AirBnB's Joe Gebbia: The Intersection of Art and Business
Hey, everybody, how's it going, I'm Chase Jarvis. I wanna welcome you to another episode of The Chase Jarvis Show live here on Creative Live. You know this show, this show is where I get to sit down with the world's top creators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders with the goal of unpacking their brains and adding valuable, hopefully valuable, right, valuable insights that'll help you live your dreams in career, in hobby, and in life. My guest today is a designer, an entrepreneur, and you know him as the co-founder of AirBNB. My guest is Joe Gebbia.
What's up, man? (upbeat music) (applause)
How are you?
Good to see you.
How about it?
Yeah, it's good to be here.
Been a long time in the making.
I'm gonna tell a funny backstory. We were gonna do this two days ago, and I got a text or an email from you at five in the morning, said my plane just landed five hours late. He was supposed to come in at like 10 in the morning, we let him go back to sleep. You made it...
, you look rested.
I feel fresh.
You do, you look great.
I'm ready to tell some stories.
Share some lessons.
Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you for having me.
Really, before we started the cameras rolling, I was just pontificating for a second about how you as a human I feel like epitomize so many aspects of the show, has a career, you went to college, as a, as a, you went to RISD, right, is that right?
Yeah, that's right.
You went to RISD, designer, and then this, you know, you had an idea, you chased the idea, struggle, it's very much the hero's journey, and it's, if we did anything today, it would be, of course, I wanna know some things you haven't said elsewhere in the world, but also to help the folks at home understand that A, it's hard, B, success comes from hard work and grit and the grind and then C, we do wanna hear a couple of the, stories that you, like the holy shit, we're making it. So I got a little bit of an arc I wanna cover for the show, but start off with, you know, for the three out of the million people that are gonna see this, who doesn't know you, give us the backstory. Like, young you. Give us the young you.
Little entrepreneur Joe.
Yeah, I don't know, were you an entrepreneur?
Actually, you know, my first business was selling drawings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to my second grade classmates for a dollar.
Or two dollars if you wanted the big version.
Yeah, and it was doing so well that the parents of the students were getting complaints because their children were asking for extra lunch money.
And so they complained to the teachers, they're like why is my student asking for extra lunch money? And then they traced it back to me and then they, they shut the business down. (laughter) The regulator, the regulations.
The raiders, they swooped in and.
The regulations on drawing.
Had you pay your taxes. This was second grade?
But I, you know.
Where was that? You know, gimme a little childhood, where in the world was that?
I grew up in the deep South.
Okay, Atlanta, Georgia?
Snellville, which is near Lawrenceville, which is near Wilburn, which is near Norcross, which is kinda close to Atlanta. (laughter) So it was a great southern town in the suburbs of Atlanta and, you know, just kind of always was looking for opportunities to start things. You know, whether it was the drawings, I had a, first the lawnmower business, I'm sure, at some point, you know, in the suburbs everyone has a lawnmower business. And then getting into high school, found all kinds of opportunities to bring ideas to life. So I feel like that's my life story, just, you know, the gift of having an idea, going from the sketchbook and to see it become reality, hey, there's nothing greater than that.
Well, on the journey to, we have have a couple swaths of audiences, zero to one people are trying to figure out what they wanna do, or do they have enough chutzpah to do the thing that, not the thing that their parents and their friends and culture expects of them. And then there are people who are on a path but they're trying to get from one or two or five to ten to, you know, create companies and things as you have. And when you were younger did you identify with this creative spirit and clearly you were hustling and entrepreneurial in your second grade class, but was it always something that you knew that that was a piece of you, did you grow up around art and design, did you find it, did it find you? Help us understand that.
Well, there's literally zero art talent in my family. Maybe outside my grandfather, but, I did have the chance to grow up very much into art, so I spent my childhood drawing, painting, taking art classes at every turn.
On weekends I'd go down to the Atlanta College of Art and take free drawing classes, and I was definitely the youngest guy there.
I did a summer program in the state of Georgia called the Governor's Honors, which was about celebrating different disciplines, science, art, music, et cetera. And it was during that summer where I really fell in love with art and the instructors, the college level instructors said Joe, you've got something here, this is something to pursue.
Wow. That's when I first heard about the Rhode Island School of Design. They suggested I look into it, I did a summer program there the year later as a Junior in high school. And I absolutely fell in love, not only with Providence, but with art school and this idea that like, art is just a channel to take an idea that you have and find an outlet, and it could be painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a photograph. As you know, it could be any kind of medium, and I feel like there is a nice Venn Diagram of art and entrepreneurship in the sense that you have to imagine something that doesn't yet exist, and then have the willpower to bring it to life.
That's, you know, one of the things that I find when you said there's like not a history of art or creativity or whatever in your family, and A, that great creators can be born of families or out of a heritage where that wasn't the norm, and vice versa, that, you know, folks that for whom that is the way the grew up, sometimes we all revolt against it or whatnot, my personal belief, as you probably know from previous episodes of the show that there's creativity inside of every person.
But that it's not fostered and we sort of train it out of people rather than cultivate it or, we're not even neutral towards it, you know. If you say, hey mom, when I grow up, I wanna be a dancer, I think culturally speaking, that's like, oh, a parent's like okay, great, I'm seeing all these things in the world about stem, steam if you're lucky, but it's like, we need science, we need computer programmers, we need, I don't even mind if you're a tradesman, you're gonna build stuff. But, I don't know, dancer, musician, whatever, these things tend to be culturally less poignant maybe for our parents. Did you feel any of that pressure, and if so, did you just, did you manage to escape it based on having thoughtful, heartfelt, warm, caring family? Or what was the, what was the secret for you to tap into it?
I'm forever grateful to my parents. I mean they really supported me, whatever my interests. I played a lot of sports growing up. I was into music, playing piano. And certainly the art track they never really second guessed. They're like, well, should we really support him and fund that weekend class downtown for figure drawing. They really got behind whatever my passions were and I think, thank goodness, because I had very talented friends in art who's parents didn't, so they had to be an engineer or go into professional service and they never really got to see their gifts, their artistic gifts come to life. And I remember in high school, just feeling very, very blessed, very lucky that, the kind of, the wind was in my sail.
Yeah, you knew you had something and you were told clearly from folks in that summer program that you had some talent.
Yeah, you're searching for yourself certainly in high school, right? Big decisions like college, finding a career, maybe leaving home for the first time, so there's a lot of like, life questions that have to be answered and I think for me it was, I was on a path to become a fine artist so I applied to RISD and I got in.
And, as a, on the path, one of the things that I love about the path is that if you're always pursuing the thing that feels right, then you're on the path. It might not be the path where you end up, and I don't know if you identify as a fine artist right now or if like, but that was a thing that you went to RISD to pursue, and then here you are, something, not not a fine artist, but you, let's say you got distracted on this little other side journey here.
There's a parentheses in there.
Yeah, there's a parentheses in there, it's a big-ass, multi-billion dollar parentheses. But, you know, how did, did you ever question the path that you're on, did you, you know, did you identify with it, what about this other entrepreneurial thing that you got into?
Well, I think another reference point that factors in here is when I was in high school from 1996 to 2000, which was the birth of the internet and everyday I'd come home after school and I would teach myself HTML and CSS and the notion that you could have an idea and you code it and publish it to the world completely captivated me. There was something enthralling about that and it left this deep, deep impression with me. As I read about other companies that were starting, you know, everyday I'd read Business 2.0 and ZNet, ZD Net, all of them, and all the roads of these companies led back to one place. San Francisco, the Silicon Valley. And I remember thinking to myself, like, man, I know one day, I have this inclination I will wanna run a company of some kind, I wanna, you know, run my own business, whatever it might be. It sure seems like the best place to do that is this part of the West Coast.
