In 2008, Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia could barely make rent. But, after hosting strangers on air mattresses at their apartment, they came up with a crazy business concept — people paying to stay in other people’s homes around the world. In pre-Uber times, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors told them their idea would never scale.
“The world thought we were crazy,” recalls Gebbia.
But the RISD grads were so passionate about their idea that they bootstrapped their company with a binder full of credit cards and sold politically themed cereal boxes during the 2008 presidential campaign – called Obama O’s and Captain McCains – for $40 a box. The tenacity behind the “collector edition” cereal boxes not only got them out of debt. but also impressed Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham enough to get the team accepted into the accelerator.
Gebbia recollects that Paul offered him the single greatest piece of advice he has ever received— “Go meet your people. Do things that don’t scale.”
There is a mythology in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obligated to “solve problems in a scalable way,” but for Airbnb, it was the wrong approach.
Chesky and Gebbia flew to New York – the city where they had the most early customers — and it was there, in their user’s homes, that they began to understand what problems people were having with the product. They found that many of their listing photos were blurry, so they rented a DSLR camera and walked door to door in Manhattan and Brooklyn to take photos of people’s apartments. Airbnb continues to encourage better quality images for listings and connects hosts to professional photographers, free of charge.
“We got so close that we go to step into their shoes for a moment and see the world through their eyes, and really see the pain points that they were feeling,” says Gebbia. “That’s the basic of innovation – you take an enlightened and empathetic point of view and combine it with your own unique point of view to create something new.” In a short period of time, the quality of listings improved and number of options increased.
Today, Airbnb has hosted over 40M guests in 34,000 cities around the world. “To any entrepreneur out there, you can’t take no for a answer” Gebbia warns, “We had really smart credible people out there telling us no. And had we listened to them there might not be Airbnb today.”