Gebbia Thinks Big
Offering a tempting taste of the Career Center’s Mindshare event this Saturday, Joe Gebbia 05 ID/GD spoke at RISD last week – about why he’s a bona fide “designtrepreneur,” as he likes to put it. In the seven years since graduation, the designer (who majored in both graphic and industrial design) has found enormous success through a series of entrepreneurial adventures culminating in Airbnb, a startup founded with fellow alum Brian Chesky 04 ID.
The online marketplace headquartered in San Francisco is based on an idea most people probably wish they'd had themselves: help people to rent out a room, an apartment, a house to a visitor looking for a comfortable, inexpensive place to stay. Property owners are happy to earn a few extra bucks for space they’re not using; guests are pleased to have found a decent place to stay for much less than the cheapest hotel in town. What's not to like?
Since Gebbia and Chesky teamed up to get their fledgling idea off the ground in 2008, Airbnb has facilitated more than 4.5 million bookings in 192 countries and “has become a disruptive force in the stagnant hotel industry, a major driver behind what’s now called the sharing economy and [a prime example] of the value of design,” as Fast Company noted in naming it one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2012.
But Airbnb didn't start out as a sure bet. At RISD Gebbia and Chesky were known as go-getters who ran the Balls (basketball) and the Nads (hockey) teams, respectively. After school Gebbia convinced his friend to quit his job in Los Angeles and move to San Francisco so the two of them could start a business – in 2007, just as the economy was on the brink of freefall.
As soon as Chesky moved in, the landlord raised the rent by 20%, leaving the two jobless entrepreneurs in a tight spot. But “RISD taught us to see,” Gebbia noted last week. So the two friends “did something else that RISD taught us to do. We connected the dots.”
Noticing that San Francisco hotels were sold out due to a major design conference in town, they inflated an airbed in their living room and emailed a few top design blogs to offer their space to out-of-towners. Envisioning that they might actually provide breakfast, too, they came up with the name Airbed & Breakfast – and were pleasantly surprised when they got three bookings.
“We earned enough money to save the apartment,” Gebbia says. A year later, with $20,000 in credit card debt and no investors willing to help, they hit on another idea: Build on the “breakfast” part of the business with two branded cereals, Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s, to sell online during the height of the 2008 election. Thanks to national press coverage, the promotion netted $30,000 – enough to keep Airbnb afloat until another $20,000 in seed funding came through in early 2009. By 2011 investors plowed $112 million into Airbnb and this year TIME magazine has valued the company it calls the “eBay of space” worth more than $2 billion.
Beyond the many clones it has since inspired – from companies for renting parking spaces or boats and motorcycles – Airbnb’s primary influence may be in changing the way venture capitalists think about design. Rather than “an afterthought,” as the founders point out, design is now seen as crucial to startup success.
The RISD Career Center’s Entrepreneur Mindshare runs all day on Saturday, October 27 and is free with advance registration.
In a presentation hosted by the RI Chamber of Commerce, Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia 05 GD/ID spoke about the entrepreneurial advantages of knowing how to solve problems the way he learned at RISD.
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