Where everybody seems to be coming from, right? It's this hot bed.
So, you have to, that was very active in the back of my mind. And then, I had the chance to go to Providence to study fine arts and when I got to campus, so here's a story. I get to campus and during Orientation you're meeting the Upper Classmen, and they're asking, oh, who are your teachers? And so I go through the list of my instructors and I get to this one name, and when I get to this name, I had the same reaction from every Upper Classman. I say Gareth Jones and they go, ahh, oh no, oh no, not Gareth Jones and I go what, what is it? And they go just wait. So my very first college course is with this guy, Gareth Jones. I roll into the art studio with 18 other freshmen, we literally just got to campus and this guy walks out, this British fellow with this really big hair, black turtle neck, black pants. And he stands in the front of the class, in front of all of us and he goes, "I just want you all to know that half of you "are going to fail my course."
One of these guys.
"Because you won't finish the chess set project." And we're like what the F is the chess set project? So he went to explain and we found out that there's this, you have your weekly assignments and then on top of that you have this semester long assignment.
Where you have to choose a three-dimensional artist, a sculptor, a fashion designer, an architect, a furniture designer, you have to find a book on them, pick pieces of their design or their sculpture, and then recreate them in miniature scale. So if you chose like, Henry Moore, right, the sculptor, you'd find Henry Moore sculptures, you'd have to recreate them. You do it in the numbering form of a chess set, so you take one sculpture and you reproduce it eight times for you pawn. Pick another one, you reproduce it twice for your rook, your knights, your bishops, your King and your Queen. And so overall, it's 16 pieces. They don't look like chess pieces, they look like the actual reproductions of the sculptures. You have to look at a photo and translate that, and this is on top of all the weekly assignments. This is like an outside class project.
And as you got to know Gareth, you got to know this very opinionated fellow who always had to be right. He would argue you to the death and so I made a decision very early on that no matter what I did, I would finish this project. I was not gonna fail out. So I had an interest in furniture design at this time, and I discovered a guy from the early 20th Century named Gerrit Rietveld. He's a Dutch designer, architect, and he did a couple very famous chairs in the MOMA for example, and I fell in love with his work and I thought, you know I'm gonna spend this whole semester fully dedicated to these chairs. I don't want to make small chairs, I want to make full-sized chairs. Right, like I'm gonna put all my effort in, I wanna use these afterwards. And so here I go to my, Gareth, the teacher, and I pitch him on this idea and I expect him to say yeah, Joe, you got this, I'm behind you. He looks at me and he goes, "Joe, I really don't think you can get it done. "Really focus on the smaller scale." And he walked away. And I was like, that's it.
I'm gonna prove this guy wrong, I've got a semester to figure out how to make chairs. By the way, I'd never like worked with any kind of hand tools, definitely no heavy machinery, never made a chair in my life.
More or less these, like, really intricate famous chairs. But I was like, I'm committing to this, I'm gonna figure this out. So how do you make a chair? Well, there's a furniture design department on campus. I ran to the department, I met with the department head, I sat with her and pitched her on what I was doing, and she said, oh, go and talk to these three Seniors, they'll help you out. So these Seniors showed me how to work with wood, they gave me access to the wood shop on campus, and piece by piece I started to actually figure out how to make chairs. The thing is, I didn't show Gareth anything during the course of the semester, right? So he's asking me, you know at check-ins, like how's it going, Joe? I'm like, you know, it's fine, don't worry about it. So along the way I got to the pawn, where you had to make eight of the set and Gerrit Rietveld had this beautiful bench design, just four pieces of wood, but it was big, and I'm thinking, oh, I don't have the money to buy the wood to make eight of these ginormous benches. What am I gonna do? And it was around this time I'm in the courtyard section of the dorms and I'm noticing that everyone's smoking outside and they're standing up, because there's nowhere to sit. And I'm like wait, what if the school pays for the wood, I make the benches for my project and then they put these benches in this courtyard so people can sit down when they wanna have a smoke break? I pitched the school and they loved it.
So the school funds a few thousand dollars of this inch-thick plywood, I mean this is like heavy-duty stuff, and, you know, a few weeks later, I've got eight benches and the other eight pieces and I stored them all in a certain part of campus and on the final day of class, and now a whole semester has gone by. I've been up for two days straight, I haven't slept. I'm up for like 54 hours, working the final, you know, sanding, putting the final finish on these chairs.
And the class goes out for lunch and I specifically signed up for the next slot, so when everyone was away getting lunch, a couple of my room mates and buddies helped me carry all these chairs into the studio space. So when everybody walked back in, there was this full set of 16 full-sized, functional chairs. And my only regret is that I didn't have a photo of Gareth Jones' face when he walked into the studio after lunch. This is literally what he, he walks in, he goes, and you can see him counting, 16, and then he looks at me, and it was beautiful, he goes, "Joe, you've done it, you've proven me wrong."
I don't care if I never do another thing in my life. Do you still have these pieces of furniture?
I do, I do.
These were so symbolic to me, because I mean literally to go from no knowledge and no expertise in something to, you know, 12 weeks later you've done the quote impossible, for me, it was one of those life moments. You know, we all have those moments where you break through, you cross some threshold of what you think is possible for yourself and you get to other side and you're standing, physically, with a room full of chairs that you've made and, you know, or you got scrappy with, and you figured out who to pay for it and who would help you build them. It was this remarkable moment, and after that I promptly went to bed, I was really tired.
For another 54 hours, probably, right?
So, if you unpack that just for a second, are you stubborn as hell? Is that why you chose to do the thing? Are you, like, what is it about your personality because I think, you know, Gareth is probably right, when he sends that warning, 99 out of 100 students don't pursue the thing. Is that thing, that piece of you, the thing that you feel like has driven your success? Is it the stubbornness, or is it, would you, 'cause that's kind of a little bit of a negative connotation, or is it the pride that you take in a job well done? Is it curiosity? That I wonder if I can do this? Fear of failure, fear of success, like what are, what's at play there for you, you think?
Oh man, that's such a good question. I think it's, it's this deep desire to constantly get to the next level with whatever it is. And I had this with sports, too.
You know, a basketball coach in seventh grade gave me advice that I've carried through my entire life. He said, took me aside one day, 'cause I'd just started playing basketball and he goes, "Joe."
You're not very tall, Joe. Just a heads up.
At the time I was, you know, comparatively I was, pretty tall. But my shot wasn't quite on just yet, like it is today. And he took me aside and he goes, "Joe, you know, if you want to get better, "play with people who are better than you." And since that moment, probably with anything that I can think of in my life, I've always sought to throw myself into situations where I'm probably maybe one of the least knowledgeable in the room, or I have the least amount of experience, so, I did, I started playing with Upper Classmen in regards to basketball at the YMCA and at my high school. At the time I was always playing with guys who were taller than me, stronger than me, had better skills than I did. And I feel like that, just being thrown into an experience like that, it sort of, it forces, it's kind of sink or swim. Like it kind of forces you and you have to find the self-reliance inside of you to stay with it. To actually excel and get to the next level and so.
Were there things that you sunk at? 'Cause you sink or swim, right?
What were those things? When you threw yourself in the deep end and?
Yeah, sure there's been things that have come and gone. I don't know, I used to play violin when I was really little, that's no longer around. (laughter) That I was not good at.
Threw yourself into the deep end of the violin, yeah, I get it, I get it. So I think somewhere in there, A, it's a combination then of great advice, putting yourself around that seventh grade teacher, had, seventh grade, is that right?
