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Letter #115: Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nate Blecharczyk (2020)
Co-Founders of Airbnb | What Makes Airbnb, Airbnb
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Today’s letter is the Airbnb S-1 Shareholder Letter What Makes Airbnb, Airbnb by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nate Blecharczyk. In this letter, the trio reflects on their journey from idea to IPO. They first set the stage by acknowledging the challenging times they went through when the pandemic hit, but share how it reinforced their core values: 1) community is based on connection and belonging, 2) creativity generates new possibilities for people, and 3) responsible to all stakeholders. At the end of the day, Airbnb is built on the fundamental belief that people are good and are in it together.
Brian, Joe, and Nate founded “AirBedandBreakfast” in 2008 to offer short-term living quarters and breakfast for those unable to book hotels. Brian and Joe came up with the idea when they were new grads struggling to make rent in San Francisco and decided to rent out three air mattresses in their apartment, and Nate later joined them. They gained widespread attention for selling cereals inspired by the two Presidential candidates of 2008: John McCain (Cap’n McCain’s) and Barack Obama (Obama O’s), but despite the media attention, they were still struggling to grow, or even stay afloat. But everything changed when they applied to Y Combinator. During the interview process, YC cofounder Paul Graham (PG) called them cockroaches (which has since entered the Silicon Valley lexicon as a compliment), and it was during the program that PG encouraged the trio to go to their customers and talk to them. This seemingly simple insight led to a customer-obsessed experience, which was no doubt aided by the teams’ design background. They went on to raise billions of dollars from funds like Sequoia, Greylock, a16z, Dragoneer, and more. Today, they’re valued at ~$100bn.
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Thirteen years ago, Joe, Nate, and I created a company that was viewed at the time as an unlikely idea to work. Airbnb has always been a little different, and as we take our company public, we feel compelled to tell you a little more about what makes Airbnb, Airbnb.
We started writing this letter in March. Then the pandemic hit. When borders closed and travel stopped, our business declined by nearly 80%. We had to put our IPO on hold, and I don’t think many people expected us to go public this year. I know some people questioned if we’d make it at all. What has transpired since then has been our most defining period since we started Airbnb.
They say that a crisis has a way of revealing your true character. We would like to tell you about what this crisis revealed about who we are.
First, our model is inherently adaptable. Over the summer, after months of being stuck inside their homes, people were yearning to connect with their loved ones in a safe way. They decided to get in their cars and travel close to home, often staying in small towns and rural communities. Because we have millions of hosts who offer nearly all types of homes and experiences around the world, we were able to adapt to the new use cases guests wanted — from working remotely from another home, to taking extended trips with family and friends. Our business rebounded faster than anyone expected, and it showed that as the world changes, our model is able to adapt.
This crisis reinforced three truths that are even more core to who we are, and how we intend to operate for generations to come. As our prospective investors, we want to tell you about each.
Connection and belonging
When we started Airbnb, it was about more than just travel. In 2007, Joe and I were roommates in San Francisco, and we were trying to figure out how to pay our rent. That weekend, a design conference was coming to San Francisco and hotels were sold out, so we inflated three airbeds and turned our apartment into an Airbed & Breakfast. We hosted three guests — Michael, Kat, and Amol — and in doing so, we became the first hosts on Airbnb. Our guests arrived as strangers, but they left as our friends. The connections we made that weekend led Joe and I to realize, “Maybe there’s a bigger idea here!” Soon after, Nate joined, and we created a way for people around the world to be hosts, just like us.
Since then, we’ve grown from two hosts in San Francisco to a community of over four million hosts all over the world. On the surface, what people come to Airbnb for is a new way to travel, but below the surface, what they find on Airbnb is connection. They experience a deeper connection to the communities they visit and the people who live there. This connection is delivered by our hosts, and they provide guests with a deeply personal experience — after all, guests are welcomed in their homes, and they live in their communities.
When the pandemic hit, we knew we couldn’t pursue everything that we used to. We chose to focus on what is most unique about Airbnb — our core business of hosting. We got back to our roots and back to what is truly special about Airbnb — the everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences. We scaled back investments that did not directly support the core of our host community.
This focus came at the right time. People are feeling increasingly disconnected in the world, and loneliness is pervading our society. The opposite of loneliness is belonging — the feeling of deep and genuine connection to a person, a place, or community. It’s the feeling of being “at home.” The feeling of being known and loved.
We are a community based on connection and belonging, and we will continue to design new ways to provide for it. We believe that we’ve only scratched the surface:
We will focus on connection and belonging.
