Scaling Airbnb with Brian Chesky — Class 18 Notes of Stanford University’s CS183C
Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 18 of Stanford University’s CS183C — Technology-enabled Blitzscaling — taught by Reid Hoffman, John Lilly, Chris Yeh, and Allen Blue. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Reid, John, Chris Yeh, and Allen’s entirely.
This class was an interview by Reid Hoffman of Brian Chesky — the founder and CEO of Airbnb.
Video of the class, notes are below:
Reid Hoffman: Can you tell the story of Airbnb in the early days? How did you get the idea? What was the founding story?
Brian Chesky: A number of people have told me that Airbnb is the worst idea that has ever worked (lol).
Before Airbnb I was different than most tech founders because I went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and studied industrial design.
Growing up, I never thought about being an entrepreneur, in fact I had never heard about anyone being an entrepreneur before. The closest thing to an entrepreneur I knew of was Bob of Bob’s Pizza in the town I grew up in. My parents were both social workers and when I told them I was going to art school they were sure I was going to move back home. My parents always told me if I got a job I should make sure I got one with health insurance. That was the extent of my perceived ambitions.
Going to RISD had a profound impact on me. All my life I had been taught to look straight ahead and do the normal path — anything different would lead me to the principal's office. However at RISD they told you because you were a designer, you could change things — that I could go out and do and change anything I wanted to do.
After school I got a job and one of my college friends Joe Gebbia kept trying to convince me to leave my job and move to San Francisco to do a startup. We had no idea what we wanted to do but we knew we wanted to do something. When I told my roommates I was leaving they thought I was crazy and needed an intervention.
At the time, I had $1,000 in my bank account and I drove to SF, this was in 2007. Upon arriving to San Francisco I had learned my portion of rent for the place we had was $1,200 so I literally didn’t have enough to pay rent. At the same time, there was this international design conference coming to SF and on the event page it showed all of the nearby hotels were completely sold out.
We had this idea that the designers coming to attend the conference needed a place to stay — we had no money — so what if we created a bed and breakfast for the design conference. The problem with this idea was we didn’t have any beds — however we did have 3 inflatable air beds. This is where we came up with the name “Air bed and breakfast” and our first site was airbedandbreakfast.com.
We ended up hosting 3 people in our home during the conference and at the time we thought this was a cool and funny way to make some money. While these three people were living with us, we had realized that the normal arc of a friendship that takes years to build — now took a few days when people were living with you in your home.
You normally don’t get to know people this quickly in the real world — in contrast the time it took to develop longstanding relationships is longer. One of the guests who stayed with us invited me to his wedding, one of the other ones changed his whole career trajectory because of that trip.
After this experience, Joe brought in Nathan Blecharczyk — one of his old roommates — and we decided to do this as a company. The core idea was — what if you could book someone’s home just like you could book a hotel room, anywhere in the world.
We didn’t have this flash of inspiration that Air bed and breakfast was going to be huge. In fact we started building a different product — a roommate search tool. We worked on this for 4 months and then realized “roommates.com” had already built this service. I couldn’t believe how much time we wasted on this before checking the URL roommates.com
When I went home for Christmas, my parents asked what I was doing — I didn’t want to say I was unemployed so I said I was an entrepreneur. This is when I learned that being an entrepreneur and being unemployed is just a difference in mindset (lol). When they asked what I was working on I told them about the Air bed and breakfast idea. After thinking about the idea more and talking about it more I decided that we should go back to the drawing board and do this idea.
We started off with air beds for conferences — we launched at SXSW in 2008. For all of SXSW we had 2 customers and I was one of them.
Reid Hoffman: I didn’t know you did a roommate search product until now, one of the first companies I did, Socialnet, also included a roommate search component in 1997.
Brian Chesky: It’s funny but the we didn’t think Air bed and breakfast would be a big idea. We thought it might be able to pay the rent until we could think of the big idea.
One thing I learned is, big ideas sound stupid in the beginning. I’ve always heard that if your idea is any good there is no problem with sharing it because people will dismiss it. Many ideas come from solving your own problem which aren’t life changing problems — but these ideas could potentially become life changing ideas.
Reid Hoffman: Can you share more about the early days after you had launched, how did you hustle to keep the idea going?
