Growing up, Brian Chesky never envisioned himself as an entrepreneur. Instead, the Airbnb co-founder came up with the idea for his company almost by accident. Struggling to make rent in their San Francisco apartment, he and co-founder Joe Gebbia blew up several air mattresses and rented out their apartment to attendees of a design conference in town. That idea blossomed into a company that now lists 1.7 million homes for travelers looking for a place to stay in 34,000 cities worldwide.
Speaking at New York University Thursday, Chesky reflected on the challenges of operating a company that's turned the travel industry upside down since it launched in 2007. Here are some of the most crucial lessons he's learned from building a multi-billion dollar business with little entrepreneurial experience:
1. Don't brainstorm startup ideas, solve a problem.
Citing the story of how Airbnb came about from renting out the founders' apartment for a weekend, Chesky says he's learned the best ideas for companies often stem from attempting to solve personal problems. "If we tried to think of a good idea, we wouldn't have been able to think of a good idea at all," he says. "You just have to have a solution for a problem in your own life."
2. Surround yourself with role models.
Chesky says he considers about 20 to 30 entrepreneurs, including Y Combinator president Sam Altman, to be his mentors. "Every time I didn't know how to do something, I figured there's someone who does," Chesky said. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be aggressive about seeking help and advisors, as they are often eager to impart their wisdom, he adds. "Some of the best entrepreneurs are the most shameless people in the world," he says.
3. Focus on a small but loyal customer base.
Chesky says some of the best advice he has received is that it's preferable to have 100 people that love your company, rather than a million people that "sort of" like it. "If 100 people like you, then they tell 10 people," he says. From a management perspective, it's also easier to focus on the needs of a smaller core group of customers.
4. Get informed about your industry's laws and regulations.
Airbnb has run into its fair share of issues with local and national hospitality laws. Part of that comes from the inevitable clash of starting a tech company that must work around laws that don't take into account the burgeoning concept of the sharing economy. The best solution to those hurdles is knowledge and an open mind, Chesky says. "We can definitely have more than just a coexistence [with local laws]," he says.