We will prioritize the individual hosts who deliver it.
We will invest in building our community.
As the world continues to change, people’s fundamental need for connection and belonging will not. This is what we will remain focused on.
Airbnb was born with a creative spirit, much like the environment at the Rhode Island School of Design where Joe and I went to college together. We brought this creative spirit to Airbnb, and it’s one of the most defining parts of our culture. We use our curiosity and imagination to come up with unconventional solutions. In fact, starting Airbnb was in itself a creative act — the biggest ideas are often leaps of the imagination.
While we are dreamers, we are also pragmatic. At the center of being creatively-led is our design-driven approach. At Airbnb, design isn’t just how something looks, it’s how it fundamentally works. We sit at the intersection of art and science, a commitment that started when Nate, an engineer, joined Joe and me. We used this approach to design a system of trust that allows strangers to live together, and a unique business model that allows hosts to share in our success. And it’s this approach that will continue to enable us to create new products and services that deliver connection, even beyond travel.
It is said that constraints breed creativity, and during the crisis our creatively-led approach was drawn on time and again to come up with unconventional solutions. Here are just a couple of examples:
With the onset of social distancing, we had to pause our in-person Airbnb Experiences, but in a matter of two weeks, our team pivoted the product to become Online Experiences — creating a new type of interactive experiences that connect people from all over the world.
Most recently, as we prepared to take Airbnb public, we wanted to find a new way for our hosts to continue sharing in our success. Rather than design a moment-in-time perk that would have limited impact, we created the Airbnb Host Endowment, an entity that we are seeding with over nine million shares of Airbnb company stock in order to provide support for hosts for as long as Airbnb exists.
These are just two examples of the dozens of creative solutions that this crisis brought about. We believe our creativity will allow us to continue designing new possibilities for people:
We will use curiosity and imagination to create unconventional solutions.
We will take a unique, design-driven approach.
We will ensure creative people always have a seat at the table.
Being creatively-led is core to who we are and how we will run Airbnb.
Responsibility to our stakeholders
Airbnb has always existed as a delicate balance between our five stakeholders — our guests, our hosts, the communities that we operate in, our employees, and our shareholders. In 2018, we set out to institutionalize our responsibility by defining a series of principles to serve each of our stakeholders. These principles were put to the ultimate test during the crisis.
When travel stopped and borders closed, our guests needed to cancel their reservations, many of which were non-refundable. In the face of the pandemic, we issued more than $1 billion in refunds guided by our extenuating circumstances policy. While this helped our guests, it created problems for our hosts — half of whom depend on their Airbnb income to pay their rent or mortgage. For our hosts, we committed to pay up to $250 million to those impacted by cancellations. To protect our shareholders’ investments, we significantly reduced our expenses and raised $2 billion in debt. When faced with the difficult decision to let many of our employees go, we focused on treating every employee with respect and compassion — providing generous severance packages and extensive job search support. And for the communities that we operate in, we partnered with thousands of hosts who generously offered their homes to nurses, doctors, and many others working on the front line of the pandemic.
There is an emerging focus in the business world on serving stakeholders. But there’s a false notion that to give to one, you have to take from another. While in the short run there may be trade-offs, in the long run, and when approached with creativity, we believe that we can design a win-win for all of our stakeholders:
We will design for the long-term benefit of all stakeholders.
We will measure our progress for serving each of them.
We will adjust when we don’t get it right.
Our responsibility to our stakeholders will continue to guide how we operate.
These are the ideas at the core of Airbnb:
Our community is based on connection and belonging.
Our creativity allows us to imagine new possibilities for people.
Our responsibility is to all of our stakeholders.
In the end, they all share a common thread — a fundamental belief that people are good and we’re in this together.
This is what makes Airbnb, Airbnb.
A crisis brings you clarity about what is truly important. You become thankful for not only what you have in your life, but for who you have in your life. We are thankful for everyone who stuck by us during our darkest hours.
Thank you to our employees — you have worked tirelessly day and night for our community and shareholders, often at great personal sacrifice.
Thank you to our investors — you invested in the seemingly impossible premise that strangers could live together, and you have stuck with us through thick and thin.
Thank you to our hosts and guests — without you, we wouldn’t even exist. You’ve proven to the world that people can, in fact, trust one another.
And finally, I would like to personally thank you, Joe and Nate, for being the best partners that I could ever ask for.
In the depths of this crisis, some people asked, “Is this the end of Airbnb?” It was not the end of Airbnb. In fact, it was just the beginning. It’s still early. We invite you to come on this journey with us.
Brian, Joe, and Nate
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