Brian Chesky: We actually “launched” multiple times. If you launch and no one noticed — you can just launch again. We had press that wrote about us multiple times for launching.
The first time we launched was with 3 people with air beds and the design conference, we launched a second time and no one noticed, then we launched a 3rd time at SXSW. At the time there wasn’t any payment system in the product and you had to stay in an air bed — we actually made our hosts provide air beds, you couldn’t stay on a real bed.
At this point we got the question that one of our guests wanted to stay in London but not for a conference — why did we have to only host around conferences? Someone asked to be able to book a real bed — why did it have to be an air bed? We reluctantly decided to list real beds and let guests book rooms without a conference.
The other thing we looked at differently was payments — we wanted guests to be able to book and pay hosts directly through us without an intermediary. We might have been the first people to do this. We looked at eBay and Etsy — who both started before us — but both of these sites would send you to Paypal to make a payment.
Trying to do our own payments was a crazy idea and it scared us. The ability for people to directly pay other people and have a reputation system attached to each person — it was scary — but we decided to do it.
In the summer of 2008 we completed the final version of Airbnb which let you book someone’s home — in 3 clicks. We took inspiration from Steve Jobs who created the iPod — designed to always be 3 clicks from a song. We designed Airbnb to be 3 clicks to get to a paid booking. Our initial site had a home page, search, reviews, and payments — most of the core components which are on the site today.
After this version of the product we were introduced to 15 angel investors — we were trying to raise $150K at a $1.5M valuation. 7 investors never responded, 8 replied — of those 4 said no “it didn’t fit within their thesis,” 1 said they didn’t like the market, and 3 just passed.
One of the people we met was Mike Maples of Floodgate and we were so confident after launching we decided to not have a deck and just show him our website. That day we launched (again) on TechCrunch and our whole site went down. I was in the pitch meeting without a deck and I typed in our website and our site was down — I was in the pitch meeting for an hour and the site was down the whole time it was really embarrassing. One lesson I learned is you should always have a deck just in case….
In the meantime how we were funding the company is we had a baseball card sleeve (ex. pictured to the left) which we used to put our credit cards in there. Joe and I both had ~$30K in credit card debt and this is what we were using to fund the company.
Our hope was looking bleak and we had a tough challenge ahead of us — the chicken and the egg problem — where we had to acquire both hosts and guests at the same time. We had the additional problem of we couldn’t just focus on one city because people were booking homes from out of town for conferences — so we had to focus on more than one city from the start.
We knew we needed to generate a ton of press to get a spontaneous combustion of both hosts and guests at the same time. We wanted to do this through an event so we thought of the most high profile event we could think of — the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The DNC in 2008 had 80,000 people coming and there were only 27,000 rooms in Denver where the conference was being held — we thought wow what a big opportunity.
We contacted CNN and the NYT and told them what Airbnb was about and they responded “no way, people don’t want to sleep in other people’s beds.” We contacted local newspapers and they ignored us. We were desperate for anyone to write about us so we started with small local bloggers. Once we had that, when people would google DNC they would see a story about us, local newspapers covered what the bloggers were saying, and national press covered what the local newspapers were saying.
We were still in debt but we got 80 bookings during the DNC. The downside was, after the DNC we had no bookings, we were a year into the business, we were in debt, every investor said no, we launched 3 times, we had national press, and it was unclear if we were going to be around. We were at rock bottom.
In debt and desperate one midnight, we had the idea if the “air beds” in air bed and breakfast wasn’t working — maybe we can sell “breakfast” instead. We started thinking about president themed cereal and we convinced a producer to make cereal for us and since we couldn’t pay them he would get a portion of the sales.
We hand folded 1,000 boxes of cereal, numbered each one, and sold them at $40 a box — We sold $30,000 worth of cereal and this is how we funded the company and came up with the phrase “be a cereal entrepreneur”.
In November 2008 we were back to being broke and we did not feel successful or talented at this point. A bunch of people had recommended we should go to YCombinator. We said “but we already launched already?” and they responded “but you are dying, you should apply to YC.”
