Hard Problems, Big Opportunity

By Nathan Blecharczyk

This post is being re-posted from our general audience blog.

Airbnb is creating a new marketplace for space, and is facing many of the challenges that eBay faced back in 1998 when they created a new marketplace for goods. Though Airbnb doesn’t move petabytes of data or process thousands of messages per second (yet), we facilitate a massive amount of commerce. This post is for the software engineers in the audience who are curious about the types of challenges that we face.

Here are some illustrations of how we are innovating:

Payments. Each month Airbnb collects and pays millions of dollars in over 100 different countries. To facilitate this exchange we integrate with dozens of local payment providers and maintain bank accounts in several currencies. What are the local services we can leverage? What are the benefits/limitations of those services?

Search. In New York City alone Airbnb has 3,600 diverse properties — — more choices than any other accommodation site. How do we compute relevance when the factors are at a minimum a combination of availability, location, price, reputation, type of space, etc? How do we sort by price when it is a function of dates and a multitude of business rules? How do you make the comparison process manageable to the user?

Standardized Processes. Airbnb has over 40,000 available properties. The property owners ultimately dictate the quality of the Airbnb experience. Some of the owners are first-time renters; others have rented for years and have their own modus operandi. How do we get them to adopt a standard set of operating practices relating to cancelations, cleaning fees, communication, payment, scheduling, security deposits, etc? How do we train them to cooperate through a balance among education, incentives, and penalties?

Fraud. With commerce comes fraud. Deviants from around the world are trying to “beat” our system everyday. We have to proactively identify suspicious behavior and quarantine users until additional verification steps can be taken. What are the patterns that we can identify? How do we avoid false positives? How do we allow users to prove their innocence? How do we share our intelligence with the greater community?

User Acquisition. Airbnb makes money when owners make money. Airbnb has a unique product that converts visitors to travelers very well. How do we use the targeting capabilities of ad networks combined with our backend tracking capabilities to maximize ROI? What we can learn from click tracking? How can we monetize our existing user base through follow up marketing? What network effects exist?

We are seeking talented engineers to solve problems like these. Please check out our job openings.

Check out all of our open source projects over at airbnb.io and follow us on Twitter: @AirbnbEng + @AirbnbData

Originally published at nerds.airbnb.com on November 7, 2010.