Chief Innkeeper at Year of the Startup

Photo Courtesy of Aaron Kessler and Silicon Prairie News

If I believed in carrying business cards, my title would read “Chief Innkeeper” at Year of the Startup — if I’m being completely honest with myself.

I’m referring to the predominance of our Airbnb operations. In case you’re unfamiliar, Airbnb is a popular online vacation rental platform that allows regular people to turn their spare bedrooms into hotel rooms, providing a more unique and authentic experience for travelers.

Year of the Startup relies on revenues generated from renting out the spare bedrooms in the startup house to subsidize (what’s supposed to be) our primary activity of providing free, shared living for early stage entrepreneurs who are solving important problems.

What began as recreational innkeeping has now evolved into a case of dependency. You see, the integration of Airbnb into the Year of the Startup model was like many things in startup life, it was completely unplanned. Here’s what happened. Starting out, we had no spare bedrooms, we had a house full of early stage founders (preemies) working on individual startup projects. One of the guys in the program had a serious girlfriend and she had kids, so he would stay at her house regularly, sometimes not making an appearance at the startup house for days or more.

Around late October I finally had a conversation with him explaining that if he wasn’t going to be regularly present and keep the startup house as his main residence then his room would be sacrificed to the vacation rental gods. Unfazed, he agreed that this was the best course of action.

I was particularly interested in this option to relieve some of the financial burden I was shouldering. At the time, I was working another job and paying $1800 out of pocket to run the program. From previous experience and research, I estimated that I could cover half of all program related unfunded liabilities with the opening of this one room.

After about one month of perusing Pinterest and local second hand stores for interior design inspiration, I finally picked out decor and got the spare bedroom up to snuff and listed on Airbnb.

Starting out, we got very lucky with having not only outstanding guests, but guests who stayed with us for long periods of time.

First there was Mario. He was from Wichita. He worked for a small chain restaurant called Pita Pit. He was sent to Omaha to clean up the mess made by the previous GM at the Omaha Pita Pit who made news when she faked a store robbery, embezzled thousands, and conned Borsheims into giving her a diamond ring after claiming her ring was stolen during the faked robbery. Mario stayed with us for 3 weeks and became an amazing friend to all of our founders and brought with him a unique perspective and a love for sending odd snapchats and sharing his microbrews with us.

Then there was Lesa who stayed for 3 weeks while working on her dissertation for her Ph.d program. She was in Omaha studying economic mobility in African American and South Sudanese women. Lesa had great energy and she is the one who made us realize that we could turn our living room into a coworking space.

Then came Julie. Julie stayed with us for a long time as she completed code school at Interface. She was from Fargo, ND where they have the Fargo Startup House. She relayed tons of great insights about that program that we have since learned from and implemented.

I had originally thought that us having an Airbnb room could detract from the program but we found the exact opposite to be the case. Having more capital on hand allowed for us to do things like take our entrepreneurs on a field trip to the Kansas City Startup Village and stay at Ben Barreth’s Homes 4 Hackers startup house. The experience in Kansas City was amazing. While in Kansas City we learned that the Homes 4 Hackers program also utilized Airbnb as a way to cover some of its costs.

One other immediate benefit from using Airbnb was that the startup house became way cleaner and our startups became more disciplined which helped us distance our program from frat house comparisons.

One of our Airbnb guests even moved in with my grandma after staying with us. She now affectionately refers to my grandma as her grandma. She is also joining the program this year working to solve an important problem in developing countries with her nonprofit concept.

It has not been all butterflies and unicorns, however. By summer, we acquired two additional properties for the upcoming year and to pay for the expansion, we would yet again run rental rooms out of these properties until the start of the program year. Suddenly, Year of the Startup had 19 bedrooms under its control and about 10 were being used for Airbnb rentals. Some small hotels only have 10 rooms! This summer alone I purchased 10 beds and 20 bed sets!

What makes Airbnb safe and effective became a source of stress. With Airbnb’s Yelp-esque review system Jason, our community manager, and I were constantly working hard to avoid a bad review which could cripple our business. You know the old saying: “what Airbnb giveth, Airbnb can taketh away.”

We had over 200 guests between our 3 startup houses this summer. One notable guest was in from Australia. Having recently achieved a sobriety and reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, he secured a book deal and set out to retrace the route taken in “On the Road” and recreating the journey, sober. The book was to be called “On the Wagon” and the experience staying at our startup house here in Omaha will be part of the book.

We even had 20+ travelers stay in our Airbnb tent that we set up in the backyard of our first startup house this summer.

More recently, we have seen our guests become evangelists and possible angel investors. Ask Eric from Nightlife Transit about how the angel investment is going the next time you see him.

Our recreational use of Airbnb slipped into a full blown addiction. A classic case of “one thing lead to another.” Apparently this is par for the course, however. After chatting with Liberty from Startup House Oakland, when my friend stayed in the Airbnb room at Liberty’s startup house, I got a real sense of how important this steady revenue and constant influx of interesting, brilliant, and diverse people is for a startup house operation.

Going forward, we do realize that we have a disproportionate amount of eggs in the Airbnb basket so we are in search of other revenue streams that will allow us to continue setting up communities for promising, early stage entrepreneurs. For the time being, we are happy to push all of the chips in and ride this wave. As weather forces act on rocks to determine appearance, so to have market forces acted upon Year of the Startup and determined what we look like and who we are. Some days, I’m not sure if we are a startup house program who does Airbnb on the side or an Airbnb operation who does a startup house program on the side.

Either way, our survival and expansion are greatly owed to the integration of Airbnb into our model.

Operating several Airbnb units has been hugely beneficial for in the development of my business acumen. This year we’re experimenting with having our pre-revenue startups manage their own Airbnb room to see if the the experience is as formative in their business development as it is for Year of the Startup.

With that said, if anyone from Airbnb is reading this and wants to be an official sponsor of Year of the Startup, I can be reached at 903–806-xxxx.


Sabastian Hunt

Chief Innkeeper at Year of the Startup.