We met with Paul Graham and he thought the idea was terrible, he said “are people really staying on air beds? what’s wrong with them?”. We told him the cereal story and he told us “if you can convince people to buy cereal, you might be able to convince people to rent air beds.” He told us we were the cockroaches of startups, that we could survive anything — this was the best compliment we had ever gotten — we were cockroaches.
Reid Hoffman: But YCombinator didn’t make your numbers change — what did you do that changed the inflection of the company?
Brian Chesky: YCombinator did two things that helped a lot.
First — YC created a structure for all of us to work on Airbnb full time and live together. Before we had other things going on — life is the enemy of a startup. Paul Graham always says that startups don’t die they just fade away.
While we lived together, we decided to wake up at 8am and sleep at 12am midnight and only work in between — nothing else. We did this for 4 months and completely dedicated ourselves to Airbnb.
Secondly — Paul Graham gave us a series of advice that changed our trajectory. The most important of this advice was that it was better to have 100 people who loved us vs. 1M people who liked us. All movements grow this way.
The problem with Silicon Valley is when you build an app you are expected to make the app go viral and reach millions of people. This is the worst way to think about it — it’s much better to get 100 people to love you. There was no way we could get 1M people on Airbnb, but we could get 100 people to love us.
This is when we decided to do things that wouldn’t scale. Getting 100 people to love you is hard — getting people to like you is much easier than getting people to love you. During YC, we would commute from Mountain View to New York City (where most of their hosts were) and we would meet with every single host. We would live with each of the hosts and write the very first reviews. We would also help them take photos because this was pre-iPhone and it was hard to get pictures onto your computer for our hosts.
We asked the host “what if we had a button you pushed and a photographer showed up to take pictures of your home?” The hosts loved this idea and I went out and borrowed a camera from a friend. The hosts were shocked that the founder was also the photographer — in fact we would also hand deliver the rent checks to our first hosts too.
If you can get even 1 person to love you, then you can go person by person — the challenge is how to scale that. It’s much easier to scale something — 100 people love vs. getting 1M who like you to love you.
At the end of YCombinator, Paul Graham said we needed to be ramen profitable because in 2009 Sequoia Capital had just published the RIP Good Times (below) presentation and warned the economic crisis was going to affect the venture capital market.
Paul Graham had warned us that there might not be any investors at demo day — can you imagine that? We had the choice to defer a batch or plan on getting profitable so we would never need funding.
We were really lucky to be able to raise $600K from Sequoia Capital despite the presentation — it was a big deal for us.
Reid Hoffman: Once you were doing well in New York City, when did you start moving to other cities? How did that happen?
Brian Chesky: Everyone loves to say they have network effects but Airbnb is a network. When we were in NYC our hosts were in NYC but our customers were all over the world — this is different than other marketplaces like Uber where both supply and demand are both location. Our guests in NYC would go back to their home locations, become hosts, then spread the word.
In the early days we also targeted a lot of events: the DNC, the Presidential Inauguration, music festivals, the World Cup, Olympics, etc. Events and PR were the main way we bootstrapped the network in the early days.
We also built this one-click-to-post integration with Craigslist where hosts could distribute their listing to Craigslist and get more distribution. We tried Google advertising but the main way we spread was word of mouth and PR. We didn’t do many partnerships — as a startup, partnerships never work because there is too much red tape and paperwork.
We found that with press the more absurd the idea — the better story it makes. Being provocative was good because people would tell other people about it.
When we would go into new cities, we would spend a lot of time educating the new hosts and we would host meetups with hosts in that city to turn on that market. In SF, it isn’t novel to meet the founder, but in smaller cities most people never meet the founder of the product they use — it was really novel.
I traveled city by city and our hosts would get so excited to meet us and they would tell their friends. We tracked the stats and we saw hosts got more engaged after they had met us. Building a community worked for us.
Reid Hoffman: That was a great warm-up story about the early days of Airbnb, let’s move on to the things Airbnb does which are unique. For example Airbnb is known for attention to design — and the 7 star design principal. Can you share more about this?
Brian Chesky: The paradigm with customers today is 5 stars. The problem with 5 stars is you have to be really bad to get 4 stars. Reaching 5 stars is just being nice enough — we wanted to build a product that you loved so much you would tell everyone. Travel has the potential to transform your whole life — I have met people on my own travels who changed my life.
