Every issue, GRAZIA USA highlights Game Changers who inspire, educate and celebrate individuality, beauty and style. Meet Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb and new housing venture, Samara, who’s constantly creating – and giving back in big ways.
I was an artist growing up. In the second grade, I would make drawings and sell them to friends for $1 a piece. People loved them and I remember that was the first time that I saw and experienced people wanting to pay me for something that I created. All throughout my childhood, through high school into college, I was always trying to come up with ideas that would make people smile. I feel like most of my life has been about bringing ideas to life.
Airbnb is one of those ideas that comes around once in a generation. For Brian [Chesky], Nate [Blecharczyk] and I to be in our mid-20s and have this idea right as the internet was maturing to a point where people would be comfortable staying in the home of a stranger, it was an impossible idea. I remember in the early days, people would say, “This is never going to work; no one’s ever going to use this at scale; you’re better off working on something else.” That was pretty much the advice that we got when we started the company.
What kept us going, even against all those critics and investors that passed on us, is that personal, magical, experience we had hosting three guests in our home. We made $1,000 and were able to make the rent, but there was something more that transpired—there was this social experience of sharing our city with our guests. I remember after they left the apartment, Brian and I looked at each other and thought, “Did we just get paid to make friends?” In all the moments when the world seemed to be against us, we could reflect back on that and say, “If we just keep persevering, we believe there’s enough people like us who will also enjoy this experience of staying in homes and actually feeling like an insider of the city you travel to.”
I think that most success stories, especially in Silicon Valley, aren’t the overnight successes that most people think they are. For us, it didn’t happen overnight. It took many years to get the company to a scale and a size that had posts in major cities around the world. It was a pretty hard, long journey.
I feel very fortunate in my life and feel there’s a responsibility to give back. I’m also the Chairman of airbnb.org, which provides housing to refuges and people in crisis. It leverages Airbnb’s technology, services and other resources to provide housing after national disasters and is currently assisting over 100,000 refugees of Ukraine.
I stepped back from day-to-day operations at Airbnb last year, but I remain on the board and am one of the top three shareholders in the company. I’m still very connected with the company; it’s one of my most proud acts of creativity. My latest housing venture is Samara, which provides customizable net-zero studio and one-bedroom accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to homeowners. It began as an innovation team inside Airbnb and is now a privately funded start- up. Its mission is to improve the way we live by reimagining the home.
We designed a backyard unit to be useful however life evolves, whether it serves as an in- law suite or a home office, a rental unit or a space for a new passion, like starting a yoga studio. It’s beautifully designed and we use materials that last a lifetime. It’s all electric and actually produces more energy than it consumes. We send that additional energy back to the main house so it’s like having a little mini power plant in your backyard. Customers can customize their unit and choose certain finishes that make it their own. We also take care of everything else necessary, including the land prep, permitting, all the hard stuff. The installation takes about two or three hours. It’s a new way of thinking about constructing homes. Our goal is to offer the simplest, most well-designed and flexible space for homeowners to grow their income, their family or their interests.
To me, an immersive designer is somebody that synthesizes a problem, creatively solves it and designs a better solution. There’s an important role of empathy as a designer. You need to understand who you’re designing for. Throughout my career I’ve done ethnographic research, which is when you study the people that you’re designing for by going into their natural environments. I love making things that solve problems and that delight people. I’ve had this incredible experience with Airbnb, this amazing act of creativity, and I’m excited for the next acts to come.
— As told to Colleen Kratofil
Read GRAZIA USA’s Spring issue featuring cover star Lucy Boynton: