How Uber and Airbnb won over the people, outlasted rivals, and figured out the sharing economy
By Brad Stone
Jan 27 2017
In January 2009 the three founders of a little-known website called Airbedandbreakfast.com decided at the last minute to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama. Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk were all in their mid-20s and had no tickets to the festivities, or winter clothes, or even a firm grasp of the week’s schedule. But they saw an opportunity. Their online home-sharing company had limped along for more than a year with little to show for it. Now the eyes of the world would be on the nation’s capital, and they wanted to take advantage.
They found a cheap crash pad in D.C., an apartment in a drafty three-floor house near Howard University that, like so many other homes during that desperate time, was in foreclosure. The rooms were unfurnished save for a pullout sofa, which the three founders gave to their friend and adviser, Michael Seibel, who ran the streaming-video site Justin.tv. At night they crowded onto the hardwood floor on inflatable beds.
Their host was a tenant waiting for eviction. He lived in the basement apartment and had used the AirBed & Breakfast website to rent out the empty first floor and, to three other guests, his own bedroom, living room, and walk-in closet. Sensing a promotional opportunity, Chesky e-mailed the staff of Good Morning America about the closet, and a producer included it in a roundup of unusual accommodations for the inauguration.
By day the founders and Seibel passed out AirBed & Breakfast fliers at the Dupont Circle Metro station. “Rent your room! Rent your room!” they cried to the bundled-up commuters, who mostly ignored them. At night they met other AirBed & Breakfast hosts in the city, talked their way into inaugural parties, and answered multiple e-mails from a disgruntled customer—the guest in the basement bedroom. The woman had driven her Volkswagen bus from Arizona to D.C. with her support dog, a Chihuahua, and she wasn’t keen on the crowded accommodations. In a barrage of complaints, she said she was certain she smelled marijuana, that the juice she’d left in the fridge had been taken, and that the house didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At one point she threatened to call the police. Chesky, Gebbia, and Blecharczyk sat just a few feet above her head, typing out apologetic replies.
On the day of the inauguration, they awoke at 3 a.m. to claim a good viewing spot on the National Mall. They walked 2 miles to get there, buying hats and face masks at a kiosk along the way. By 4 a.m. they’d found a space on the green in the area open to the general public, a few football fields away from the presidential podium.
“We just kind of sat back to back in the middle of the Mall and tried to stay warm,” says Chesky, the chief executive officer of the startup, now named Airbnb. “It was the coldest morning of my life. Everyone cheered when the sun came up.”
Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick also attended the festivities that week. A friend on the inaugural committee, the investor Chris Sacca, had persuaded them to come. Kalanick, a Los Angeles native who’d recently sold his startup to web infrastructure company Akamai, made a $25,000 donation to the inaugural committee and split the expense with Camp. They were both in their early 30s and, despite the global economic meltdown, full of optimism about the transformative effects of technology. They were largely ambivalent about politics but didn’t want to miss a historic moment or, just as urgently, a seminal party.
They also arrived in D.C. fully unprepared. The night before the inauguration, they found themselves stuck in a line outside the Newseum, trying to get into a party hosted by the Huffington Post. It was windy and cold, and they had only one wool hat between them, which they took turns wearing, 10 minutes each, while frantically texting one of the party’s hosts, asking to be allowed inside.