At Airbnb, we strive to have our customers contact the company and demand a 6th star be added to our 5 star review because the experience was so good. Here’s how we think about service past 5 stars:
- 5 star service — You leave the airport, go to the Airbnb, your hosts are in the house, they let you in. This is 5 star. Worse than this is if your host is late (4 star) and the worst is if your host never showed up (1 star).
- 6 star service — All of the above + your host picks you up at the airport.
- 7 star service — All of the above + there is a limo waiting for you at the airport and inside the limo are your favorite chips and coconut water.
- 8 star service — There is a giant parade when you arrive at the airport and you are honored for coming.
- 9 star service — The moment you step off the plane there is 5,000 screaming fans holding signs for your arrive — we call this the Beatles check-in.
- 10 star — I could go all the way up to 30 stars — I won’t, but 10 stars would be when you arrive and a Tesla with your name on it is waiting for you and in the car the driver is Elon Musk, and instead of your Airbnb Elon, takes you to outer space.
I exaggerated this to make a point but the principle is if what you need to do is find 100 people who love you — 5 star is what people expect. For them to love you, you need to do more than what they expect. We play out these scenarios all of the time — once you go up to 10 stars, 6 stars doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.
This exercise can apply to anything you do in the company. For example we even story-boarded our whole interviewing experience and think through how to make that a 7 star experience.
Reid Hoffman: One of the interesting observations is in your thinking of 7 star service, it's not just about the website or mobile app — you are talking about the whole experience.
Brian Chesky: The product is what your customers are buying. In some cases your product can be the app but for us our customers are buying a house. More than that they are buying a host, the idea of belonging in a new city, the full experience.
I see ourselves as an online-to-offline business which is the next wave of the internet. The internet started with putting things online, then moved to connecting things together, and now the internet is going back into the real world.
When we storyboard the Airbnb experience — we storyboard every moment of the full experience — not just the online portion of the product.
Reid Hoffman: Airbnb is also known for applying design thinking to your culture and even your office, how do you apply that?
Brian Chesky: I consider myself a designer by trade. There is a quote from Steve Jobs I liked which is: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
By using this, you can imagine everything being designed. You can design a product, a company, an organization, a building, anything you want. Once you realize everything can be designed — you don't need to use things straight out of the box — you can reinvent everything.
One of the things we thought a lot about is our office design. Airbnb is all about these spaces all around the world — we wanted our office to be different. People spend more time in their office than in their home so we better make something people are happy about.
An office is something most people take for granted — for Airbnb, it is our competitive advantage.
In our early office, when you walked into the lobby, we had a wall of photos of all of the homes on Airbnb. Looking at the wall, I thought there had to be a better way of showcasing our homes than photos. While walking home one day I passed by a furniture store and the showroom floor was lit up at night. I thought it would be cool to have a meeting in that showroom and the next day we held a team meeting in the showroom of that furniture store — it was fun.
We asked — what if all of our meeting rooms were modeled after apartments on our website? This is what we did. We would call our hosts and ask them if we could re-design their home in our office as a conference rooms — our hosts were shocked but loved it.
We now have 10,000+ people a year who don’t work at Airbnb, who fly into town to tour our office. Our office is also our competitive advantage to hiring. This is a small example, but one that shows how design can be applied to anything.
Reid Hoffman: In the early days of Airbnb you personally spent a year living in Airbnb homes — why did you do that?
Brian Chesky: It was partly out of necessity. When we started Airbnb, we started in our apartment. We didn’t want to move into an office space so we decided we were going to make our home the office.
Once we had 15 people working in our 3 bedroom apartment — things started to get odd. We were literally running out of space so we decided to turn our bedrooms into meeting rooms.
I went on Craigslist to look for a new place to stay and I thought to myself — why am I doing this? I should be using Airbnb. I thought it would be fun to test out the product and stay in our hosts homes — the plan was to do it for a week and this turned into a year.
The other thing it did was it sent a huge message to the team that working at Airbnb wasn’t a job — it was a calling. Part of having a strong culture is when people believe in what you are doing. It’s not about a website, an app, a system, or screens — it’s about building a mission — creating a whole new world — this is only possible if you are living the product.
