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Transcript: Joe Gebbia on How Airbnb Designs for Trust at TED Talk

Joe Gebbia

Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb, presents How Airbnb Designs for Trust at TED Talk conference (Transcript)

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I want to tell you the story about the time I almost got kidnapped in the trunk of a red Mazda Miata. It’s the day after graduating from design school and I’m having a yard sale. And this guy pulls up in this red Mazda and he starts looking through my stuff. And he buys a piece of art that I made. And it turns out he’s alone in town for the night, driving cross-country on a road trip before he goes into the Peace Corps. So I invite him out for a beer and he tells me all about his passion for making a difference in the world.

Now it’s starting to get late, and I’m getting pretty tired. As I motion for the tab, I make the mistake of asking him, “So where are you staying tonight?”

And he makes it worse by saying, “Actually, I don’t have a place.”

And I’m thinking, “Oh, man!” What do you do? We’ve all been there, right? Do I offer to host this guy? But, I just met him — I mean, he says he’s going to the Peace Corps, but I don’t really know if he’s going to the Peace Corps and I don’t want to end up kidnapped in the trunk of a Miata. That’s a small trunk.

So then I hear myself saying, “Hey, I’ve got an airbed you can stay on in my living room.” And the voice in my head goes, “Wait, what?”

That night, I’m laying in bed, I’m staring at the ceiling and thinking, “Oh my god, what have I done? There’s a complete stranger sleeping in my living room. What if he’s psychotic?”  My anxiety grows so much, I leap out of bed, I sneak on my tiptoes to the door, and I lock the bedroom door.

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It turns out he was not psychotic. We’ve kept in touch ever since. And the piece of art he bought at the yard sale is hanging in his classroom; he’s a teacher now.

This was my first hosting experience, and it completely changed my perspective. Maybe the people that my childhood taught me to label as strangers were actually friends waiting to be discovered. The idea of hosting people on airbeds gradually became natural to me and when I moved to San Francisco, I brought the airbed with me.

So now it’s two years later. I’m unemployed, I’m almost broke, my roommate moves out, and then the rent goes up. And then I learn there’s a design conference coming to town, and all the hotels are sold out. And I’ve always believed that turning fear into fun is the gift of creativity.

So here’s what I pitch my best friend and my new roommate Brian Chesky: “Brian, thought of a way to make a few bucks — turning our place into ‘designers bed and breakfast,’ offering young designers who come to town a place to crash, complete with wireless Internet, a small desk space, sleeping mat, and breakfast each morning. Ha!”

We built a basic website and AirBed and Breakfast was born. Three lucky guests got to stay on a 20-dollar airbed on the hardwood floor. But they loved it, and so did we. I swear, the ham and Swiss cheese omelets we made tasted totally different because we made them for our guests. We took them on adventures around the city, and when we said goodbye to the last guest, the door latch clicked, Brian and I just stared at each other. Did we just discover it was possible to make friends while also making rent?

The wheels had started to turn. My old roommate, Nate Blecharczyk, joined as engineering co-founder. And we buckled down to see if we could turn this into a business.

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Here’s what we pitched investors: “We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces, their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kinds of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the Internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!”

We sat back, and we waited for the rocket ship to blast off. It did not. No one in their right minds would invest in a service that allows strangers to sleep in people’s homes. Why? Because we’ve all been taught as kids, strangers equal danger.

Now, when you’re faced with a problem, you fall back on what you know, and all we really knew was design. In art school, you learn that design is much more than the look and feel of something — it’s the whole experience. We learned to do that for objects, but here, we were aiming to build Olympic trust between people who had never met.

Could design make that happen? Is it possible to design for trust?

I want to give you a sense of the flavor of trust that we were aiming to achieve. I’ve got a 30-second experiment that will push you past your comfort zone. If you’re up for it, give me a thumbs-up. OK, I need you to take out your phones. Now that you have your phone out, I’d like you to unlock your phone. Now hand your unlocked phone to the person on your left. That tiny sense of panic you’re feeling right now is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open their home. Because the only thing more personal than your phone is your home. People don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, your toilet.

Now, how does it feel holding someone’s unlocked phone? Most of us feel really responsible. That’s how most guests feel when they stay in a home. And it’s because of this that our company can even exist.

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By the way, who’s holding Al Gore’s phone? Would you tell Twitter he’s running for President?

OK, you can hand your phones back now.

So now that you’ve experienced the kind of trust challenge we were facing, I’d love to share a few discoveries we’ve made along the way.

Now what if we changed one small thing about the design of that experiment? What if your neighbor had introduced themselves first, with their name, where they’re from, the name of their kids or their dog? Imagine that they had 150 reviews of people saying, “They’re great at holding unlocked phones!” Now how would you feel about handing your phone over?

It turns out, a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust. And we didn’t actually get it right the first time. It’s hard for people to leave bad reviews. Eventually, we learned to wait until both guests and hosts left the review before we reveal them.

Now, here’s a discovery we made just last week. We did a joint study with Stanford, where we looked at people’s willingness to trust someone based on how similar they are in age, location and geography. The research showed, not surprisingly, we prefer people who are like us. The more different somebody is, the less we trust them. Now, that’s a natural social bias.

But what’s interesting is what happens when you add reputation into the mix, in this case, with reviews. Now, if you’ve got less than three reviews, nothing changes. But if you’ve got more than 10, everything changes. High reputation beats high similarity. The right design can actually help us overcome one of our most deeply rooted biases.

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