Airbnb continues to grow at an amazing pace, and now has served a total of 9 million guests in the five years since being founded. At Y Combinator’s annual Startup School event today, Airbnb co-founder and CTO Nate Blecharczyk demonstrated what hockey stick-like growth looks like after several years in a row.
“What happens when you append five hockey sticks together? What does that look like? That’s a really big hockey stick,” Blecharczyk asked after showing the growth charts of Airbnb’s last five years in a row, followed by the overall growth in its bookings.
The numbers are pretty incredible: It took four years for Airbnb to serve its first 4 million guests — a number which has grown to 9 million in the nine months since the end of last year. In the time since CEO Brian Chesky spoke at YC’s Startup School in 2010, the service has grown more than 73x, according to Blecharczyk.
But while the company has seen its bookings go dramatically up and to the right over time, it wasn’t always easy to get people on board. The first several years of Airbnb were a struggle to get the service up and running and to attract interest from investors.
“If you are successful, this will be the hardest thing you will do,” Blecharczyk told the audience.
Airbnb was famously founded after Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out air beds in their apartment to help make rent. But the founding team had a hard time building a service that took care of all user needs, and one that investors were interested in putting money into. In fact, it took several years before it became anywhere near what the product is today.
Some of that iteration came as a result of mistakes that were made along the way. Blecharczyk related an anecdote in which, after launching shortly before SXSW in 2008, Chesky stayed at the home of one of the company’s first hosts. But things got uncomfortable after he forgot to hit an ATM two days in a row, and the host began to wonder when he might get paid. This is when Airbnb decided it should start handling payments for guests and hosts.
The team also realized that it wasn’t just a platform for booking lodging during major events, when users began asking if they could find listings for casual travel.
One of the biggest takeaways from the speech was that founders need to be resilient and keep trying, even when they face difficult odds. That’s especially true when they hit the so-called “trough of sorrow”: the lull in activity after a big event or growth spurt, like what Airbnb felt after the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver.
Not long after that, the Airbnb founders refocused their energies and worked to become “ramen profitable” while attending Y Combinator. It’s there that the team received some of their best advice. For instance, Paul Buchheit’s suggestion that they try to serve a few users that love their product, rather than many who just like it.
They also took to heart Paul Graham’s advice to “do things that don’t scale.” That led Gebbia and Chesky to go to New York City and meet with some of their best hosts, snap photos of their apartment, and help them to improve their listings. It’s after the founders did that for 20-40 of its users that the service started to gain traction in that market.
Ultimately, that resulted in seed investment from Sequoia’s Greg McAdoo not long after, but Blecharczyk warned not to overlook all the hard work that came before. “So much happened so quickly. It looks really easy, but the journey is a really tough one,” he said.