Airbnb’s Joe Zadeh: ‘Our grand vision is to get into all verticals of travel’

27 Jul 2017

Joe Zadeh, Airbnb’s VP of product. Image: Airbnb

Airbnb began life in an apartment in San Francisco and Joe ‘Joebot’ Zadeh was there almost from the start.

It is 2008 and two former schoolmates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, are renting an apartment in San Francisco but cannot make rent. They have this idea to rent out a spare room that has only an air mattress in it. It worked. Nathan Blecharczyk came aboard as employee number three and that’s how AirBed & Breakfast, aka Airbnb, was formed.

Today, the same company is valued north of $30bn and is hotly tipped for an IPO in the next two years.

‘Ultimately, the Airbnb product isn’t the app or the platform, the product is the experiences you get in the real world. Tech should just disappear into the background’

Future Human

Airbnb, which enables people to rent out their homes to travellers, has more than 3m lodgings listed in 65,000 cities in 191 countries worldwide.

The company employs more than 400 people in Dublin across two key offices in the Silicon Docks district.

Airbnb is an economic powerhouse generating revenue for hosts and exciting, authentic experiences for travellers. Last year, hosts in Dublin welcomed an estimated 358,300 arrivals who spent roughly €196m in the city.

Joe Zadeh joined the company in 2010 as employee number nine while it was still starting up in the same San Francisco apartment. “When you walked into the apartment, you felt this enormous energy and that’s what drew me into the company,” he recalled.

As vice-president of product, you could argue that Zadeh has one of the best jobs in the world. He gets to travel and sample the various Airbnb experiences to assess the product and improve it.

The company recently moved into Instant Book listings and now, more than 1.25m lodgings are available for immediate booking on Airbnb.

Travel is about human experiences

Airbnb’s Joe Zadeh: ‘Our grand vision is to get into all verticals of travel’

A replica of the original Rausch Street apartment where Airbnb was founded exists within the Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco. Image: Airbnb

“I was employee number nine and the third engineering [employee], and I’ve been running all of product management. When I started, there were six people working on the product in the bedroom of the apartment and so, to tell me apart from the other Joe [Gebbia], I became Joebot.

“I have a background as a scientist and engineer and everyone I knew thought I was crazy joining this unknown start-up but it all worked out.

“They couldn’t afford rent but, you know, some of the best ideas are born out of necessity. I did the same. When I moved to San Francisco, I couldn’t afford rent either so I rented my place out and paid my credit card debt off pretty quickly, too.

“I had some insight that other people didn’t have. As I went through the interview process, I started to see some things that really added up. Firstly, I had travelled and always made a point of staying with locals wherever I went. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend when you travel; what matters is, did you connect with the community, the locals?

“That’s what makes a great travel experience and Airbnb was doing that. So I had that insight.

Airbnb’s Joe Zadeh: ‘Our grand vision is to get into all verticals of travel’

The restoration of the original apartment at Airbnb’s San Francisco HQ. Image: Airbnb

“Another insight I got was while waiting to be interviewed and I noticed an email pinned to the wall by a host. She was a lady who got hit by the recession in 2008 and she was thanking Airbnb for saving her life.

“So it became immediately apparent that this was awesome for people who travel and economically empowering for hosts. Both hosts and Airbnb only benefit if the two sides do well together.

“I certainly didn’t think Airbnb could get this big but it has. I was motivated by how this could benefit people’s lives in a positive way.”

As we talked, Zadeh explained that while he was in Dublin, as well as visiting the Airbnb offices, he was on a mission to experience Dublin from the perspective of an Airbnb customer – and so, that night, his host was taking him on a folk music tour of the city, with instructions to write a song.

“It is precisely how we approached building the product. We spent a lot of time with customers. A lot of companies say they spend time with their customers but right now, I am on a trip of Europe spending time with hosts, trying to understand how they use the product and refined it. Oftentimes, customers have already created workaround and solutions and so you just have to spend time listening to them.”

Design culture

Zadeh said that design culture runs deep at Airbnb. “Two of our founders are designers and design is something we care deeply about. Designers have a way of taking a step back and looking at the entire problem.

“People don’t just travel to stay in rooms. People travel the world to take in entire trips and experiences. And now, our focus is on the entire trip and experience. In November, we launched Airbnb Trips, which is our way to move into the entire platform.”

