One morning a few months ago, New Yorkers opened their eyes to a city that, seemingly overnight, had been blanketed in advertisements for a company called Airbnb. Bright white and crisp as newly fallen snow, each ad featured a smiling New Yorker and a short blurb about how the website, which brokers deals between travelers and people with a spare room or home to rent, had transformed his or her life, spiritually or financially. “New Yorkers agree,” read the tagline on each. “Airbnb is great for New York City.” The ads were cheerfully combative, as though this company with the puffy-lettered name were defending itself against some kind of enemy. Though it was unclear who or what that enemy was, or what they wanted MTA riders to do about it.
But like the snow in New York City, subway ads do not remain unsullied for long. By day’s end, someone had scrawled a retort on a poster of Carol, a dashiki-wearing mom, at the Canal Street station: “The dumbest person in your building is passing out a set of keys to your front door!” Over at West 4th Street, a message in similar handwriting appeared under Bob from Astoria: “Airbnb accepts NO Liability,” it read. By 42nd Street, the mystery scribe or scribes had settled on a catchphrase of their own, “Airbnb is great”—and here they crossed out “for New York” and substituted “for Airbnb.” As the graffiti spread upward to Harlem and outward to Brooklyn and Queens, it started to become clear that this was no run-of-the-mill ad defacement; it was a countercampaign, the latest battle in a full-scale war over Airbnb, one pitting analog against digital, old school versus new school, East Coast against West Coast, rich versus poor. At stake was nothing less than the Spirit of New York.
“We’re privileged that people care enough to talk about us, is the way I like to think about it,” says Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s 33-year-old CEO, who is sitting at a table at the Radius café in San Francisco’s Soma district and speaking in a gentle tone that contrasts with the tense, let’s-do-this look on his face.
It’s late August, and it had been a challenging summer for Airbnb. Berlin and San Francisco were both looking to curb Airbnb’s activity in their cities. There had been a weird standoff at a woman’s Palm Springs vacation home, where two internet trolls took over and established legal residency. Even a happy occasion—the unveiling of Airbnb’s new logo—had gone south after the internet declared that it looked like mutant genitalia. And then there was the roiling discontent in New York. “No, I didn’t know about that,” Chesky says glumly when I mention the poster. “But really, every summer has been crazy,” he continues, looking up gratefully as his co-founder, Joe Gebbia, arrives. “Hey,” Chesky says. “I was just telling her how crazy it is that we started this company six years ago,” he adds, not too subtly, “from a three-bedroom apartment down the street.”
This is the purpose of today’s meeting: to revisit the company’s humble origins and reiterate its intention to be a force for good. It’s a critical time for Airbnb, which has metastasized from a postcollege project to a multibillion-dollar concern rumored to be mulling a public offering. Its success or failure, which will portend the future of the sharing economy as a whole, depends in large part on the company’s ability to convince New York City—both its largest market and a petri dish that seems to contain every problem it could conceivably face—that people are, for the most part, decent and more likely in the face of temptation to choose the greater good over personal profit. Beginning with the founders themselves.
Chesky and Gebbia met at the Rhode Island School of Design. Art school may seem like an odd breeding ground for tech entrepreneurs. But the rhetoric there was very much aligned with Silicon Valley’s. “The teachers were like, ‘You’re a designer,’ ” says Chesky. “ ‘You could redesign the world you live in.’ ” To Chesky, the son of social workers from upstate New York, this idea was very empowering. “Like that George Bernard Shaw quote,” he goes on, reeling off what has become Silicon Valley’s unofficial motto: “ ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ ”
After school ended, Gebbia moved to San Francisco and launched his first business, inspired by the lengthy critiques, or “crits,” in which art students sit in a studio discussing one another’s work. “Everything’s covered in charcoal dust and paint,” he says at the restaurant. “So at the end of the day, you stand up and there’s literally a bun print on the seat of your pants. And I thought, What if there was a better way?” He came up with a prototype for a butt-shaped cushion he called CritBuns, which he manufactured and began selling to art students. Meanwhile, Chesky had gotten a job as an industrial designer in Los Angeles, where he was miserable. “It wasn’t what they told me at RISD,” he says. “I was living in someone else’s world, and it just felt very uninspiring.”