San Francisco start-up Airbnb, a short-term home rental site whose founders were included in Inc.com's 30 Under 30 list last year, is a finalist for the South By Southwest Interactive Awards for Mobile. In less than a year, Airbnb has doubled in size, scale, and service. Airbnb has expanded from a staff of 13 to a staff of 26. "We haven't gotten so big that we can't high five everyone in the morning," says co-founder and chief design officer Joe Gebbia. "But it does take a few more minutes than it used to. And that's a good thing." Inc.com's Tiffany Black caught up with Gebbia, CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky, and Christopher Lukezic, the company's vice president of marketing, at South by Southwest Interactive to talk about their SXSW Interactive Awards nomination, how people are using the site at SXSW, growing pains, and what's next.
Airbnb first appeared at SXSW in 2008. How are people using the site at SXSW now?
Brian Cheskey: You knew everyone back then because it was less than five hosts. This year we have about 40 or 50 hosts, 500 to 700 listings and about 2,000 people using Airbnb in Austin for SXSW.
Joe Gebbia: Our payment innovation came out of SXSW because customers told us they felt strange paying large sums of cash to strangers. And they weren't clear on when to pay; at the end or the beginning of a rental. Now there is simplicity to the booking and payment system.
Christopher Lukezic: At SXSW this year we notice the saturation. Everyone knows or has heard of Airbnb and we have people coming up to us and thanking us. "I'm using it. I'm staying at one of your listings. Thank you!"
Airbnb is operating internationally with listings in more than 150 countries. How does that work?
JG: Internationalization of the site can be complex. We work with 34 different companies around the world to keep the booking and payment process seamless. We couldn't use a payment service like Paypal everywhere because Paypal doesn't work in South America and we have listings in Rio and Buenos Aires. But we listened to our customers and they advised us on who to use because they live there and they told us what services they were using.
Have you heard of any desperate lodging situations while at SXSW?
BC: No, but one guy did tweet about being ousted as the foursquare mayor of his own apartment by an Airbnb customer.
What are the biggest complaints you get about Airbnb?
JG: When expectations don't align. Your concept of clean might not match mine. Or your idea of a studio-sized apartment in New York doesn't match the idea of a studio-sized apartment in San Francisco.
CL: We don't have a screening process but the community polices the listings.
When we last talked to you, Brian was in the midst of an experiment. You gave up your room to live using only Airbnb to find accommodations for the year. How did that go?
BC: It lasted about 6 months. I'm staying late at the office and a few hours before it's time to go I would remember I hadn't booked a place for myself for the night. That was also a good use case for Airbnb, finding a room at the last minute when you need it today, not a few days or weeks from now. So we added one click search if you are looking for a place to stay tonight.
Also I want to have time to hang out with the hosts I book with and that's hard when I'm doing rentals in the middle of the week and have to work. So right now I have one-third of a foam mattress in a room. I'm going to do it again but the challenge was not the Airbnb service.
Let's talk about the Airbnb iPhone app and your South by Southwest Interactive Awards for Mobile nomination.
CL: We are so proud of the app. It's the best marketing thing we have ever done. The app has had 180,000 downloads. We notice that people are largely using it to search listings and not yet for bookings but that is going up.
JG: We have the dream team for app development. Steph Tekano designed the app and Andrew Vilsak built it. Few start-ups have a design centric focus. But we are big on design for both our site and app. We wanted it to be simple and to be the best looking service. Andrew is actually 19, from Canada and he was our intern. We had to convince him not to go back to school and it paid off.
My favorite part of the app is the thematic collections. I like to tell people to check out the collection called "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." In it you will find real listings that we have of planes, trains and automobiles that users can book.
What has been some of your biggest challenges as you continue to grow?
BC: The most universal challenge of any start-up is hiring. Hiring never stops. I'm hiring about a person a week. I have gone from building the product to building the company and the team.
What's next for Airbnb?
BC: This is the year we become a household name. I'm focused on hiring to continue building the team.
CL: Maybe a Super Bowl commercial in the next three years. Not because we need one but just to be able to say we had a Super Bowl commercial.
JG: We want to get the world on Airbnb.
If you win the South By Southwest Interactive Awards for Mobile, how will you celebrate?
JG: We'll celebrate with the team and then maybe get started on the iPad app.