Zadeh said that Airbnb has two mantras when it comes to product development. “First, make it easy to book in a single go. Second, make it magical – travel has the capacity to completely change your life. Travel can transform you, but that’s only possible through people. We want to make these trips as people-powered as possible.

“And so, we are finding lots of great hosts in different cities and asking them to share their passion for their world but also get paid for it.”

Zadeh said that Airbnb wants to fix what it believes is broken in the travel industry by creating authentic experiences.

“People don’t just travel to a city to see a few sights and then go back to their accommodation. With passionate hosts, travellers can enjoy experiences they will remember all their lives. Last week, I went urban beekeeping in Los Angeles – it was amazing. Recently, I attended a flamenco dancing evening in Barcelona.”

The dial at Airbnb is moving from solely accommodation to experiences, and Zadeh hinted that a more all-encompassing approach to getting away is on the cards.

“We are starting with experiences. We did announce that we plan to get into all verticals of travel, including flights, one day.

“That’s our grand vision. Some of these things will not be powered by locals but experiences are really incredible because one of the best ways to make a trip amazing is by going deep into the culture.”

Zadeh said that Airbnb is working on more travel content, entire trip ideas and concepts.

“We are not at the stage yet where the entire trip bundle is there but we are at the stage where I can show you all the things you can do and you can book individually.

“We plan to work with third parties on other aspects of the travel experience and use our design ethos to make Airbnb a one-stop-shop for travel.”

The on-demand economy

I ask Zadeh about the on-demand economy where companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo, Handy, Udemy, Hotel Tonight, Amazon Home Services and so many others are disrupting traditional industries.

Zadeh responds by emphasising why Airbnb is very people-oriented.

“In a lot of these industries, the technology is trying to replace the person and automate the work and, in a lot of cases, that might be the right thing to do, because it might make the road safer and so on.

“But I think, in our business of hospitality and connecting the cultures, you must have a human connection.

“We think of technology as not about replacing people but empowering people. I don’t know how Wikipedia can give you that rich experience or whether VR will ever do that, but it has to be through one-to-one connections with a person.”

In terms of harnessing new technology on the Airbnb platform, Zadeh explained the company has been experimenting with VR to possibly give travellers a feel for the home they plan to stay in.

Content is a huge focus for Airbnb, and the company has been incorporating guidebooks written by local influencers into its product. It also recently forged a partnership with a company called Detour, which provides GPS-based audiobooks.

“Ultimately, the Airbnb product isn’t the app or the platform, the product is the experiences you get in the real world.

“Tech should just disappear into the background. Tech should be an enabler and facilitator for experiences. Technology should help to unlock something you couldn’t get before. And that’s what’s exciting, not the technology itself.”

Scaling up

Airbnb, with its 3m lodgings, is larger than two of the world’s biggest hotel brands combined when it comes to accommodation. I ask Zadeh how the company has managed scaling up.

“Obviously, we have strong technical teams that try to understand the issues that scale may create, and get ahead of those issues before they happen.

“But you must never lose that connection with the customer as you scale.

“As companies scale, there is a tendency to look at the metrics. The thing is, we spend a tremendous amount of time with hosts as guests, solving issues and anticipating them before they start.

“When it comes to innovation, we try to understand customers’ problems and then find the technology innovation to make that happen.”

Another thing that Airbnb was careful to foster was culture as it grew. “Because the founders cared so much about the culture, they would disproportionately invest to bring employees from all over the world together at least once a year, despite the expense, because they believe in shared core values.

“As the company grew, we started putting care and love into our various offices around the world.

“Dublin is our most advanced office. But once you enter the building, it is instantly Airbnb, and that energy is stronger today than when it was in that apartment because we have codified it, understood it and amplified it.

“Most companies don’t understand the importance of culture until it is too late, but this is something we really did well from day one.”

Zadeh is particularly intrigued by tactile interfaces.

“Mediums like Amazon’s Echo really excite me because it goes back to the point I made earlier that technology should really get out of the way. With Echo, you don’t have to touch a computer, you just talk to it.

“Tech is an enabler but it should be on the periphery, almost hidden from view, but connecting you with the real world.

“In terms of experiments, we have done some home automation stuff where we have integrated new technologies into our hosts’ homes,” Zadeh concluded.

“When it comes to cars and autotech, it is about how can we make part of a deeper, human experience and not just another transaction.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years