Seventh grade, lot of wisdom in that very simple saying. But there's also some grit inside of you and the same grit that built 16 chairs in a semester. Is that your best quality? Is that a quality? Is that a quality that you see consistently with yourself and your peers, what role, and I'm just naming this thing, grit, maybe you have a better name for it. But what role does that play in building a however many billion dollar company you guys are at now?
I think there's a lot of answers to that question. One of the first things that comes to mind is perseverance.
I mean, any entrepreneur that's sat in this chair and talked to you has probably used that word. Because, I feel like, as you know, when you're trying to bring an idea into life, when you have a concept in your head that doesn't yet exist and you're basically the only person that will will it into existence, like, there will be, like every kind of obstacle in your way. Sometimes yourself, sometimes other people, sometimes resources, sometimes facilities, or lack of facilities. And I think having a, just this perseverance, this well of a drive that allows you to just keep going. Even when people say no, even when people say it can't be done which, here's this professor who everybody looked up to, he was notorious on campus. This guy was a legend and he looked me in the eye, he said I couldn't do it. And I thought, F you, who are you to tell me if I can or can't, I'll tell myself if I can't do something, not you. And I feel like, you know, quick aside, I later caught up with him on campus, it was about two years ago, so, you know, 12, 13 years later, and we reflected on this moment. And he uses me as a reference point ever since then with his class, right?
Of course, dude built 16 chairs.
It was like the quintessential answer to my project, and I tell him like, Gareth, you know, what was that about, like, I really expected encouragement and support and advocacy and he looked at me and he goes, "I knew you could do it, I just wanted to give you the rub "to get you going on it." And I was like oh my God, at the time I didn't realize it.
But looking back, it makes a lot of sense that.
Great, I, to me that's a A, a beautiful story, because it reveals a lot about you, it reveals a lot about the character of art school, the character of the true mentors, people that can see potential and but, go ahead, keep going, no you just had a big inhale. You were gonna say something.
Well, you just triggered something which is, the joy of not only that moment and that critique, that final critique with the chairs, the additional joy that came when I got to see other students sitting on those benches a week later. That triggered something else in me that I had never experienced before, that you could design things for other people, and to see them interact with your creation, you know, in this case a physical sense. I certainly had web design experience on the digital sense, but now to bridge that to the physical world was like, oh my God, this is really exciting, this is really fun, and so it was a combination of that moment, of learning about Charles and Ray Eames, and their lives as designers, of learning about the industrial design department on campus where I had this, this shift of this path that I was on, going back to paths, of being a fine artist, maybe live in New York City, exhibit at galleries. Suddenly it was about how could you use design to improve people's lives, just like the Eames' had committed their lives to.
How could you use design to create these beautiful interactions with the people who use your products? And so, in those, in those moments I switched majors.
That triggered something, you were just triggered into that story, that triggered something in me, which I'd like you to reflect on just for a second. So it's the Eames quote that says the details aren't the details, the details are the thing. So what role has that quote played for you and how you approached AirBNB or furniture design, like, is that something that holds true to you?
I feel like ask any designer who cares about their craft and what they put out into the world, and they want to have pride in what they produce, I feel like they would whole-heartedly agree with that quote. And I think if i reflect just on our company, on AirBNB, you know, we do put a lot of effort, probably more than what is asked of us, or more than what is necessary for a site that does what we do, and I have to reflect because as the internet has matured, I feel like, and as like technology and computers have matured, the playing field, in my mind, is largely leveled.
Right, like, what used to be a competitive advantage, whether that was, you know, mega hertz speed, or screen size, or whatever, RAM, like, everybody now has access to the same stuff.
So the tech playing field has largely leveled, which begs the question how else to you differentiate? And the way that we've always thought about it is through design, right? Maybe the details can help us differentiate. Maybe our sometimes insane attention to details can help us elevate beyond, you know, the rest of the noise in our industry and so, I feel like that's, the details have been our differentiator.
We're gonna go back to RISD, you're in RISD, you're, you've just completed your project for Gareth, and the fact that his name is Gareth is just so British, too, it's incredible, I love it.
He's actually Welsh.
Oh, Welsh, there you go, even better, more nuanced. But, you meet a guy called Brian Chesky.
How'd that go down?
To understand that story, you need to understand that during orientation, as a Freshman, there's somebody giving, you know, welcome to campus lecture, an Upper Classman, and they made a comment that really stood out to me. They said, look to your left, look to your right, those might be your future team members or your future employer, so make sure you nurture your relationships while you're in campus here, 'cause you never know, one day, who might be working for who or collaborating with who. And I thought, oh shit, he's right, like if I have this general idea I wanna start, run my business one day, I better turn my radar on to see who might be a good co-creator with me.
So all throughout campus, every person I met, whether it was explicit or implicit, in the back of my mind I was just always thinking, like, you know, is this somebody that I would love to start something with? And, you know, when I got to campus, here's another story that intersects into Brian, having played basketball, I get to RISD, I go into the Office of Student Life one day, and I say hey, I'd like to play on the basketball team. And the guy behind the front desk, God bless him, he gave me the blankest stare I've ever seen. He looks at me like this, he goes, we don't have a basketball team. And there was this weird, awkward silence where I'm just, I'm staring at him, he's staring at me, and he breaks the silence by saying, "But you can start one." And I go, really, what do I have to do? And he goes, "Find 12 other people on campus "that wanna play basketball." And I'm like, that's it? "And well, and bring the list back to me." So I spent the next week rounding up 12 people who also played basketball, I came back, gave him the list. I said what's the next step? And he goes, "Well, you need to take this "to the student board and get funding for it, "and get recognized as an organization. "Here's this paperwork." So, that Wednesday night I went, got recognized as a group, and I came back to him and I said now what? And he says, "Well you need to rent a gym and "find a place to practice." And so I piece this whole thing together and by the end of that academic year, my Freshman year, we had a basketball team.
What? (laughter) Were you self-coaching?
Yes. It was a player-coach for the first year or so. But what was actually unfolding, and unfolded the next five years that I spent on campus, was my first start up. You had to recruit a team, you had to raise funding, you had to create a brand, you had to market the brand, you had to run an operation of playing other teams, and of putting a schedule together. You had to build a community of people who wanted to attend and be a part of the team. So I remember now that we had a team, we were practicing but we had no schedule, I started calling other colleges in New England, right, like pitching them, like, come play us in basketball. (laughter)
And so I remember.
I didn't know this story about you, I love this.
God, the first couple calls, I'll never forget, because they were very short. This is Joe, this is Joe calling from the Rhode Island School of Design basketball team, hello? Hello?
People just hung up on me. However, I remember the first coach that I spoke to who didn't hang up, was from Clark University in Western Massachusetts, and they didn't agree to play some basketball with their Varsity team, but they said they'd send the JV team. I said perfect, we'll play 'em.
So December 4th, 2001, the RISD basketball team played the Clark University JV team. And when their bus showed up, they rolled into the high school gym that we were renting, 'cause we didn't have one on campus, and, I have to say, every single player on their team was taller than our tallest player.
Welcome to it.
And they had three coaches, two assistant coaches, and then there's just me, and I think they arrived, and they pretty quickly realized what they'd gotten themselves into and this is like, some makeshift team of some art school guys and one girl, actually, or one woman that was on our team with us. And, you know, we played our hearts out that night. We lost, on the scoreboard it was 94 49, I'll never forget, but for me that was a huge win.
We actually got to some milestone of, we had fans there, of students, faculty, alumni, administration, all under the same roof at the same time, and I got this little glimpse, because at RISD, things get very siloed. You go off into departments and you never see anybody again.
I got it.
