Before I Was Boss: Airbnb co-founder was once an NBA ball boy

Joe Gebbia, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Airbnb.
PHOTO: Airbnb

Don't make light of school holiday jobs.

They can sometimes motivate young minds to make their mark in the world like in the case of Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of global home-renting service Airbnb and one of America's richest entrepreneurs under 40.

You see, Mr Gebbia worked as a ball boy in the US National Basketball Association (NBA) during his high school days.

For three seasons, he watched the creme de la creme of the premier basketball world play in front of his very eyes and was struck by how they had trained their whole lives to enter the coveted league.

"I was really inspired," Mr Gebbia told AsiaOne in a phone interview last week. "I decided that I wanted to be in the same league, in terms of entrepreneurship."

Yes, as a teenager, the 35-year-old already knew he wanted to become his own boss one day.

He credits this vision to his parents, who showed him the joy of being entrepreneurs when he was growing up.

Airbnb's new Singapore office offers "trip around the world in minutes"

  • Airbnb in Singapore has announced that it has moved into a new office.
  • It’s a unique three-storey space where startup culture meets creative design.
  • Each room mirrors a real-life Airbnb accommodation around the globe, and is brought to life by Airbnb staff who went all out in conceptualisation, sourcing of materials and setup.
  • Because of those country and listing themed rooms, spending a work day in the new Airbnb office is almost akin to globe-trotting, where staff get to 'travel the world within minutes'.
  • The space is filled with light and informal elements.
  • Once you get through the office's entrance, the space is open plan with a contemporary-styled kopitiam.
  • Shared spaces includes a cafe-style setting, with benches and beanbags for breakout meetings.
  • Said Mr Julian Persaud, Airbnb's Asia-Pacific regional director: "The company aimed to recreate a space that encouraged collaboration while also reflecting the company's ethos - where anyone can belong anywhere."
  • The Auckland meeting room brings the outdoors…indoors. This room has fairy lights shimmering like stars above a BBQ pit and a fireplace with artificial greenery.
  • All office meeting rooms are inspired by actual homes on Airbnb to showcase the vast diversity of destinations, including an Andy-Warhol inspired loft in Bangkok.
  • To replicate The Boat Shed in Byron Bay, you can find a bathtub remodelled as a meeting table.
  • Two storerooms were converted into meeting rooms - the Great Northwest camp, and also Belo 6, redesigned as a mission control centre on a spaceship.
  • The Belo 6 meeting room sums up the forward-thinking and "always shoot for the stars" attitude of Airbnb.
  • A meeting room inspired by a villa in Kuta.
  • Mr Persaud said: "Design is deeply embedded in Airbnb's culture. This is reflected in the unique layout of all Airbnb's global offices."
  • "At Airbnb we want to create the sense of travel when we welcome people into our office. We want our employees and guests to experience the feeling you get when you travel," he explained.

The seed for his dream was sowed in 2007, two years after graduating from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design with dual degrees in Graphic Design and Industrial Design.

He had invited his college friend Brian Chesky, both 27 then, to San Francisco so they could discuss starting a business together.

The two unemployed designers soon found themselves struggling to pay the rent for their apartment, and were looking out for ways to earn some cash.

There was going to be a huge design conference in the city, but many hotels were fully booked.

They saw an opportunity there - why not rent out their place for visitors to sleep over, with breakfast in the morning?

The pair went out to buy three airbeds and created a simple website, airbedandbreakfast.com. They scored three guests, who each paid US$80 (S$112) for the accommodation.

Excited to expand on this idea to target conferences and festivals around the US, Mr Gebbia roped in his former flatmate Nathan Blecharczyk, a computer science graduate from Harvard, to develop the website.

But the co-founders had a rocky start. They fell in debt and were not getting enough bookings. Nobody wanted to invest except venture capitalist and computer scientist Paul Graham, who recognised the potential of the three young entrepreneurs.

In early 2009, Mr Graham accepted their business into his start-up mentoring programme Y Combinator, known for its stringent application process, which provided Air Bed & Breakfast with a much-needed seed fund of US$20,000 (S$27,900).

Things went uphill from there.

Teething problems were fixed, the customer base grew and more investors including actor Ashton Kutcher were putting their money into what was renamed as Airbnb.

Mr Gebbia said it took four years for Airbnb to finally gain traction, hitting a million bookings in 89 countries in 2011.

The start-up is now worth over US$30 billion, and has become more than just a home-rental service. Users can also book local experiences via Trips, which was recently launched in Singapore.

There's also Places, which are essentially guides created by locals to help travellers discover everything from hidden gems to events. Places will roll out in Singapore later this year.

Airbnb boss makes soon kueh in Berseh Food Centre

  • One's a young billionaire with a multi-national company that's synonymous with couch surfing while the other runs a handmade soon kueh stall at Jalan Besar.
  • But their paths crossed March 13, 2017 when Mr Nick Soon, owner of One Kueh At A Time at Berseh Food Centre, found himself giving Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia tips on making the turnip dumplings.
  • And as it turned out, Mr Soon was surprised to see Mr Gebbia churning out soon kuehs that looked almost as good as the ones he lovingly makes by hand.
  • "I asked him whether it was his first time making soon kueh. Apparently, it was," Mr Soon told AsiaOne in a phone interview.
  • He and Mr Gebbia, who is also Airbnb's chief product officer, were making soon kueh together with five others as part of a promotional event at the food centre.
  • Mr Soon said he was impressed by Mr Gebbia's first-time attempt as he was game to try new things and learned quickly.
  • Mr Gebbia even hoped to churn out 100 soon kueh, which he enjoyed, for his own staff but they couldn't do so due to time constraints.
  • Mr Gebbia was in town to launch Singapore's version of Airbnb Trips, which lets users book a local experience on top of a place to stay.

huizhen@sph.com.sg