An air mattress to earn a handful of dollars by offering temporary accommodation to a lone traveller left without a bed due to sold-out hotels in San Francisco. Thus was born in 2007, the idea that led Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia to found Airbnb, one of the few iconic companies of the sharing economy. Growing steadily in just a few years to 1.4 billion people by 4 million homeowners in 220 countries worldwide, the disruptive business of the Californian company seemed destined to fall victim to Covid-19.
Fall and Rebirth of Airbnb
With the prolonged blockade of medium- and long-haul travel, the pandemic caused an ongoing crisis for Airbnb’s coffers, which saw its revenues drop by 80% within two months. It seemed like funeral time for a model that revolutionised travel but also triggered bureaucratic problems (for taxes not paid by hosts) and even more social friction.
The latter is a point felt everywhere, with the nerve centres of many cities of art emptied of their original atmosphere by the disappearance of their old residents, forced to flee from companies that hoard property by taking the practice of short-term renting to the extreme, with a continuous escalation in prices. The case of Florence, where according to Inside Airbnb, in the historic centre, 20 companies are controlling around 1,000 flats, is as indicative as it is dramatic.
When all seemed lost, Airbnb hit back precisely because of the lean times. “Every crisis is an opportunity to turn things around” is one of the mantras Chesky has repeated in his most recent interviews, adding how he realised the project needed a drastic change of direction to get the company’s coffers breathing again. After the inevitable layoffs, with almost half of the 7,000 employees left at home, the closure of ten divisions, and the centralisation of marketing into one department with a hefty reduction in expenses, Airbnb is reintroducing the model that made it popular when it was just an idea in the heads of its founders.
The inspiration of Steve Jobs
The intent to connect people with those who open the door of their homes called upon to inspire the stay of those who pay to sleep in a room is the essence that made the company famous and that it is now trying to dust off with the launch of Rooms, which we will return to shortly. First, it is useful to understand the intuition that allowed Chesky to find his new way. “I visited a dozen rental houses on our platform, which allowed me to understand some of the problems that weighed on all the components. In order to change things, after all, you have to touch the product and analyse it from multiple points of view, so I saw Airbnb under a different lens than usual,” explained the CEO during his talk on the podcast ‘This Week in Startups’.
What changed was the method by which Airbnb now operates because everything goes through Chesky’s direct involvement. A move inspired by Steve Jobs and matured after close collaboration with Jony Ive and Hiroki Asai, two of the most important figures in Apple’s rebirth under Jobs. I’ve emphasised the need for the boss to always be present in product development, while Asai suggested that Chesky focus the company on initiatives in which the CEO can be involved, leaving everything else aside. Less is more then, as Jobs taught the world.
A lesson that convinced Chesky: ‘I will do very few things and be involved in every single detail, and Airbnb won’t do anything more than what I can personally focus on,’ said the co-founder, specifying that for now, he will focus on products, marketing and hiring.
Airbnb’s new feature: Rooms
As for the actual changes that host and customers will find on Airbnb, among the fifty or so new features announced in recent days, the most notable is Rooms, with the priority on renting out part of a house and not the whole of it, which is a hope for a return to the past and the philosophy of sharing spaces.
“Rooms are often cheaper than hotels and offer the chance to discover a destination in a more authentic way.” That’s why they represent the essence of Airbnb,’ says Chesky, who launched the new category with over 1 million listings for an average price per night of $67. It is cheap in some countries but only affordable for some European states.
Cost aside; the idea is based on the Couchsurfing community, with the owner providing the traveller with a couch (for free!). Although payment was an additional variable that allowed the host to supplement the salary obtained from their job, Airbnb originally followed a similar objective, with ordinary people opening up their homes to unknown travellers in search of a bed and useful information to get to know the destination and experience it as if they were residents.
In order to reduce misunderstandings and fears about meeting a stranger, announcements on Rooms include details about shared spaces (kitchen, garden, living room), the presence of a private or shared bathroom, whether there is a lock for the host’s bedroom, and the presence of other people during the stay. To get an idea of who you will be dealing with, there is a Host Passport, exclusive to Rooms, with which you can see personal photos, and details of the owner’s past and profession, to reassure those staying in the house.
Expectations and curiosity are high for the new priority assistance service, with which Airbnb promises to respond within two minutes to 90 per cent of emergency calls, while good news awaits digital nomads, who will be able to take advantage of significant discounts for stays longer than three months. Another significant aspect is the more straightforward instructions for check-out, with guests able to point out any excessive demands of the host in the review. This is an important detail because listings with lower ratings, for this reason, will be removed from the platform.