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Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky Talks Next “Big Idea” at NYU Entrepreneurial Institute

Inaugural "Founders Unplugged" is Standing Room Only


Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, has been living what may be every entrepreneur’s fantasy—to have a startup that becomes an amazing success in just a few short years. In an interview conducted by Newsweek’s Kevin Maney on October 8th, as part of NYU Entrepreneurial Institute’s “Founders Unplugged” series, Chesky shared how a somewhat spontaneous and humble idea went on to become a major international corporation in just over seven years.

“I did not grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur,” Chesky stated within moments of Maney beginning his interview in front of a standing room only audience. Yet, as Chesky shared, the first seed of entrepreneurship was planted by his Rhode Island School of Design college roommate and future Airbnb co-founder, Joe Gebbia, who told him that one day they would start a company together. In 2007, after a one year stay at a Los Angeles design firm, Chesky quit his position and joined Gebbia in San Francisco with the goal of doing a startup together.

Chesky and Gebbia initially were just trying to cover their rent by offering their apartment to conference attendees when the hotels were fully booked. They actually used air mattresses for their first rental.

“So, we started a bed and breakfast, and really an ‘’ because of the air mattresses, and that is how the idea started,” Chesky explained with some humor.

It was a revelation to them how well it worked, that people appreciated such a service and that others wanted to rent out space just as they did. One additional insight was the importance of hospitality as part of the space rental. Chesky and Gebbia felt they had made friends. As a result of their own personal experience, hospitality became an important core value in the growth of the Airbnb brand.

The overwhelming success of Airbnb and other crowd sourcing startups such as Lyft and Uber has now created an intense focus by entrepreneurs to find the next “big idea”. But while addressing the NYU audience, Chesky truly avoided attributing the launching of Airbnb to any hint of brilliance.

“No like, the whole point was if I think we tried to think of a ‘big idea’, we wouldn't have been able to think of an ‘idea’ at all because you have this pressure for a million people to use it. But the whole point of these ideas is that you just have to have a solution for a problem in your own life,” Chesky explained. Their solution to the problem of covering their rent turned out to be a problem shared by many. That ‘many’ is now over 70 million registrants in 139 countries. To appreciate the magnitude of Airbnb’s impact, of the 600,000 attendees to the recent World Cup Soccer in Brazil, approximately 125,000 used Airbnb to find their accommodations, according to Chesky.

While one might think that a startup that scaled so quickly must have had great planning and foresight behind it, Chesky again steered the audience away from that thinking. While that planning may be happening today, the co-founders engaged in both seat-of-the-pants and out-of-box thinking to keep moving forward.

“We always saw one step ahead. But there were so many steps to get here. So when we came up with Air Bed and Breakfast that first weekend, we thought “wow, maybe people around the country will rent out air beds…In every step we saw the next step, but we never saw the many steps ahead, and we never had the burden of worrying that millions of people would do this….all we did was focus on our customers,” Chesky emphasized.

They faced a lot of rejection in the first year, particularly from investors. “Doing a startup is a very humbling experience,” Chesky reflected. He told of the many doors they knocked on to learn about their market and how to serve their customers.

“I did not know what was about to play out in front of me. It was a lot of trials and tribulations and a lot of pain for a year or two until it got going,” Chesky again reflected about the period when success seemed very far off.

But once they hit some key milestones, including being accepted into the Y Combinator accelerator, success brought access to great mentors, both fellow aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as Paul Graham, Y Combinator’s founder, and Reid Hoffman, Linkedin co-founder. Chesky estimates that today he has about 20 to 30 people he considers mentors who he will reach out to for advice.  

Paul Graham’s advice remains part of Chesky’s thinking to this day: “It's better to have a 100 people that love you, than 1 million people that just sort of like you. Build something people love.”

It is that group of loyal customers and supporters who provided the important initial word of mouth that put their struggling startup over the hump. Because of that Chesky remains focused on the individual customer and does not get lost in the millions.

“The bigger the ship gets, the harder it is to steer the ship, and the harder it is to change something. I'm still focused on developing products. I try not to worry about the million people. I try to worry about just what a few people love. I try to get back to sub scale and once you get back to sub scale-- there's what happens. When you deal with a million people, they become numbers…Just focus on the few people.”