This was a moment, outside of graduation, where cross-sections of campus would come together. And there was some magic to that. I felt that that was one of the benefits of the team, that it could really bring people together, outside of graduation. And so, you know, after that it was all downhill. We got more games with more colleges.
Lost worse. (laughter)
In some cases. We also started to win some, which was amazing.
That's so cool.
We got a coach the second or third year in. And it was really an, an incredible feeling. In fact, I remember the moment when the basketball team was first printed in the student handbook as a tried and true option for students. Someone who was thinking about coming to campus as a student now if there were athletes out there who were thinking about going to art school, they now had more incentive to come to RISD. And I met a lot of them who decided to come because we had a basketball team. And so, you know, it was this wild start up, I made a lot of mistakes, I learned how to get people excited about volunteering their time to move an idea forward. And it was because I was in sports that I met Brian. Because while I was running the basketball team, he was running the hockey team.
No way, I love this story so much.
And so we would end up meeting each other in the Office of Student Life and I'd be like who is this guy? And he was looking at me saying the same thing.
Who is this guy that started a basketball team?
So we nurtured this friendship during our time there, largely through sports, also through design, of course. A lot of mutual friends and, you know, skip ahead to, to Senior year, we worked on a project together. And we got paired up and our, the output of what we created was so different than everybody else that I remember thinking to myself, wow, there's something special about this guy. And I really thought that if you put us in the same room, we could think of something big. Even this is, as Seniors. And so the night before he's graduating, I was doing a five year program, so I was there a little bit longer, the night before he's graduating, he's about to move to the West Coast and, I had this, this feeling was growing and I felt like I just needed to tell him. So I invited him out for a slice of pizza.
And I look him in the eye and I say, Brian, I think we're gonna start a business one day, and I think they're gonna write a book about it. And he literally just laughed it off, because who knew which direction life was gonna go? But I had this premonition, I felt I just had to, I needed to tell him. And he moved off to Los Angeles, I finished out my last year of school, and that was the early sort of coming together of him and I.
Well, I wanna jump in just a second to starting the company, 'cause I think that's a really important milestone in your life, obviously, and in it is a lot of the struggle that I try and bring up with this show so people at home who are struggling don't feel like they're alone, we'll get to the part, you guys, it was the selling cereal, is that right?
We'll get there.
To keep your, to keep your company alive. But I wanna go backwards just for a second, my background, also grew up as an athlete, went to college on a soccer scholarship.
Which I was between football and soccer and I was wondering if you felt any struggle reconciling sports and creativity because for me, it, like, I always thought of myself as a really creative kid and then at some point I realized like, oh, creative kid is, equals strange where I grew up and, sure, no one asks any questions of the captain of the football team, so I'm just gonna go do that. And it was really only later in, it was actually the skate, surf, punk culture of Southern California that helped me reconcile sports and creativity together, like skating and expressing yourself, and music and art and spray paint and all that stuff, and so that's how I found some sort of salvation. Did you ever feel any of those challenges or? And I also still rely a lot on my sports background for pushing through things and discipline, a lot of that stuff, so what role did sports you think play for you?
I mean, so many takeaways, you know, you're rarely dependent on yourself in sports, you know, whether it's, you know, there's some exceptions, singles tennis.
Golf. There's a few exceptions but largely it sounds like you and I played team sports a lot growing up, so you learn this sort of dependency, like, mutual dependence on other people to reach a common goal. I mean, what a life lesson, right?
Certainly the self-discipline of practice and committing yourself to like, you know, for me with, we'll take an example, baseball, going to the batting cages, you know, night after night, by yourself, putting quarters in the machine, getting the swings in. No one told you you had to do that, but if you want to get to the next level, there was this sort of this like, you had to put in the effort. And so there was this like, you learned to just put in the effort. Even if there was no immediate payoff.
I think that's hard for some folks, this desire to immediately have the payoff, the gratification, I did this and therefore I can see that and certainly in entrepreneurship but also in art and in creativity, there's also, there's this it seems so delayed, we hear 10,000 hours, we hear 10 year overnight success, we hear, you know, all those things. What role does practice play in being successful as both an entrepreneur and a creator?
This is such a good topic because I feel like there's such a parallel to practice in sports and preparing yourself for the game when game time comes, that there is preparing yourself as an entrepreneur for when the ideas present in front of you, for when the opportunity falls in front of you, it would be such a mistake I think for people to think that, you know, AirBNB, we just woke up and there was the idea. What people maybe don't realize is that Brian was, had his entrepreneur pursuits long before the company and I was on this, my own lineage, my own path of constantly trying things out, like being in the gym of entrepreneurship and the majority of the things that I've tried, you've never heard of. The people watching right now have never heard of these things. But that was okay because it was like tuning a muscle that you see an opportunity in the world and you're ready to make something of it, like you're ready to, again, transition something from your head into a sketchbook and out into the world. And the more that you can get in the habit of that cycle, the AirBNB concept just happened to come along in this long lineage of other ideas that didn't go anywhere, but were exercises, practice, the batting cage of entrepreneurship.
So I feel like, you know, one of the best lessons that I've learned is to just constantly be in that moment, that act of creation, even if it sucks, even if it doesn't go anywhere, even if nobody in the world knows about it. It's like, have an idea, get it down and bring it to life. You can throw it away after that, but man, that muscle is so, so important to hone.
Yeah. It's not a skill, it's a habit. It's like, really, there's this practice, or practices, the aspect of repetition, and that's what we here, in modern web or whatever, iteration, well you, you said it, you short-cutted to there are so many things that prepared you for AirBNB, so let's fast forward. You get back together with Brian at some point.
So he's in L.A., are you out here still or?
I'm still on the East Coast so, if you want, I can talk about the company I started right after I graduated.
Yeah, I wanna know the one that got, the one that didn't get, no not got away, whatever, I wanna know about that one 'cause I don't know. I'm learning a lot about you in this interview.
You know, I started my first real company the day after I got, literally the day after I graduated. This story starts, again, Freshman year.
So, at RISD we had a drawing class every week that lasted eight hours and the format for the drawing class is that you'd come in and you'd pin up your assignment from the week before and you'd literally spend the entire day critiquing or having a crit of that drawing assignment. It's be the teacher, the TA, and all the other students. And the studio is an art studio, it's hardwood floors, it's metal stools, maybe you're lucky if you got the one wooden bench. It was very uncomfortable, so by like hour four, oh man, you were feeling it. And by hour eight, everyone stands up to walk out the door to go back to our dorm rooms and the funniest thing, everyone has this like, bum print on the seat of our pants, right, all the charcoal dust and the paint and the ink from the studio surfaces and sure enough I look down, and I have one, too. And so I watch everyone walk out and I walk back to my dorm room and I'm thinking, you know, if there's gonna be a couple more years of this critique stuff, this crit, there's gotta be a better way. What if we got a seat cushion that could keep you comfortable and keep you clean? And so I get back to my dorm and I sketch this funny shape based on the bum print of the seat of people's pants.
No way, this is amazing.
And called it CritBuns, right? A seat cushion for art school students, right? I had no idea how to make a product though, this was just the first year of art school. So fast forward, it's now year five, I've done a dual degree in graphic design and industrial design.
And I have a very clear idea of how to bring an idea at least into prototype and so the last semester, I make CritBuns.
I love this.
I make the 3D file, and I make a, a foam model that's to scale, just to kind of shop it around and show students, hey what do you think about this? I actually molded it in rubber and then poured in some polyurethane and then I had the first soft seat cushion. But there was only one of them. And this is kind of like where it was gonna end. Because, well, I didn't have the money to take it to the next phase. And that's when I noticed that there was a competition on campus for what's called The Design Diploma. It's a gift that they give to the graduating class. So I submitted the concept of CritBuns and it won. (laughter)
What were you competing against?
