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Success Stories: How The Founders Of Airbnb Went Against All Odds

A billion-dollar idea from humble origins; and how a passion for human connection and an unwavering belief in a mission continues to inspire an entire organization

SLIDESHOW: Airbnb Singapore is the Asia-Pacific headquarters. The company started out in a shophouse in 2012 and have grown dynamically since, moving into their new space at the start of 2016.

“Welcome home.”

For Airbnb, home is a ubiquitous term for all their listings, whether it is a vacation or apartment rental, homestay, hostel bed or even a hotel room. Although they are an online marketplace and hospitality service, which enables people to lease or rent short-term lodging over 65,000 cities and 191 countries, its primary intention is for users to feel like they are right at home.

Now valued at US$31 billion, it’s easy to hold Airbnb in high regard. After all, the trio that founded Airbnb revolutionised the idea of “collaborative consumption”. But success wasn’t immediate for Airbnb's founders Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky and Nathan Blecharczyk.

Gebbia and Chesky first met at the Rhode Island School of Design and were struggling to pay rent for their apartment in San Francisco. As designers themselves, they knew that the upcoming San Francisco Design Conference were causing rooms to be overbooked. They noticed the single air mattress that sat in their living room, and the initial idea for Airbed & Breakfast (now known as Airbnb) was born. They bought two other air mattresses and started a website that offered food and lodging as an alternative option for travellers.

When three visitors showed up and paid US$80 a night, they realised that home sharing went beyond solving a problem — it brought people together and turned strangers into friends. They knew they were on to something that could have real meaning for people all over the world. They then decided to target conferences and festivals across America, attempting to convince local people to list their rooms so that travellers could book them with the help of their former flat mate Nathan.

However, the idea of ordinary people opening up their homes to strangers still felt foreign to plenty of people — including investors. It made people feel uncomfortable and the founders were told that they were crazy. No one wanted to be the first to try out an idea like Airbnb.

While their road to success was a rocky one, Robin Kwok, Country Manager of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, captures the core of Airbnb’s climb to success perfectly: “It is the founders’ passion for human connection and their unwavering belief in the mission that continues to inspire their entire organisation.” She recalled how Gebbia and Chesky would travel around and meet the earlier adopters of Airbnb. They would sit in their living rooms and chat to them about their experiences as hosts and guests, asking what they loved about Airbnb, what wasn’t working as well and what they’d like to see more of.

“Airbnb has a bold mission. A world where everyone can belong anywhere. Through their passion for travel, the founders, Brian, Joe and Nate successfully turn their seed of an idea into a global phenomenon that has changed the entire face of travel today. By travelling on Airbnb, it is about being connected to local cultures and having unique travel experiences,” she says.

Airbnb has since gained traction on a global scale and Kwok believes it is due to one thing that Airbnb has grown so rapidly in Southeast Asia over the past few years. Due to the transformation of people’s idea of travelling, there is a growing apprehension and indifference towards cookie cutter experiences that have been offered for years. People want a “unique and authentic experience — the kind that allows you to get under the skin of a place”. As such, Southeast Asia’s diverse and rich cultural influences has given Airbnb an opportunity to help travellers unlock traces of the rich and storied pasts of each country.

“Localisation is an integral contributor to Airbnb’s success in Southeast Asia. Every country is different, and whether it’s payment methods or the translation of localised marketing campaigns, we want to help tell that authentic, local story.”

In light of it's growth in Southeast Asia, Airbnb recently opened its Singapore office early last year and continues to expand throughout the region. Even though Singapore has recently implemented a ban on Airbnb rentals, Robin emphasises that their position is clear: “we absolutely support a regulatory framework that allows locals living in private residences to share the homes in which they live, while protecting the living environment of residents.”

She also assures that the government has since said that it will consult all relevant stakeholders regarding the future of home sharing in Singapore, and they look forward to being a part of that conversation, working closely with them to develop a clear framework that works for everyone.