Fresh off a 20 hour flight from San Francisco, Joe Gebbia could be forgiven for being a little jet lagged when we sit down to talk about AirBnB’s latest launch – Trips – in Singapore. But as our conversation moves to sneakers, the 35-year-old AirBnB co-founder’s eyes light up.
He’s what the young’uns call a hypebeast, a person who buys, collects and wears sneakers. But he’s been in the game for a long time. “I started collecting sneakers in middle school and I drove my parents crazy,” Gebbia reminisces. He’s already lost count of the sneakers he has although he tells me that he only wears a dozen of them on a regular basis. The rest, it seems, are still in their boxes or displayed on a shelf. He has everything from the old Nikes to the more recent Yeezy Boosts and NMDs.
And while sneakers are a grand passion, it pales in comparison to the love he has for design. He’s absolutely bonkers about it. He sincerely believes that good design is the key to creating a better product and a better future. It was the magic of design that propelled AirBnB to the top.
Today the firm is valued at $30 billion and is the second-most valuable American tech startup after Uber. But just like Uber, AirBnB too is facing its own set of problems, ranging from clashes with regulators to global uncertainty. Gebbia tells us more.
Do you think AirBnB’s design ethos, centred on trust and reputation, can solve immigration woes?
Absolutely. We’re finding ways to do that now for groups that do face biases. For example, the topic of displaced people, or refugees, in the world. Right now there’s more displaced people than ever before since World War II. It’s been called the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.
In the US, there is a bias that exists, consciously or not, of displaced people in the world. And so one of the questions we’re asking is how we can put a dent in that bias, the same way we put a dent in the “stranger danger” bias.
Our first initiative was to create the capacity for hosts to have displaced people for dinner. So we started Supper with Us. We ran 90 suppers in the last couple of months and we got testimonials from guests and hosts saying pretty remarkable things. One host told us that her Trump-supporting father came and had dinner with an Afghan family and said that he was mesmerised by their story. We’ve had people write us and say that their perception of displaced families in the world completely changed after the course of just one dinner.
It’s incredibly inspiring to see how finding ways to create intimacy between two groups who otherwise might not have that space to come together can truly shift the way people come to understand one another.
Did the father still support Trump after the dinner?
(Laughs) I’m not sure but I’m sure he’s more open-minded about displaced families.
I want to get your thoughts about the evolution of the sharing economy. For example, Uber is buying cars to create inventory here in Singapore, in essence becoming the company it was trying to disrupt. Will AirBnB ever head in that direction?
The strength of our business is the fact that we don’t own any properties anywhere in the world. We get to build the platform that stewards our hosts globally. This is not going to change. For us it doesn’t become any more advantageous to own property than it does to invest in the tools that allow property owners to rent out from our site.
What’s the next step then?
In 2012, we created a storyboard of the ideal guest trip on AirBnB, from the booking experience to the flight to the things you did. So we’ve known for a few years that we wanted to expand from just offering accommodation to planning your whole trip.
“Experiences” is our answer. It’s a great example of the platform expanding to a wider audience. Now, for the first time, those who don’t have a home or an extra space can participate in the AirBnB community. You can share your neighbourhood, your skills, your passion, etc. for guests coming through your city by offering these experiences.
Do you think Experiences will be a contentious point for governments?
It depends. If you look at it through the lens of job creation, I think this is a new way of incrementally creating jobs and benefiting communities, something lawmakers stand for. We have a host in Paris, one of our first Experience hosts back in 2014, who gives a personalised walking tour of Le Marais. He told us that in six months, he made $3,000 renting out his home. Over the same period of time, he made $15,000 from Experiences.
What about accusations that AirBnB is driving up prices of homes and creating a housing crunch?
I understand that when something is going wrong, there is an eagerness to find a cause. But I would say that if we didn’t exist as a company, rents would still be going up.
We believe in education. We sit down with policymakers to show them the data and the facts and what it means economically and also emotionally for their constituents.
It’s through those conversations that cities come to appreciate what we do. We’ve forged deals with cities, over 200 globally in places such as Japan, Chicago, New Orleans, London, etc. These are some of the major cities who are working with us because they know that the sharing economy is not going away.
Don’t get me wrong. We do believe in regulation and paying taxes. It’s just a matter of being fair and balanced.
Could you tell me more about your upcoming IPO?
(Laughs) What upcoming IPO? We don’t have any plans for an IPO. No plans. At all.