I have no idea.
But it won!
Which meant that the school was gonna pay for getting CritBuns made for 800 graduating Seniors, you know. The only problem, this is great, right? This if fantastic news.
This is huge.
Here's the problem, Chase. They tell me this on May 1st. Graduation is on June 1st. I have a month to go from one prototype to 800 cushions. On top of two degree projects for both my majors, like, thesis projects. And I'm like, holy crap, how is this gonna happen, like this is, I don't know how I'm gonna do this. But what an opportunity, I'm gonna figure out how to make this work.
So, funny enough, I go to my professors to ask for advice. And every single one of them shot it down. They said the timeline's too short, it's gonna take too long. I was like okay, forget that, I'm gonna find another path. I get onto Google, I called every foam manufacturer on Google for the first twenty pages. I was talking to people in India and England, in Texas and California, and I got the same response. Said Joe, I love the passion here, but sorry son, it's gonna take four weeks to make the metal mold, and another eight weeks for the production of the foam. And I'm like, we don't have 12 weeks, we have now three weeks, the clock is ticking here. And so the school is starting to get a little bit nervous. And they call me and say hey, Joe, what's going on here? And I'm like, don't worry, don't worry, I'm gonna figure this out. This is on a Wednesday and they're like, well you need to tell us by Friday if this is happening or not, we'll give you 'til five o'clock. So here it is, it's Friday at four P.M. I still don't have an answer on how to figure this out. Everyone's telling me no, no, no, it can't be done. And I go outside the industrial design building by the canal in Providence and I'm laying on the grass and I'm looking up at the sky and I'm thinking man, what an opportunity, my product is right on the verge of actually being made, what haven't I thought of yet? And I answered that question by thinking, oh, you know the guy who runs the metal shop in the ID building, maybe he knows something. So I run back in, I go, Steve! Here's the deal, I need to figure out da da da, and he goes, you know what, why don't you call my friend up in Northern Rhode Island, he runs a metal shop. So I get on the phone with this guy, and I pour my heart out to him, like I give it everything. And there's this long pause at the end and he goes, you really want this, don't you? (laughter)
Can you tell?
Whatever you can do. And he goes, alright, here's what I'll do. If you send me the file today, I'll move some projects aside this weekend and I can ship the metal mold anywhere you need it on Monday and I go, oh my God, I'm gonna call you back. So I remembered another conversation I had earlier in the week was a pool float company in Connecticut that told me, said Joe, we can make the foam in two weeks but we don't have time to make the mold. So if you can find someone to make the mold, we can produce the product. So I get on the phone, I call this pool float company. It's like 4:45 P.M. on a Friday.
I love it.
The guy who picked up was about to leave the office to go home for the weekend, he was like clearly on his way out and I go, Cristoff, it's Joe! Yeah, da da da, and I poured my heart out to him and he goes, you really want this, don't you? And I'm like yes, whatever you can do and he goes, alright, have him FedEx it to this address and we'll take care of it. So I literally call the school back at like 4:58 P.M. to the Office of Student Life and I'm like guys, we got it, here's where to send the invoice, fax it over to this place.
Fax it over.
Yeah right, at the time. This is 2005.
Two thousand and fax.
Two thousand fax, jeez.
I love it.
So two weeks later, we had 400 red and 400 blue CritBuns with, screen printed with RISD '05 on the top, given out to the graduating class.
There are so many nuggets in that. I'm gonna revisit a couple really quick. Asking for help.
Like, I think that's a thing that so many creators feel alone in this world and they think that it's only up to them. You know, you've already talked about co-founders and friends and peers and reaching out to instructors but, that was central to that, you couldn't do it yourself.
How about being told no, how many times you were told no.
Too many times, but enough time to, that you were able and willing to push through.
By credible people, mind you. These are guys who had produced many products in their lifetime telling me no.
The fact that you emotionally were able to push through after all of that no and still perform, 'cause you had to, I mean this is like your, it's on the line, right? Obviously this is a microcosm of the start up world, of basically any adventure, any venture that you're on. I was told no, or, maybe, well I've been told no, certainly more in my life than I've been told yes. But it's the no was there a world in which you were changing the world, the word no to not yet or what was it about, I mean what was it about that, that, because you clearly pushed through, so in the face of all of this shit, like what, what made you do it, was it, again, go back to my earlier question, are you just super stubborn, or, you know, what is the quality that folks at home can take away from, aside from asking for help, and that was my narrative for it but, I mean you obviously have your own.
I've never really been described as stubborn, so I'm trying to think what else, what the other quality is.
I think, without sounding too generalized, like, passionate.
Like each of these stories, even as I'm telling them to you, I'm kind of looking back going like, wow, I was really passionate to see that thing through.
Yeah, talk people into seeing some sort of vision that they could contribute to or something bigger than yourself.
Sure, I think, you know, somewhere along the way, whether it was building the 16 chairs or making CritBuns happen in less than a month, it was like, people got excited because I was excited.
People would make exceptions based on the level of enthusiasm that I was communicating to them. And if I wasn't passionate about it, I don't think I would have communicated the same level of enthusiasm that would cause someone to change the projects, you know, at their metal shop for one weekend, change the production lines at the pool float company to, like, make 800 cushions in two weeks.
God, you love it.
So as I'm looking back, I wanna connect the threads here, and I think it was just an intrinsic passion to see these things happen and to not let someone else decide that for me. If they weren't going to happen, it was gonna be because I couldn't do something myself. I hit some limit within me, but it certainly wouldn't be because somebody said no, or somebody said no, you can't do it. So I guess it was not, not trusting a no. Or actually, if I were to reframe it, and this is very true for AirBNB as well, which we can get into, is that I've learned over the years that no is simply an invitation to keep going. And you can accept it or not, you don't have to. But like, ask any entrepreneur, all of the guys who have sat in this chair and talked to you, they've always reframed whatever's in front of them and turned it into a positive.
You kind of have to.
'Cause whether it's, you know, a professor telling you it can't be done or very experienced product designers telling you it'll never happen in time, or investors rejecting your idea 'cause it's weird, it's sort of like, you can stop, you can go, okay, well, jeez, they said no so I should, I shouldn't do it. Or you can be like, cool, well, it's an opportunity to find another path.
That's one of the things that I love about this, especially now maybe more than ever before, not maybe, certainly more than ever before, there's a million paths, right, like there's the art school path now, there's the Creative Live path, you can learn skills and experience in a place where we've got no gatekeepers relative to even just five or ten years ago, and that's another really common theme, A, for the show, B, for the folks at home who are listening. And I think those handful of stories obviously illustrate that. If you would have said at the beginning, I'm gonna have this guy I've never met who's a friend of a friend in Northern Rhode Island and the folks that are gonna manufacture CritBuns is a pool, a pool floaty foam company, like, you can't actually make that shit up.
No, they made like, the noodles, like the pool-float noodles.
Yeah, exactly, you can't make it up so, I love it. I wanna switch gears, 'cause it's sort of like the hit song. We've been holding out, there's so many folks at home who your journey obviously is incredible, still very much ongoing and here you are sitting on top of this idea to use the words you just used that investors told you guys, you were crazy, not dissimilar to your timeline on CritBuns and a lot of other things in your life, but here you are. How?
How did it happen?
Well, you know, it goes back to RISD as well because after I started CritBuns, got that product to market, the whole point of that, by the way, was just how to get an idea to the shelf of a store, and I cracked that code and I figured that out and that was, that was like the equivalent of having 16 chairs in front of you, was seeing CritBuns on the shelf of the first store, it was like, wow, what else can we do? And so I was looking for a reason to get to the West Coast. Now we're coming back to like.