Reid Hoffman: Outside of being a role model and designing your office — what are other things you have done to design your culture? I’ve seen you spend more time than most entrepreneurs on culture.
Brian Chesky: I believe culture is a shared way of doing things.
There isn’t a bad culture or good culture, but there are weak cultures and strong cultures. I wanted to have a strong culture — a shared mission, a way things are done, beliefs we share.
A big part of culture is hiring — who are you going to be spending a lot of time with — and how do you remove people who don’t fit within your culture. One of the strongest levers of culture is hiring.
I decided early on to interview every single person. I personally interviewed every employee up till the first ~200 employees. Our team was begging me to stop interviewing everyone because it didn’t scale.
Now in our hiring process, in addition to the function / technical interview, we also make everyone go through culture interviews. Two separate people conducted interviews and test for 6 core values. An example of one of these values is “be a host” — being passionate about hospitality and helping people. We can test for this through questions and looking into people’s background.
Reid Hoffman: When you hit scale how do you instill culture?
Brian Chesky: I do as many culture activities as I did before — now I just have people do things on my behalf — leverage.
I used to do all of the interviews — now I hand picked all of the interviewers, I spent months with each interviewer, I built an inner circle of people who have trained interviewers, etc.
I used to meet with every single new employee one-on-one — now I do weekly orientation meetings, I have recorded many of these sessions for our international hires, etc.
I also write an email every single night to the whole company. This isn’t a tactical email but something more thought provoking. One of the things with scale is you need to continue to repeat things. Culture at scale is all about repetition — repeating over and over again the things that matter.
Reid Hoffman: Moving on to the challenges of scale — what were the things that changed that you had to learn while you were scaling?
Brian Chesky: Hiring and management become a lot more important at scale.
When you first started off — defining the people around you is not the most important thing. Before product market fit everyone does everything.
Post product market fit — I now do a few things — hiring, strategy, and culture. I never managed anyone in my life before Airbnb — I didn’t even know how to manage people. Especially managing people who are older than you — it’s an odd experience.
At scale, you have to learn how to move from intuition to data. When you are first starting a company — data is not the most important thing. Pre-product market fit — data wasn’t important for us — it was much more about the person-to-person interactions with customers.
Pre-product market fit, the whole focus is on not dying. Post product market fit, you can afford to think long term. When you are a startup you don't have plans beyond 2 weeks out. Post product market fit, you need: a plan, a roadmap, a strategy, etc.
Reid Hoffman: One of the overall thesis of the class is what works in one stage will not work in the next stage. You move from being very short term focused and doing everything yourself to having year-long plans and having managers/execs.
Brian Chesky: With Airbnb, everyone always asks me about the founding story. People think we just had the idea and it takes off on its own. People tend to gloss over the other stages of a startup.
When in fact stage 2, 3, 4, 5, are much more complicated than stage 1. Stage 1 is easy — solve a problem of your own, find 100 people who love your product, find good co-founders, etc. It’s not that complicated and the early stage is well written about.
The stages after that are not well documented. I could go out and ask questions to other CEO’s of large companies but the risk is they are telling me the wrong thing — or what they are doing won’t work in my scenario.
One CEO told me every 6 months if you keep your job, it's a promotion — I don’t believe this. I think being a CEO in a hyper growth company is every 6 months you have a completely new job. It’s like if you were a pro bowler, then became a pro football player, then a pro hockey player, etc. Every stage is a completely different sport.
It’s very rare to be the person who starts a company and be the person who scales it to 1,000 people. You have to be a very different person at each stage. Now speaking and writing are my primary tools — in the early stage we could just get around a table with everyone. All of a sudden the skillsets start changing and you have to be adaptable.
I have personally seen and know people who have scaled and people who can’t scale. The two traits I see in common with the people who scaled is:
If you think you know everything, you can’t scale. I am shameless about getting feedback and knowing I don’t know it all.
There is a quote from Pablo Picasso I like: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Reid Hoffman: I call these types of people “infinite learners.” With Brian, the first time we ever did a press event together, the very first question he asked me was — “what could I have done better?” It was the first time someone asked me this as their first question.
Moving on to competition, how did competition and international challenges change as you scaled Airbnb?
