whopping $30,000 selling the Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains. They also came up with some pretty funny jingles.
At that point, the company wasn’t making enough revenue — so the two came up with a way to grow the breakfast side of the company and turned the 2008 presidential election for some inspiration.
Chesky said they made 1,000 boxes of cereal by hand, which they hot glued together and sold for $40 a piece. The boxes were marketed as “collector’s items.” The Obama O’s sold out and the pair ended up making $30,000 off the cereal stunt. They then used the money to pay off their debt.
Landing On The Moon
The tide of the recession was hitting the shores. There was a high possibility that no investors would show up on the demo day. In order to prepare for this possibility, the goal of each startup within the batch is to be ramen-profitable by the end of the program.
With a $20,000 seed funding, a clear goal, and a better work structure, the founders of Airbnb traveled to New York – where a majority of their community was located. They discover that the main problem is that the pictures of most listings aren’t good. They buy a camera and go door-to-door to take better pictures of the listings.
In the Airbnb startup story, this is the part where things started to head in the right direction.
For the next three months, Airbnb focused on developing a relationship with their customers. The founders supported their hosts by uploading photos that showcase the properties. They also guided the hosts on how to create the best homestay experience.
By the end of the Y Combinator program, the founders were able to create a group of loyal customers who not only loved the company but also helped the company grow its customer base. Also, Airbnb was able to secure $600,000 funding from Sequoia Capital.
Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses. This is a different form of profitability than startups have traditionally aimed for. Traditional profitability means a big bet is finally paying off, whereas the main importance of ramen profitability is that it buys you time.
Community Is The New Currency
That’s a pretty good story, to begin with, it’s the dream of every startup founder. However, after five years in business, Airbnb realised that this story didn’t really represent their brand anymore.
In late 2013 Airbnb’s co-founders – with the help of Douglas Atkin, their new community officer – decided to search for their story. Airbnb had previously marketed themselves as a service that provided homes for travellers rather than just accommodation.
They created a series of videos centring around birdhouses entitle ‘Birdbnb’. This campaign didn’t fully convey the sense of community that had emerged from the platform. The people who were using Airbnb by this time were extremely passionate about it and vocal about that passion.
Airbnb knew that that was where they would find their story, inside the community they had created. The team at Airbnb conducted interviews with close to 500 people all over the world who used the platform as hosts and as holidaymakers.
There was one word that kept coming up during these conversations: belonging.
Low Bay High Vibes
They wanted to create a symbol that could be easily replicated and that was instantly recognisable. They also wanted this new logo to become immediately synonymous with what the company stood for and what it meant to be part of the Airbnb community.
This led to the creation of the ‘Bélo’ (pronounced bay low). This symbol was designed to represent the people, places and love present in the Airbnb community and the company itself.
In 2014 Airbnb debuted their new mission statement to the world and launched the redesigned Airbnb site and app and of course the Bélo. They shared their vision for a world where anyone can belong anywhere and from there the new Airbnb story could begin.
Since the creation of the Bélo, Airbnb has continued to embrace the message of belonging. As a brand, they have championed messages of acceptance, equality and belonging. They even encouraged hosts on the site to list their homes for free to victims of natural disasters.
How to "Story Sell" Like a Pro?
Operationalizing your Purpose and Values is the hardest, yet most important thing to do.
It’s easy to have a bold Purpose that sits in a Powerpoint presentation. It’s much harder to take it out and live it in your everyday operations. Most organizations fail at the implementation the moment they face a choice between the long-term and handling a short-term crisis.
A lot has been written about why companies should figure out their ‘Why’ but much less has been written about how you get your Why, and how to make sure it’s a good one.
Storytelling For Dummies
Keep People At Your Centre
People are the heart of the company and Airbnb recognise this.
Keeping your customers at your core and learning from their experiences with your business could prove invaluable in finding your own brand story.
t’s Not Too Late to Find Your Story
It is never too late for brands and businesses to find the story they want to tell.
Airbnb started in 2008 but it wasn’t until almost 2014 that the company realised it needed to find the mission of the business in order for them to continue to grow and progress.
Content is Key
Airbnb has a passion for high quality, visually stunning content.
Their content is heavily user-driven and centres on stories from within the Airbnb community. High quality, consistently posted content allows people to engage with your brand.
Airbnb Open was originally marketed as Airbnb’s global host event.
Airbnb Open allows the company to engage with their audience at a more human level. It removes some of the facelessness that often plagues tech companies and makes the company and its founders accessible.
The growth of the Airbnb host community has also fueled a robust cottage industry of start-ups offering services to support them, everything from linen changing, pillow fluffing, turndown service, key exchanges, property management, and more. Call them the “pick and shovel” purveyors of the Airbnb gold rush: there are dozens of these start-ups, almost all of them started by Airbnb users themselves who spotted a need, hole, or pain point somewhere in the process.
Stay Focused On The Mission
A purpose-driven company is only as good its last Purpose-driven decision, one that doesn’t’ cave in to short-term exigencies.
Airbnb has been prepping itself for a possible IPO and thus is facing the most testing of these exigencies: the short-termism of Wall Street.
Here is how Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one:
Ground the Purpose in an experienced Truth
This is the first ingredient for a good Purpose.
It’s also one that is seldom employed.
Airbnb’s Purpose, like any organizations’, must be grounded in something that’s universally experienced so that it’s recognized to be true. And if the Purpose is derived from an experienced truth, then it increases the chances that you land on something that is yours and yours alone. It’s differentiating and true to you.
Airbnb and its community wants to create a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere.
It is an ambition that is rooted in the everyday experienced truth of its users, but it also stretch into something much bigger, highly desirable, and has positive impact on the world.
It should be transformative. It should seem impossible
It should be enormously ambitious. It should be exciting enough to get out of bed for, and inspirational enough to keep you going through the tough times.
It also needs to be huge enough to seem almost impossible to achieve…so that for a hundred years or more people will keep trying.
‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’ was both grounded in an every-day experienced truth, but it stretched to an incredibly ambitious goal that sought to break down barriers caused by cultural, geographical and racial differences.
The best Purposes seem impossible to achieve. But in actuality, they are improbable, not impossible. So, a Purpose should be grounded in an everyday reality, but be able to stretch to an improbable goal. Ideally, one that wants to make the world a better place.
It must be about ONE BIG THING
It must be specific enough, but broad enough to both inspire and encompass whatever Airbnb and its community might dream up over the next hundred years or more.
Take as examples the launch of an entirely new business, and a pro bono venture:
- ‘Experiences’ was the first big new business that Airbnb launched in 2015 that extended belonging from not just the Homes you might stay in, but the things you could do while you stayed there.
- The pro-bono venture ‘Open Homes’ was launched that enabled free accommodation in Hosts’ homes for victims of disasters, or parents of sick children while they are treated in hospital.
Both of these were inspired, guided by and launched using ‘Belong Anywhere’.
It should be launched publicly and owned
Your organization needs to be held accountable to its Purpose, and one of the best ways to do that is for it to be publicly known, and the organization publicly criticised if it fails to live up to the Purpose’s promise. It should also be public because it sets expectations for users.
The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs.
When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial.
At face value, letting a stranger into your home sounded like a preposterous idea. But the world of startups have proven time and again, that what sounded like a crazy idea may actually be the next big idea.
With the way Airbnb is growing at a rapid rate, mainstream hotel bookings should buckle up or they’ll face a difficult time competing with the company.
But the race isn’t won yet — Airbnb needs to up their game by partnering with large companies to accommodate their employee travel needs as well as attract business travelers.
Through Airbnb’s founding years, this quality has propelled the company’s mission of “creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere.”
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.