How do you see Airbnb changing or disrupting our idea of home?
I think people are viewing their homes in a new light. By repurposing their existing space, they can make ends meet with their mortgage, rent, and more. Did you know that the average credit card debt in the US is $15,000? Suddenly sharing your extra bedroom has at lot more impact. The best part is when hosts come to recognize the value beyond money. I have heard people say that the best way to see the world is to become a host on Airbnb. Suddenly the world comes to you and you're meeting people from places you always want to go—Rome, Tokyo, Miami, Iceland, everywhere. All of sudden you have friends around the world who are inviting you to come visit them.
How do you apply the design thinking that you learned at RISD to running an online business?
RISD shaped how I thought about the user experience, and the need to empathize with your customers. At RISD, if we were working on a medical device, we would go out into the world and meet all the stakeholders, lay down in the hospital bed, and become the patient. That's now a core value of our design team: be the patient. Everybody takes a trip in their first or second week in the company and they document it, many of our employees our hosts. It's incredibly important to understand the user experience first hand.
Most tech companies were started by programmers, what were people's reactions to a company founded by two designers?
When we started out, people didn't think that designers could start a tech company. They thought that in order to be a tech company, you needed to be an engineer, and we weren't taken seriously. It turns out, though, that our design background is what caught the attention of Paul Graham and got us accepted to Y Combinator. Our interview with Paul hadn't gone well, but in the end, he believed in our creative hustle. Now he keeps his eye open for designer founders.
What are other examples of how empathy is a part of your design process?
In the early days of the company, we had a bunch of listings in New York that weren't getting booked. In fact, none of them were getting booked. We were wondering what wasn't working, when we had an a-ha moment—the photos were terrible. People were using their camera phones, or taking really dark shots. No one wanted to stay at a place where they can't see what they're getting. So we flew to New York, rented a camera, and took beautiful, high-resolution pictures. Improving the pictures doubled our weekly revenue, and today we've scaled that program to thousands of photographers all across the globe who have taken over one million photographs of interiors. Now instead of feeling anxiety about taking pictures, hosts experience the ease of having great photos.
When was the last time you stayed in a hotel?
Probably about five years ago, before we started Airbnb. My business and vacation travel is booked via the homes on our service. I've stayed with hosts all over the world, from Paris to Budapest, Singapore to Vancouver. I usually don't broadcast my association to the company, and I see Airbnb hosts go above and beyond with my own eyes. One host is so committed to providing a great experience she will stock her fridge with food and drinks from the guests country prior to arrival. She's inspired to do this so that her guests feel a sense of familiarity and home when they arrive to her listing. That's what the Airbnb community is all about.
What's your favorite listing or Airbnb host?
I traveled to Japan recently on Airbnb and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I stayed with a Japanese monk and his 94 year old mom. I documented it in this blog post.
This article was originally published on May 14, 2013 on our sister site, Dwell on Design.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.