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Seven Questions for Airbnb Co-Founder Joe Gebbia

The coming Labor Day weekend may find you jetting off to an island paradise, hitting the highway for a road trip, or seated in a comfortable yet chic chair, trying to make some readerly headway with Vogue’s 916-page September issue (worth the $5.99 cover price for Amaranth Ehrenhalt‘s charming Giacometti tale alone!). If you’re still stuck in binary hotel-or-a-friend’s-place travel mode, consider upgrading with an alternative: Airbnb (née AirBedAndBreakfast.com). The San Francisco-based startup, which has raised $120 million in funding, recently reached 10 million nights booked and has amassed a massive, fun-to-browse menu of unique spaces worldwide. Joe Gebbia is the graphic and product design mind behind the company, which he co-founded in 2007 (with Brian Chesky and Nathan Blecharczyk). The RISD alum took time away from his holiday weekend preparations to answer our seven questions.

Give us your elevator pitch: What’s Airbnb?
Airbnb is a trusted online marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world. From a private room to a private island, we offer an entertaining and personal way for travelers to unlock local experiences and see their surroundings through the eyes of a local.

What led you and your co-founders to create the company?
In October 2007 the rent increased on our San Francisco apartment. The timing couldn’t have been worse—my roommate, Brian, and I had recently left our jobs to become entrepreneurs. We knew that a prominent design conference was coming to town, and that all the nearby hotel rooms were booked solid. We decided to rent airbeds in our apartment to designers attending the conference, and provide them with a unique and quintessentially local experience. As it turned out, a lot of people were looking for this type of accommodation, so we brought on Nate to be our third co-founder and we started to expand. In 2007 we had two airbeds, and three employees. Now, just four years later, we have over 200,000 listings in over 26,000 cities in 192 countries and 10 offices in 9 countries.

What is your role at Airbnb?
As Chief Product Officer, I lead our product team to create simple, intuitive user experiences.

How does your design education/expertise factor into your work at Airbnb?
We believe that the best solutions come from solving your own problem. If you have a real problem, there’s likely someone else who can relate. That’s how Airbnb was born.

Beyond that, we look to RISD’s motto, which is “creativity can solve problems” which guides our approach to the business. For example, in the early days of Airbnb, we had a bunch of great listings in New York, but they weren’t being booked. We decided to try out taking professional photos of various listings, and putting an “Airbnb Verified” watermark on it. Bookings for those properties skyrocketed, and thus our Airbnb photography program was born. It didn’t seem scalable or practical, but it worked and has become one of our most popular features. Our photographers have taken over a million images, creating one of the largest collections of interior design photos in the world. Our photography program inspired our latest home page redesign, and our newest feature, Wish Lists. This one small design decision shifted the way our users interact with our product.

What do you consider the most odd or unconventional Airbnb property?
My new favorite property is this 1-square-meter house. The house is on rolls, so you can bring it anywhere in Berlin, turn it on its side, and fall asleep.

What’s the best creative, business, or life advice you’ve received?
When we were in Y Combinator, Paul Graham told us that is more powerful to have 100 users who love you than 1 million who kind of like you. Everything we do, every decision we make, is to ensure the best possible Airbnb experience for our community, and grow the love.

Finally, what is your dream vacation destination?
My dream destination would have to be Nakunu Levu, a private Fijian island. Henry, the host, brings you to the island, teaches you about indigenous culture and then lets you roam free. When it went up on the site, it totally blew my mind. The concept that started in our apartment has gone all around the world and landed on a private island.

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