Thomas L. Friedman: No stopping the Airbnb bandwagon

Brian Chesky, founder and chief executive of Airbnb, says his venture will unlock millions of entrepreneurs. Picture: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times
Brian Chesky, founder and chief executive of Airbnb, says his venture will unlock millions of entrepreneurs. Picture: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times
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The world’s biggest home rental service has the potential to go way beyond a marketplace for just hiring accommodation, says Thomas L. Friedman

Roughly a decade ago two new “platform” companies burst out of California. The one that dominated the headlines was called Uber, which created a platform where with one touch of your phone you could summon a cab, direct the driver, pay the driver and rate the driver. It grew like a weed - as all kinds of people became taxi drivers in their spare time. But Uber made clear that its ultimate goal was self-driving cars.

The other was called Airbnb. It created a trust platform so efficient that people all over the world were ready to use it to rent out their spare bedrooms to total strangers. Airbnb is growing so fast that it’s now adding the equivalent of one entire Hilton hotel chain’s worth of rooms for rent each year.

But while Uber aspires to self-driving cars, Airbnb has a different goal: enabling what I call self-driving people.

And that’s why I won’t be surprised if in five years Airbnb is not only still the world’s biggest home rental service, but also one of the world’s biggest jobs platforms. You read that right. Very quietly Airbnb has been expanding its trust platform beyond enabling people to rent their spare rooms to allowing them to translate their passions into professions, and thereby empower more self-driving people.

Don’t worry: I don’t own stock in Airbnb. (Wish I could.) But I’ve been following it nearly from its inception through conversations with one of its founders, CEO Brian Chesky, and I highlight the latest step in its evolution because I think it provides part of the answer to one of the most 
vexing societal questions we face today: Will machines and robots take all our jobs?

Answer: Only if we let them - and Airbnb is creating a platform to not let them. It all started with people who were renting rooms saying to their customers: “Hey, hope you enjoy the room. By the way, I’m also a great cook; would you like me to prepare a dinner party for you?” Or, “I’m an amateur historian; would you like me to give you a tour of the city?” Now this trend has just taken off.

“We created a garden and planted one plant - and that was home-sharing,” explained Chesky over breakfast in San Francisco. “And now we’re seeing what other things can grow in this garden.”

To see what’s growing, go to Airbnb’s site and click not on “homes” but on “experiences.” You’ll find an endless smorgasbord of people turning their passion into profit and their inner artisan into second careers.

Take for instance the team of Luca & Lorenzo. They explain in endearing broken English: “We are 100 per cent Italian food lovers; we were used to cook with our grandmothers since we were child. We continued to have this passion through the years, so it makes sense founded our company Lovexfood.”

For $152 a person, they will take seven people visiting Florence, Italy, on a trip to “make pasta from scratch in the woods outside the city” in an “old house … surrounded by a garden with aromatic plants. We are between the hills where is produced the famous Chianti wine.”

In London, for $84 a person, you can learn in three hours how to “make a one-of-a-kind hat with a professional millinery designer,” Sarah, using “an array of feathers, flowers, lace and tulle.”

For $35 a person, Lee Marvin will take five people in Havana on a tour of three-on-three neighborhood basketball games. “Christina” posted a message on his site on 18 July, saying: “I signed my teenage son up for this & it was one of the best activities of the trip. It was supposed to end at 8 pm or so. Well, my son felt so welcomed that he & Lee Marvin’s gang hung out for several hours after they played basketball. They learned about each other’s lives, told jokes, talked sports and really bonded. Talk about a great emersion into the Cuban culture.” Also, not a bad way for a Cuban to earn $175 a night, minus Airbnb’s commission.

For $99 a person and five hours in Los Angeles, Antonio will teach your group how to “make a custom piñata with an esteemed pâper-maché artist” in the piñata district. Tools, “tamales and pan dulce” from Antonio’s favorite places are all included.

And for $37 each, Naky will take your group on a four-hour tour of Lisbon to “see the city through the eyes of an African immigrant.”

No wonder Airbnb’s “experiences” site has grown ten-fold this year.

Tourists visiting a foreign country try to understand the culture by going to a museum and viewing “art by dead people,” noted Chesky. “Why not learn how to make art yourself, taught by a living artist in that culture and immerse yourself in the artist’s world? These are experiences you can bring back with you!”

Chesky believes that the potential for Airbnb experiences could be bigger than home-sharing. I agree.

“The biggest asset in people’s lives is not their home, but their time and potential — and we can unlock that,” he explained. “We have these homes that are not used, and we have these talents that are not used. Instead of asking what new infrastructure we need to build, why don’t we look at what passions we can unlock? We can unlock so much economic activity, and this will unlock millions of entrepreneurs.”

When he retires, said Chesky, age 35, “I’d like to say that Airbnb created 100 million new entrepreneurs in the world.” I wouldn’t bet against him.

©2017 New York Times New Service