GUY RAZ, HOST:
So when we talk about design, maybe you think of those great buildings Marc Kushner was just talking about or something you could hold in your hand like an iPod. Or maybe it's something you look at in an art gallery. Well, that's the kind of design Joe Gebbia wanted to do in high school.
JOE GEBBIA: I had this dream to be a painter, of all things.
RAZ: Like fine art painting?
GEBBIA: Yeah, like fine art painting. I had this dream to be a fine artist, you know, creating work in New York City and having gallery shows. And that was the life that I imagined for myself.
RAZ: And Joe's dreams of being a fine artist took him to the Rhode Island School of Design.
GEBBIA: Yeah, I was another kid doing design at RISD kind of learning my way, you know, making a lot of mistakes. And there was a very important principle that I learned at RISD, which was that anytime you see duct tape in the world, that's a design opportunity.
RAZ: Hmm. Why?
GEBBIA: Why? Because it's an indicator that something's broken - that something didn't perform the way that it was designed to, and that there's an opportunity to improve it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So OK, fast forward a couple of years. Joe's painting career hadn't exactly worked out. But he got his own duct tape opportunity. And at the time, he was living in San Francisco, going through a pretty rough time, financially. Here's Joe on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
GEBBIA: I'm unemployed. I'm almost broke. My roommate moves out, and then the rent goes up. And then I learned there's a design conference coming to town, and all the hotels are sold out.
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 designer's bed-and-breakfast, offering designers who come to town a place to crash, complete with wireless Internet, a small desk space, sleeping mat and breakfast each morning. Ha.
GEBBIA: We built a basic website, and Air Bed and Breakfast was born. Three lucky guests got to stay on a $20 airbed on the hardwood floor. But they loved it. And so did we. 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. 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.
GEBBIA: We sat back and we waited for the rocket ship to blast off. It did not.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: OK, if it's not clear by now, Joe Gebbia is one of the co-founders of Airbnb, a company literally changing the world of travel and lodging. Seven hundred fifty thousand people stay in an Airbnb-listed room every single night.
And Joe says design is the key to their success - design not in a sense of a piece of art, where the goal is to make you feel a certain way about a painting or an object. But Joe's design is about making you feel a certain way about someone.
But the idea that that was even possible was a hard sell back in 2008. And Joe and his co-founder Brian Chesky struggled to get investors interested in their idea.
GEBBIA: We thought it was going to be huge, but then investors didn't quite think that. And we found that out the hard way. You know, we got introduced to 20 people in Silicon Valley. These are kind of the who's who. Ten returned our email. Five met us for coffee. Zero invested in Airbnb.
RAZ: So you're, like, totally deflated. You guys have this, like, great idea, and nobody's interested in investing. Why? Why weren't they interested?
GEBBIA: Well, I think that we came smack up against one of the deepest biases that we have - is that, you know, we've all been taught since we were kids that strangers equal danger. And so no one in their right minds would invest in a service that was all about letting strangers into people's homes.
I mean, it kind of made sense that they didn't invest - right? - based on this deeply rooted bias that we've been taught since we were kids.
GEBBIA: So we had a real problem on our hands. We had to not only get people to adopt our service, but to do so, we had to overcome a social bias in the world. And that's where design came into the picture.
And I guess to me, like, design as a competitive advantage is the thing that can separate you because it used to be about processor speed and screen size and, like, all these kind of features. But, you know, the playing field for access to that kind - those kinds of technologies has largely leveled off.
So what is the next thing that can differentiate you? And I think all things being equal - two comparable products side-by-side with the same technical features and components - you know, you'd be crazy to choose the one that was harder to use.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: That's Joe Gebbia. When we come back in just a minute, Joe explains how Airbnb's design decisions not only made their service easy to use, but also how it helped millions of complete strangers trust each other. I'm Guy Raz. More ideas about design in just a minute on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about the power of design. And we were just hearing from Joe Gebbia. He's one of the founders of Airbnb. Joe was never a software designer by training.
He'd actually gone to art school. He wanted to be a painter, which is why early on in the birth of Airbnb, he and his partners had an inkling that design could be their secret sauce - that millions of people would be more than happy to open their homes to complete strangers if Joe and his team could design their service to encourage trust. Here's Joe on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
GEBBIA: In art school, you learn that design is much more than the look and feel of something. It's the whole experience. And we wanted 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 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.
GEBBIA: That tiny sense of panic you're feeling right now...
GEBBIA: ...Is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open their home...
GEBBIA: ...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, 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.
GEBBIA: Now how would you feel about handing your phone over? It turns out - a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So how did you do that? Like, how did you design a system that allowed people to trust each other?
GEBBIA: I guess to me, like, we wanted our service to be as welcoming as our living room was.
GEBBIA: And our design mantra at that time was fun and friendly. So anytime we could show a face in our service, we would - right? - in search results, on profiles, on the actual homepage. I think the tone of voice that we used also engendered trust - and even some, like, maybe subtle things like the color palette.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, as far as like the box where people type in the messages, like, you say it's just the right size and length. And then you want people to give just enough information - like, not too much information?
GEBBIA: Right. So one of the important ways to build trust when two people are meeting for the first time is to encourage them to have the right amount of disclosure. And when a guest first sends a message to a host inquiring about their home, we can look at it and see what's too short and what's too long.
GEBBIA: So if somebody writes and says - hey, yo - the acceptance rate typically goes down.
GEBBIA: And if they write something that's too long - it's like a novella - their acceptance rates also go down.
GEBBIA: And so there's a zone that's just right, which is the - hey, coming for vacation with my family, and man, I love the artwork in your place, et cetera, et cetera.
RAZ: Did you guys face any competitors early on?
GEBBIA: Oh, for sure.
GEBBIA: Yeah. So this - you know, there were many websites like ours that did the exact same thing. I think the question is - why did ours eventually take off?
GEBBIA: And the luck and timing aside, I think we were able to understand the components of trust and to design for that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
GEBBIA: Now, things have been going pretty well. Obviously, there are times when things don't work out. Guests have thrown unauthorized parties and trashed homes. Hosts have left guests stranded in the rain.
Thankfully, out of the 123 million nights we've ever hosted, less than a fraction of a percent have been problematic. Turns out people are justified in their trust. And when trust works out right, it can be absolutely magical.
We had a guest stay with a host in Uruguay. And he suffered a heart attack. The host rushed him to the hospital. They donated their own blood for his operation. Let me read you his review.
GEBBIA: (Reading) Excellent house for sedentary travelers prone to myocardial infarctions.
GEBBIA: (Reading) The area is beautiful and has direct access to the best hospitals.
GEBBIA: (Reading) Javier (ph) and Alejandra (ph) instantly become guardian angels who will save your life without even knowing you. They will rush you to the hospital in their own car while you're dying and stay in the waiting room while the doctors give you a bypass.
GEBBIA: They don't let you feel lonely. They bring you books to read, and they let you stay at their house extra nights without charging you. Highly recommended.
GEBBIA: Of course, not every stay is like that. But this connection beyond the transaction is exactly what the sharing economy is aiming for. The sharing economy is commerce with the promise of human connection. People share a part of themselves. And that changes everything. Thank you.
RAZ: Joe Gebbia is one of the co-founders of Airbnb. Check out his entire talk at ted.com. Today on the show - the power of design.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.