Yeah, Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley, the internet, how you can have an idea and it can reach millions of people overnight and I was always looking for an excuse to go out, like some kind of little nudge and I got one in the form of a design fellowship at Chronicle Books.
Oh yeah, it's in SF, oh yeah.
Yeah, it's an SF institution.
Of book publishing. I often think of them as the Apple of book publishers. You know, very high quality, very great design. And they invited me to come join them for six months as an industrial designer in a book publisher.
That's what I said. So what does an industrial designer do in a book publisher? Well it turns out all of their high-end books, all the packaged design, the retail experience and, at the time, their trade show experience, so thinking about all of the fixtures and the physical environment and so that brought me, gave me a reason to come to San Francisco, finally. Now, here I am in Providence, moving out of my apartment, I'm packing my life into my Jeep, and everything else I decide to have a yard sale and get rid of. So one day I'm on campus, I have, you know, a whole sidewalk covered in my stuff, my art, my clothes, whatever, and it's getting towards the end of the day and I'm pretty tired and ready to go home when this guy pulls up in this red Mazda Miata. And he gets out and I'm like, ah, I just wanna go but, okay, he's looking through my stuff and he ends up buying a piece of art that I made, this poster, a silkscreen, and we get to talking and I learn that he's on a roadtrip across the United States before he goes into the Peace Corps and it becomes very clear that this guy doesn't know a soul in Providence and so I, you know, something in me just says, why, you know, why don't we get a drink later? He says yes and we meet up at this place called Custom House, this, like an old-timey bar in downtown Providence and we're having a drink, he's telling me all about his desire to do service in the world, I'm learning all about the Peace Corps and it's also getting kind of late. And so as I motion for the check, I make the mistake of asking him so where are you staying tonight? And he looks at me and he makes it worse and he goes actually, I don't have a place, and I'm thinking, oh, man, what do you do, right? We've all been there.
Yup. I've asked that question.
Do you offer to host this guy at my place, 'cause it's, the hotels are probably closed in Providence and I'm thinking, oh man, and before I know it, I'm saying out loud, why don't you stay on an air bed in my living room? And then I'm thinking to myself, oh God, what did I just do? So he comes back to my place, I set him up. I had this one air bed, I set him up in the living room, and I retire to my bedroom and I'm laying there trying to fall asleep, staring at the ceiling going.
That's a total stranger.
Oh my God, what have I done?
There's a stranger in my front room.
I don't know if this guy's psychotic or not, I just met him. I think he's going to the Peace Corps but I don't actually know if he's going to the Peace Corps, right? And so I'm like, I'm having this, like, my heart's racing, and I'm like, and I leap up out of bed in the darkness and I tiptoe over to the door and I lock the door, 'cause there's a stranger in my living room. (laughter) So the next morning, we get up and we go have breakfast together and it turns out he's, you know, not psychotic. He goes to the Peace Corps, he sends me postcards while he's off, out in the world, turns out he came back, he's now a teacher in Chicago and the piece of the screen print that he bought from me is now hanging on the wall in his classroom.
Incredible, what a memento.
It was, it was a moment, and so.
Obviously there's a seed in there, of course.
Well, who knew? But what there was in there was an air bed.
'Cause that's what I packed in my jeep. Drove across the country, get to San Francisco, have this amazing time at Chronicle Books, really see a wonderful culture from the inside out. Had an amazing leader of the company, Michael Carabetta, and I see a design team working out scale, all those things. Really my first impression of, like, a company, and at a certain point I realized that, you know, if I'm really gonna take on creating a company like, things are getting a little bit comfortable, I took a full-time job at Chronicle, they offered me full time and I stayed and I was now like a year and a half in. Meanwhile I have CritBuns in the background, of course, nights and weekends, I'm running that, I've got a second web startup that I've created.
Inspired by CritBuns, I don't have time to get into it now, but it was my first foray into really designing for the internet and really doing, like, production-quality web-service.
That was all premised on, the elevator pitch was Google for sustainable materials. 'Cause in the process of making CritBuns, it was really hard to find any kind of environmentally conscious foam.
Yeah, I can imagine.
And I realized the foam didn't exist and there wasn't a website to look for it. Well, I'm not a material scientist, I'm not gonna make the foam, but I do know how to make a website, so a buddy and I started this website that allowed any designer, whether it was architects, fashion design, product design, whatever, you could connect with manufacturers that made these sustainable materials anywhere in the world. So here I am, I've got these two startups going, nights and weekends, I've got this day job, and I realize I need to pull the cord. Meanwhile, I'm also on the phone with Brian. He's living in Los Angeles, and I'm like, Brian, look, San Francisco is actually the epicenter for entrepreneurship.
You have to get here.
You have to get here. I recruited that guy for a year and he finally said yes. He finally had the guts, and I have to give him a lot of credit for leaving his life behind in Los Angeles with his friends, his job, packed his life into his Honda Civic, drove to San Francisco, we both simultaneously quit our jobs and it was the, like, there was so much enthusiasm in the air, like you could feel it, it was like the band was coming back together, right?
I'm out here to play, I'm at the coast.
We had no songs yet. We barely had any instruments.
But you knew.
We knew, like, something, something would come out of us, of the ping pong of us going back and forth on ideas. And so, that very same week that he moves up, it was the seminal letter in the mail from our landlord, I'll never forget it, Chase. I opened that letter, it says, "Dear Joe, your rent has now just gone up 25%." I dropped the letter, I run to my online banking account, and I watch as I have no paychecks anymore and the rent goes like this and we have a math problem.
Yeah, it's a very simple equation.
Brian had the same issue and suddenly a dark gray cloud forms over the apartment that we were living in, south of Market here in San Francisco and we're like, oh my God, we're gonna lose our apartment. How are we gonna make rent? And so it's like, we just drop into RISD mode, or creator mode, and we're like, okay, let's just start coming up with ideas, right? And we had a bunch that probably weren't any good and until one day, I'm in the living room, on my laptop and I'm looking up a design conference that's coming to San Francisco is the Industrial Designer Society of America.
And it was the international version, which meant that there were 5,000 people or so descending on San Francisco. And on the website it said the hotels are sold out, we're sorry. And saw this and I'm like, ah, that's terrible. The people who want to come last minute, where are they gonna stay, by the airport? And I look up into the living room and I'm like, we have so much space in our living room. And I'm like, I've got the air bed in the closet. So I run up, I pull the air bed out, blow it up, email Brian and say, hey, what do you think about this notion of hosting designers for this conference in the living room? And he's like awesome, yeah, it's a great idea.
Save on rent this month.
Yeah, save on rent. And then we realized well, we could actually invest in two more air beds and rent three out for the conference and have three guests. So we're like, okay, well now we need to get the word out about this, so, we decide that we could call this not a bed and breakfast, but the air bed and breakfast, and we would design an experience. We'd pick people up from the airport, we would cook breakfast in the morning, we'd give a map to the San Francisco and a BART pass to ride the subway. And so, this idea was born and we said okay, let's make a website. So Brian does the illustrations and I'm doing the coding, made a four or five page website, very simple, and we were so proud of our website that we made in, just, you know, a couple of days. But nobody knew this website even existed.
Classic Silicon Valley.
Classic Silicon Valley, right?
Beautiful product, no people.
