I recently met with Christopher Lukezic, Airbnb’s marketing guy, to learn more about what’s behind the phenomenal growth of their peer travel accommodation site. I see Airbnb as the for-profit twin of nonprofit Couchsurfing, which we learned about in an interview with founder Casey Fenton last year. Both are growing rapidly, but are using some different tools to get there. Airbnb has leveraged design to the hilt reflecting their founders’ backgrounds whereas Couchsurfing is making powerful use of volunteers, something for-profit companies can’t do. That difference aside, they share an important goal — to deliver great experiences online and offline. Take note sharing entrepreneurs; this is emerging as a theme across all the sharing enterprises we write about. Here’s more of what I learned from Chris about Airbnb and sharing:
Airbnb started out as an accommodations site for conference goers, but broadened its scope to all kinds of travel situations. What are some of the most unusual and promising uses you’ve seen?
Over the past year and a half, Airbnb began to emerge as a place for people to list their unique spaces, from private apartments to private islands and just about anything you can imagine in between. Airbnb is making some of the world’s most interesting places discoverable. This evolution is a true testament to the ease of use of the site as hosts and property owners continue to recognize that Airbnb makes the process of renting their space easier than ever. On top of apartments and homes, we’ve seen individuals rent out things like tree houses, igloos, tipis, cabins, luxury villas, private islands, and even automobiles.
Rum Punch Villa in Dropsey Bay, Anguilla
When we met for coffee, you explained that Airbnb is not a budget or vacation rental marketplace. You said your core business is creating great travel experiences. Why is that important to Airbnb and what are you doing to make that happen?
While on the surface the site appears to simply be an online marketplace for unique spaces, anyone who has taken a trip and booked their accommodation through Airbnb knows that the experiential take-aways often end leaving lasting impressions that go beyond the obvious value proposition the site offers. The Airbnb experience is about connecting people with the local habitats of cities around the world. This can come in the form of a personal connection one makes with a host or a stay in a unique space that speaks to the local lifestyle. Our goal really is to make the unique spaces of the world more accessible.
I’m amazed by the variety of properties you can rent on Airbnb, from villas to lofts to single rooms. Have you consciously cultivated this variety? And how does it influence the user experience?
While we haven’t consciously cultivated the wide variety of spaces available, we have done things to make sure that these places are discoverable, as we recognize that some unique properties and spaces become destinations in and of themselves due to the experience they offer. A little over a year ago, we announced the Airbnb Top 40, which is a continually edited showcase for the Top 40 spaces available on Airbnb. Just two months back we unveiled Airbnb Collections which not only includes the Airbnb Top 40, but also about 35 other thematic showcases. Collections has helped shape the Airbnb experience by turning specific listings into destinations all their own.
Trust is important for a peer system like Airbnb. How are you building trust among users?
Building a trusted global community of users is not an easy thing, but we’ve committed ourselves to protecting our community from any potential breaches in safety and security to an extent that goes above and beyond what any other site offers.
- We developed a safe and secure transaction process that protects hosts and guests alike.
- We have automated fraud detection algorithms capable of catching scammers instantly.
- Authentic reviews allow hosts and guests to build trusted reputations on Airbnb.
- Host and guest profiles and messaging allow people to share important information about themselves before booking.
- We have 24-hour customer support that is always there to help guests or hosts with any situation, big or small.
You mentioned that you’re going to start doing more events. What role do you see events and community playing in your success?
In 2011, we are planning to begin hosting regular events for our community. Airbnb ultimately exists to serve the needs of our hosts and guests alike. The only way to make sure that we are moving the company in the right direction is to directly engage and converse with our community on a regular basis. As the site has now expanded globally, we recognize an even greater importance in uniting our community across borders.
An apartment on Rue Saint Louis En L’Ile in Paris
I understand that you’re staffing up pretty quickly. How do users figure into your staffing strategy?
As we’ve grown, many of our most passionate hosts from around the world have become employees of Airbnb as members of our community support team. Early on, we recognized that good customer service and a strong community were going to be integral parts of the Airbnb experience. Combining the two focuses of the company has helped us build a brand that stands for, and behind, its users. By empowering and employing our community, we are able to offer a genuine level of service to new and existing community members around the globe. We’ve achieved an industry-leading level of service. For instance, let’s say you are stuck in Paris after missing a flight and need to find a place to stay. Your call into our community support number might be directed to Karine, an Airbnb Superhost and Community Support member who lives in Paris. Who better to help you in a situation like that than someone who lives in the city you happen to be in and who actually uses Airbnb personally?
How big a factor is design to Airbnb’s success? And in what areas of the business do you see it having the biggest impact?
Design and user experience are central to Airbnb’s success. That’s one of our core competitive advantages. Co-founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky are both RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) grads who spent many years as industrial designers. Their experience as industrial designers influences and permeates every aspect of the business with a degree of design thinking and methodology brought to every business decision we make. Design, user experience, and an incredible community represent the pillars of our past, present, and future successes.
What advice would you give a sharing entrepreneur just starting to build a service?
The best advice I have comes directly from the greatest lessons I’ve learned working alongside our founders. What I’ve learned from them is to listen to your users early on and engage them in the process at every step of the way. Don’t just meet them; engage them, converse with them, and prod them to find out what their problems and needs are. This testament is a direct take-away from the design thinking that Joe and Brian have brought to the company. People often start companies to solve their own problems, but, over time, all entrepreneurs recognize that, to be successful, the product has to be built for a wider array of end users. The ones who are truly successful make sure to engage their users at every point along the way in order to solve bigger and bigger problems by presenting transformative solutions to the way we live our lives.