Brian Chesky: The first stage of a startup is survival. Not dying is being able to work on it the next day.
The second stage of a startup is firefighting. There are all of these problems going on and you need to fix them all.
The third stage is now other people can see what you are doing and now other companies try to copy and destroy you. The big existential threats to Airbnb were both competitors and the government.
Once we started to become successful we were warned about the Samwer brothers. The hottest company at the time was Groupon, which was the fastest growing internet company. A big reason why they were growing was due to their European operations — they bought the Airbnb clone created by the Samwer brothers.
This was something we did not want to fight, and after we raised $7M from Greylock Partners this giant dragon appears. In 2011, the Samwer brothers created an Airbnb clone, raised $90M, hired 400 people (Airbnb was 40 people at the time), and opened 20 offices all at the same time.
Airbnb couldn’t afford to lose Europe because travel sites needed to be all over. This became the “bet the company” moment for Airbnb. The Samwer brothers made a proposition for Airbnb to buy their clone (what they normally like to do) but it would have been a huge cost financially and culturally.
I went out and asked advice from some of the smartest people I knew including Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Mason, Paul Graham, and you (Reid). Andrew warned us the Samwer brothers were ruthless and would do everything they could to kill us. Mark Zuckerberg said not to buy the company because whoever has the best product will win. Paul Graham said they are mercenaries and we were missionaries and missionaries often win.
Our strategy was even though the Samwer brothers created this clone, they didn’t want to run the company long term. We recognized that they might be able to move faster than them for a year but they would have a hard time sustaining the company for 10 years. Airbnb wanted to build something for the long term and they would force the Samwer brothers to do the same.
Ultimately Airbnb won because of a better community and better product, but this was the “bet the company” moment. Because of this, Airbnb built out their European team fast — opened 10 offices in 3 months, hired 100’s of people, and the speed of the company picked up dramatically. 1 year later Airbnb was the clear winner.
Reid Hoffman: One of the principal reasons why companies have to Blitzscale is because of competition.
Brian Chesky: The gift the Samwer brothers gave to Airbnb was the reason to scale fast. We went from just a U.S. company to an international organization within a year.
Reid Hoffman: The other trigger for Airbnb was the government. How did you guys face this unique challenge?
Brian Chesky: The problem with these challenges is they are a punch in the face while you are casually walking down the street. You have no idea where they are coming from. The Samwer brothers was the first punch and government was the second.
In June 2010 NYC passed a law which was going after a landlord who was converting his room to a hotel. We asked on numerous occasions if this law would affect Airbnb but we were told it wouldn't affect us.
Several years later we got a call from the attorney general of NYC informing of us of this law we were violating and they demanded to see all of our customer data to see if we were breaking the rental laws in NYC. Attorney general’s are scary people, especially the ones in NYC who have a reputation for putting people in jail.
We had no idea if we should or how we would fight the attorney general. However they wanted sweeping data about users, before they knew if we had broken any laws and we weren’t going to do that — so we challenged them in court and we won.
Reid Hoffman: Without going to much into the specifics of the case, the broader principles are more interesting — how does a startup deal with government relations?
Brian Chesky: Our first instinct was to fight — in 2010, we staged a political rally in city hall. After thinking about it some more, we realized that this approach was not the right approach for us. We were a company about people living together — it’s not good to have a fighting approach.
Instead of fighting, we decided to kill them with kindness and partner with cities. I had always had this belief that if people didn’t like me — I wouldn’t talk to them. Instead, I learned to meet with everyone who hates me because you will hate me less if you get to know me.
We went on a listening tour and invited all of the people who hated Airbnb and explained our side of the story. Months later there was a lot less hatred towards us because people understood us. We now meet with senators regularly, politicians, we were on the ballot in SF, it’s crazy.
Because we are a business in the real world — the scope of what I had to learn is astounding. The responsibility of having millions of people live in strangers homes all in different countries — all while keeping them safe — these are tough challenges that very few companies have faced. The challenges never stop and one of the biggest things I had to learn was how to learn about new things quickly.
Reid Hoffman: I have to ask about Paris, the Airbnb team was out there during the Paris attacks?