Of which, yes. By the way, it had the longest URL you've ever heard, airbedandbreakfast.com, 18 character URL. We're like we have to get the word out. So one night, right before we went to bed, we email all of the design blogs that were covering the conference, Core77, Swissmiss, all of the guys, Coolhunting. And it was like, the next morning felt like Christmas. I mean we literally woke up and we pull up the websites and we're like, Brian, we're at the top of the design blogs and these headlines that said need a place this weekend for the conference? Crash with Joe and Brian in their SoMa loft on airbedandbreakfast.com. And literally this idea that we had, you know, not a week or two earlier, was suddenly broadcast internationally through these design blogs. So we started getting people from Brazil, from London, from Japan emailing us. I need a place to stay for the conference.
And we got so many inquiries people started sending us their LinkedIn profiles, their design resumes, trying to become one of the lucky three guests. One of the other headlines, I'll never forget, said network in your jamjams, stay in Air Bed and Breakfast during IDSA Conference. The Conference themselves emailed all the attendees and endorsed it. We even got some of the local design firms to email their designers to put up their rooms so we had like four or five rooms for that one weekend. And so it was incredible to see you had this hairbrained idea that you have no idea.
Pretty random idea, let's just call it what it is, right? It's out of survival.
Totally out of survival, right? We need to make enough cash to save our apartment for that month and, you know, this whole premise was just seeing two unrelated dots, and combining them in a new and a different way.
Anybody could have pulled out an air bed for that conference and made airbedandbreakfast.com, there was no technical innovation, there was no patent filed, there was no special algorithm, it was just like, there's a need and we have something that people want, like, let's do this. And let's design it.
So we end up hosting three guests that were all beyond our wildest expectations, 'cause I mean, who's gonna stay on an air bed in somebody's living room?
Like what kind of person do you think would stay on?
The crazy person.
The crazy person, maybe in their 20s, definitely like, male, like what woman would ever, come on?
Probably low on cash.
Probably low on cash, maybe a recent college grad. Everybody who stayed with us was over the age of 30, including a solo woman from Boston. So we had Catherine, Amol and Michael. Catherine was a web designer from Boston. Amol was an industrial design grad student from India. And Michael was a 45 year old husband and father who stayed on an air bed in our living room, right? They completely blew our assumptions of who might want to stay in somebody's home. So they arrive and we proceed to have the time of our life. I mean, we took them all around San Francisco to the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building, to our favorite breeder place in The Mission, we took them to our friend's house party after the conference each night. We were cooking breakfast in the morning, cooking dinner in the evening. I mean, it was an incredibly social experience and you can imagine the contrast of traveling to a city by yourself, attending the conference, and each night retiring to the seclusion of, you know, a somewhat generic room, by yourself, maybe watching t.v. in the dark versus the really lively nature of our apartment. Listening to music, cooking food, sharing stories. They were actually giving us tips on the web design, Catherine was actually helping us with web design in real time from our living room. And, you know, it really, it touched them, too.
They got to experience San Francisco through the eyes of people who lived here.
It's an emotional, that's one of the things that I realized about AirBNB, it's an emotional experience, like getting excited about seeing your place. 'Cause I mean, yeah, there's pictures and that's, but there's an emotional connection that you have with doing something different than you normally would have done or being part of a movement that is more ecological and interesting and curated than all these other things. And you can even have that on day one. It's so powerful.
Well, yeah, and the power of the design commonality that allowed us to trust each other went the distance. That was really, really an important part of all of it.
I wanna wind it up, so you're, you guys, you have this idea, and at this point do you say let's try and, you know, if it worked once, let's try and do it five more times?
This was a weekend project that was meant to save the apartment, however, I do remember saying goodbye to the guests, the door latch clicks closed, I look at Brian and I go, did we just get paid to be friends?
That was incredible. So the gears did begin to turn very slowly. And that's when, that's when, this is more serendipity in the story. When Brian moved out, or sorry, when Brian moved in, it's because one of my roommates moved out. That roommate was a guy named Nate Blecharczyk. Nate I found on Craigslist. Nate happened to be a computer science major from Harvard, who moved to San Francisco to work in startup. Nate was one of those guys that is in so many ways, the opposite of me but in so many ways, similar to me. He has a computer science background, he's extremely pragmatic in the best way. And at night we'd both come home and be in the living room working on our own businesses. He had his side projects, I had CritBuns and the other website. And I remember looking over my shoulder being like, wow, this guy loves to work, we share the same work ethic.
Little did I know, he was saying the same thing about me. It was like, if I ever need an engineer, I'm gonna go tap his shoulder. And he's like, if I ever need a designer, he's gonna talk to me. So, after this one weekend, I go to Nate and I share this experience of these three guests, and I say, you know, we're thinking about the next version of this, what do you think? Nate's like, this is awesome, he loved the premise of using the internet to get people offline back to the real world. So a few, like a month or two passes, we're now October 2007 is when we housed the guests. November, December, we go home for the holiday break, and this is an important moment, 'cause I went back to Atlanta, to Georgia, and of course, everybody's asking, what are you working on? What's going on in San Francisco? And you're like, well. What are you entrepreneuring out there? (laughter)
Yeah, watcha makin'? And I remember, I didn't have a lot going on. But I did tell them about this Air Bed and Breakfast thing, and something remarkable happened. People went very quickly into one of two camps, they either loved it and they're like that's the coolest thing I've ever heard of, I would totally stay in somebody's home, 'cause I get the local nature, and some people were like, oh my God, what?
You did what, you let who into your home? No thank you, and they went the other direction. And I actually think that was a pretty good sign.
Yeah, that's the best.
Like, I think, I think in the early stages of an idea, it's important to have, to go to the edges, right? Like you don't have to like, serve everybody all at once, but at least have people who get so excited and passionate about it, even if there are people who are like, no, you're crazy, that's weird, never do it. So Brian had the same experience, we came back in January, we're sharing this with each other, we're like, yeah, it's time to do this. So we call up Nate, we're like, Nate we have this big idea. We want to make air beds for conferences. This is the big grand idea.
That's great, you're gonna make hundreds. (laughter)
Probably, so we're like what's the next big conference? South by Southwest is coming up. The hotels sell out there, this is gonna be perfect, FourSquare launched there, Twitter launched there, we're gonna launch there and it's gonna take off like a rocketship. So we, for two weeks we sprint, all nighters, tons of Red Bull, we get the next version of Air Bed and Breakfast just in time for South by Southwest. And we had a total of four hosts and two reservations one of which was Brian.
Wow, talk about a complete bellyflop.
Oh my God, like it couldn't have gone worse.
So, you yo-yo a little bit, right?
Success, then lack of it. You start sharing your idea. It's time to raise some money, you have enough traction now to, to, I wanna go back to the concept of rejection. I also wanna be mindful of our time, I promised we'd be outta here in a little bit, but, to me this is a very pivotal concept for the folks at home, for what I know about your story, which is, there's so many details you're able to fill in for me here since you're fact to face, but, what happens when you tell people your idea and they tell you you're crazy? Does it go back to the professor at RISD, is this like a recurring theme, yeah? 'Cause you guys were laughed out of the room, right?
We were. So, from South by Southwest, it looks like the concept's not gonna work, however, we learned two very important things. The first is that exchanging money in person in somebody's home is very awkward. Nobody wants to do that.
How much do I owe ya? Like 24?
Cash, okay, here you go. And the second thing is that people are like, hey I wanna use your site, but there's no conference, how do I do that? And so we had this realization, well maybe this is about travel and maybe we bring the convenience of online payments into the equation so we remove the awkwardness of that experience. And so we retooled that summer a third time, we relaunched for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, because there was a housing shortage of 100,000 people coming to a city of 20,000 hotel rooms. The mayor wanted to open the city parks so that people could pitch tents.
This was a real issue. So we relaunch in time for that, and we're starting to get press now, we're on CNN, we're in Le Monde, it goes international, we have 800 hosts in Denver, like this is crazy, we have hundreds of people using our service for that one weekend. Customer service is blowing up, which at the time was my cell phone.
