The Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher

Read an extract from the opening of The Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher and find out how three guys stumbled upon an industry-disrupting idea almost by accident.

The Airbnb Story

They thought, why not create a bed-and-breakfast for the conference out of the empty space in their apartment?

As the mythologized version of the story goes, when Chesky arrived at the Rausch Street apartment, Gebbia informed him he was on the brink of losing the place, that the rent had gone up to $1,150, and that it was due within the week. Chesky had $1,000 in his bank account. In truth, they’d known for weeks about the higher rent — plus the fact that they’d have to cover the extra empty room in addition to their own — and they had been brainstorming various schemes to come up with the funds even while Chesky was still in Los Angeles. One idea centered around the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design/Industrial Designers Society of America (ICSID/ IDSA) World Congress, the biannual confab for the design community, scheduled for San Francisco in late October. It would draw a few thousand designers to their city, and they knew hotel capacity would be tight and rates would be high.

They thought, why not create a bed-and-breakfast for the conference out of the empty space in their apartment? RISD, after all, had taught them that creativity can solve problems, and Gebbia happened to have three air mattresses in his closet from a camping trip he’d taken. The place was a spacious three-bedroom, so there would be the living room, kitchen, and a full bedroom all for the taking. They could sell a cheap place to stay, and even offer breakfast — and they could advertise their place on the design blogs they knew all the attendees would be reading.

They refined this idea for weeks, and the more they talked about it, the more they realized it was so weird that it just might work — and with a looming deadline to pay the rent, they had little to lose. They started drawing wireframes, or skeleton outlines, and mockups for the website that would advertise their concept. Once Chesky moved in, they hired a freelancer who knew HTML to put together a rudimentary website using their designs, calling the service AirBed & Breakfast. The final product featured a robust website announcing the service (“Two designers create a new way to connect at this year’s IDSA conference”), an explanation of how it worked, and included a listing for three airbeds in their apartment for eighty dollars apiece (amenities listed included a roof deck, a “design library,” “motivational posters,” and 3-D typography). “It’s like Craigslist & Couch surfing.com, but classier,” proclaimed one “endorsement.”

They e-mailed design blogs and the conference organizers and asked them to help promote their website, which they did; the conference organizers thought it was a funny, oddball idea, and the design blogs were more than happy to help support two of their own. Chesky and Gebbia thought that, with any luck, they’d get a couple of hippie backpacker types and would make enough money to pay rent. Within a few days they had booked three guests: Kat, a thirtysomething designer based in Boston; Michael, a father of five in his forties from Utah; and Amol Surve, a native of Mumbai who’d just graduated from Arizona State University’s master’s program in industrial design.

Their guests weren’t hippies at all; they were professional designers on a budget who needed just what Chesky and Gebbia were offering.True, it required a big leapof faith on their part: Surve, the first guest to book, thought the idea was strange, but, he says, “I was desperate to go to the conference,” and when he came across the website, he says he knew it was created by like-minded people. “You could tell that the concept was designed by designers for designers.” After Googling what an airbed was — new to the United States, he had never heard of one before — he submitted a request on a form on the website asking to stay at the “original” AirBed & Breakfast. When he didn’t hear back, he tracked down Gebbia’s information and called him on his cell phone. (“He was completely surprised,” Surve says. “They had no idea that someone would stay with them.”) Surve made plans to stay for five nights at eighty dollars per night. “It was a hack on both our sides,” he says. “I was trying to hack and go to the conference, and they were trying to hack and make rent. It was, like, a perfect match.”

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