Brian Chesky: Airbnb hosted the Airbnb Open for the 3rd year in a row in Paris from November 12–14, 2015. This is our annual convention where we have employees and hosts from all around the world fly in for the conference — it’s our version of Dreamforce.
This year, we had 640 employees and 5,000 hosts in Paris. In addition to this I had my parents there, my girlfriend there, my sister, everyone important in my life was in Paris with me.
We were two days into the conference — I had just finished my second keynote — and I was ready to relax and celebrate the conference. We hosted a dinner to celebrate the first 40 employees in Airbnb and during the toast my phone starts buzzing.
I quickly look down and I see the news alert of a shooting at a restaurant in Paris. We kept going, then my phone buzzed again, and this time it’s about a hostage situation with 100 people in a theater in Paris. We continue, and my phone buzzed again, and this time it’s a bomb blast in the stadium in Paris.
While all of our employees and hosts were celebrating throughout the city there were 7 coordinate attacks within a 1 hour period all across Paris — particularly the places our employees and hosts would be visiting on a Friday night.
A fear struck over the dinner and we felt like there could be more attacks and these attacks could be anywhere. In fact, one of our employees was next to the theater and saw some of the hostages running for their life after seeing people get killed right in front of them. Some of our team was at the stadium and there was a stampede of people trying to exit the stadium.
This wasn’t something I ever had to deal with before. We pulled in our head of security and we created a remote command center. The house we were in was a 2 bedroom place and there was 50 of us in there so we had to use the shower room and all of the available space in the house.
We were told we might lose internet so we started counting for all of our employees and host as quickly as possible. We called and emailed every single one and checked off each person who was safe.
Next we contacted the local government, federal government, and our hosts in Paris (300 of them) and opened all of our homes for housing for people who needed them.
We canceled the conference, contacted the family members of our employees, made sure everyone had a safe flight back, and generally supported our employees and hosts in any way we could. I never had to deal with anything like this before in my life.
This whole experience reminded me of the immense responsibility I have. Airbnb has 1,000’s of employees, 100,000’s of hosts, 1,000,000’s of guests — their lives depend on us — the responsibility is real. It was a humbling realization and experience to have gone through.
Question from the audience: How do you learn how to learn?
Brian Chesky: I don’t have all the answers but here’s a tip.
If I was to ask you to learn about a topic in a week ex. the basics of UI design — how would you do it?
Read a ton of books, talk to people, do exercises? This is a fairly exhaustive process but you could do it.
Now what if I said in the same week you have to learn UI design, front end development, accounting, and how to incorporate a company — how would you do it?
There isn’t enough hours in the day to learn everything. So you have to short circuit the process somehow.
One approach is to learn from definitive sources. The downside is, if you pick the wrong source, you learn the wrong thing; however, if you pick the right source, you don't have to read anything else.
For example with management I read High Output Management. I just read one book so I don't need to read anything else about management. PG was a version of this at YC and he would point us to the resources that mattered.
One benefit of being more successful is you have access to talk to more successful people. But even before being successful, you can read about the best people.
Another tip is most people will help you if you ask a question — we are here to share information and knowledge. I was shameless in asking Reid Hoffman questions — I was probably annoying but I didn’t care — I just wanted to learn.
Question from the audience: What is difficult for you right now?
Brian Chesky: This is hard to answer there are so many things.
One of the challenges of transitioning from a city to a nation is, now that Airbnb is working — we’re scaling, we have an exec team, we have management. I could go away for awhile and the company would still be fine, the core product would be fine. Two challenges I think about a lot now though are:
- Scaling culture for our new size. What has worked for us for 500 people aren’t going to work at 2,000 people. I want us to still feel like a fast growing startup and be mission-driven but things need to change for us to keep our culture at this scale
- Most companies that are significant have more than one product line: Apple, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google. Our core product at Airbnb is growing but what opportunities do we have for new products?
I know how to start a startup but how do you create a new product within an existing business that is successful? This is so much different from starting a business from scratch.
On one hand, you have all of these things that are helpful — top talent, unlimited funding, etc. But internal culture and process also fights to keep things the way they are — people don't want you to take the best people and put them on a new team.
Going from a single to dual product company is a big shift but all enduring companies have to go through this process. It’s highly unlikely the original product we are selling now is the thing we will be selling 10+ years from now.