Literally, people calling me like, I can't find the address, how do I get there? I'm like, okay, make a left, where are you now? Like it was all hands on deck, but it was working, we saw this marketplace actually functioning. And so we're like this is a great time to raise money. Let's go out into the community here in Silicon Valley. So we got introduced to twenty different people in Silicon Valley, a lot of names which you know and your listeners know. Ten of them returned our email, five of them met us for coffee, zero invested in our company. They all thought it was crazy, they all thought it was weird, it would never happen at scale and they couldn't imagine a business model that was based on strangers staying in strangers' homes. Which didn't make sense, I mean, looking back, it makes a ton of sense. Why? Because we've all grown up with this bias that we've been taught since we were kids.
That strangers equal danger. And that was the hurdle that we had to overcome. People couldn't conceptualize beyond that bias. And so, in the face of all that rejection, which hurt, that didn't feel good. These are credible, these are the guys that went behind YouTube and Google and PayPal and Facebook, telling you your idea sucks. You know, like?
Like go back to your, go back to the Gareth factor. (laughter)
Back to the Gareth factor.
You proved him wrong though.
Well, you know, it is a good question, like what kept us going in the face of credible rejection? The only answer that I have is that we had a personal experience of what it felt like to host people in our home. And the joy that we felt, that we saw our guests take away from their trip was enough to say, you know, we just believe if we keep going, if people can see what we saw, they'll enjoy it as much as we did. So we kept going, like, we just have to get to that point where people can get a taste and a little glimpse of what transpired in our apartment for those five days. And we think if they see what we saw, we think they'll like it, too.
And I think it worked. Speed round.
What role did photography play in changing the trajectory of AirBNB?
Huge. We might not be here today without it.
Put simply, like, photographs were the mechanism by which to sell your product.
So we're on our last limb, the DNC kind of fades away and it's crickets again. If only there was a political convention every weekend.
Right, that'd be huge.
Huge. We get on a, a kind of like, a Hail Mary pass, we get into Y Combinator in 2009. We're one of 16 companies in Y Combinator. And this was like, literally our last breath. We have a conversation before the first day, we said, Brian, Nate and I, we sat down and we said, you know, we'll give it three months of 110%, we'll put everything else in our lives aside. Girlfriends and side projects and even friends, social life, off. 110% focused, we became militant during Y Combinator. And we said, you know, at the end of three months, we'll reevaluate and if it's not working, we'll go our separate ways, but at least we'll know we gave it our full effort. And so we go into YC with that mentality, and Paul Graham on the very first day gives us this incredible piece of advice. He says go meet your people. Go meet your early adopters, talk to them, listen to them, hear what's going on in their minds. Which was based around his premise of make something people want. It's actually what it says on the t shirt at Y Combinator. Make something people want. And this, Chase, was a seminal moment for us because it completely was orthogonal to the myth of Silicon Valley. Which is that you have to solve problems in a scalable way, that's the beauty of code, that one line can serve one customer or 10,000 or a hundred plus. And so us, and the dismal trajectory of our business in the early days of AirBNB, where there's no growth, flat as can be, was us trying to code our way through problem, sitting behind the safety of our own computers. Paul Graham demystified that, he said go out into the world, leave the comfort of your computers, go talk to your customers. And we're like, well, we don't really have many customers, but New York City's showing some promise. We had 30 hosts. So he looks at us and he's goes, you're early adopters are New York City? We go yeah, and he goes what are you still doing here? Go to New York City. And we're like well what are we gonna do? So we brainstorm and as we're looking at the search results, we notice a pattern. The hosts, while very earnest in what the want to offer, were not the best photographers. And so the pictures were taken at night, the homes weren't really staged that well, there were dishes in the sink, toilet seat was up, et cetera, and you're kind of looking at these photos like, I wouldn't really wanna stay there. And we're thinking now, I've done photography throughout my life, took classes at RISD, what if we just solved this problem ourselves? Let's actually go fly to New York for one weekend, we'll rent a wide angle lens camera and we'll just go door to door, Manhattan and Brooklyn, taking photos. And that is exactly what we did.
This, like, folks at home, pay attention to this. This is the most manually, like most non-scalable thing, was the thing that actually unlocked your business.
Speed round number two. Advice that, or, what's something that if people found out about you, they would be surprised to know? One sentence.
I've seen Michael Jordan naked in person. (laughter)
Maybe the best answer of all time in that chair. There have been many men and women in that chair. That could be the best answer of all time. Something that you are surprised about every day when you go to work at one of the most successful unicorn whatever accolades we can heap on you, multi-billion dollar whatever. What surprises you everyday when you go into work?
The people I get to work with. I don't know how else to put it. You know, there's so many old adages of hire people who are better than you.
Which, I subscribe to, I think most of us in the company have.
And, I feel really lucky because I get to work with some of the best, again, seventh grade basketball coach, play with people who are better than you.
There's so many lessons from your childhood. It's like, and you're a beautiful storyteller, and there's this recurring, eternal return of the same concepts. What's next?
Oh boy. Well, recently, we announced that we are leveraging a new portion of the AirBNB platform to help house those who have been displaced in the world.
Refugees. About five years ago when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, a few, 10,000 plus people went homeless overnight. We had a host email us and say I wanna offer my guest rooms for free, how do I do that? At the time you couldn't, but we said why not? It sparked this 24 hour engineering marathon where we reconfigured our platform to allow that capacity. So within a matter of days we had a few thousand rooms available to house those in New York. We realized that wasn't a one off, that there'd be other situations like that in the world and since then we've been able to provide housing, sometimes in a matter of hours, to, you know, victims of typhoons and fires and floods in 65 different situations in 17 countries. And it's been incredible, this is five years of seeing this generosity of people who have a home and want to offer it to those who have been rendered homeless. And it's, something happened about a year ago where we decided to shift. We said what if we moved from being reactive to being proactive, what if we tapped into that natural generosity, of which there's now three and a half million people with a home on our service all over the world.
What if we were to leverage that generosity on a daily basis for things that we can plan for and predict in advance? Certainly the topic of refugees is one of those things. There's 65 million displaced people today. UNHCR predicts there will be 325 million in 2044, in our lifetimes, there'll be as many people, the population of the United States will be displaced globally and we thought, well this is something that maybe we can put a tiny dent in, in our own special way. So we've building out the technology that allows anybody who has a spare bedroom down the hall to offer it to either someone that's been displaced by a natural disaster or someone who's getting resettled in the United States, or internationally, in France and in other countries abroad. And ultimately, what my dream is that in addition to growing AirBNB, which we're doing, is to on the side, is to perhaps build the world's largest humanitarian housing platform that can help in these times of need. That's what's next for us.
You just don't stop. What I love about what we just spoke of over the last almost 90 minutes now, I've listened to a lot of interviews of you, we're both Greylock companies, we were at the CEO Summit not too long ago, when you got to sit down with Reed, I feel like I know a lot about your story, I got more gangster details in this 90 minutes, thank you so much for sharing stuff I haven't heard elsewhere. This is too good. Anything else before we go? What else do I, I mean you've said it all, but.
Oh, there's a lot more, I mean, if people want to get involved with any of the refugee work, they can learn more by going to AirBNB.com/welcome.
Beautiful, thank you so damn much for being on the show, man, I appreciate it.
Thanks, Chase, for having me.
Folks at home, that is something you don't get everyday, lessons from someone who has built a company like that and done it the hard way, the way that you and I would do it, one step in front of another. Signing off for another one of these epic shows. We'll probably see you again I guess tomorrow.