Today, Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky sent the following note to employees in response to co-founder Joe Gebbia’s news.
To understand Joe is to understand the soul of Airbnb. Joe is a dreamer who sees potential where others do not. I knew this the moment I met him at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The year was 2000. We were among the few kids at art school who played sports. I ran the hockey team and Joe ran the basketball team. We had the hardest marketing challenge in the world—how do you get art students to a sports game? We competed for fans. Our relationship was one of friendly competition back then. We played ping pong against each other almost every day.
In 2004, as I was graduating, we were preparing to go our separate ways, but Joe had a different idea in mind. We were sitting in a pizza shop in Providence when Joe took a dramatic pause, looked at me and said, “Brian, I think we’re going to start a company together… and there’s gonna be a book about it.” A book? I was just trying to figure out how to get a job so I didn’t have to move back home with my parents.
Joe was always dreaming big, and he was one step ahead of me because a couple years later I was working in Los Angeles as an industrial designer, and I was miserable. I wanted to become an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know how to get started. One day, I received a package with a beautifully designed seat cushion shaped like a buttocks with a handle on it. It was called Critbuns. Next to the seat cushion was a note from Joe. It said, “Come to San Francisco.”
Joe had started a company selling seat cushions, and he was a successful entrepreneur. And now, he was asking me to come to San Francisco to start a company with him. He spent the next twelve months prodding me to come until, finally, he figured out a way. It was August, 2007, and Joe invited me to his 26th birthday party (we were born a week apart). I accepted his invitation, not realizing that my life was about to change forever.
I distinctly remember walking into Rausch Street. You had to take your shoes off upon arrival. Along the walls were dozens of post-it notes with ideas written on them. Doors were turned on their side and converted into giant desks, and there was a wall of bookshelves with design books color coordinated. It felt like being back at the RISD design studio—ideas were overflowing, and as soon as I entered, I felt like I was in a space where something important was going to happen.
The next morning, it did. I had fallen asleep on a brown leather couch in Joe’s living room and I awoke to discover his roommate, a tall person in a crimson jacket and the longest fingers I’d ever seen tapping away furiously on his laptop. This is how I met Nate, even though I had no idea at this point the three of us would start a company together.
Five weeks later, I finally did move in with Joe. Before we hosted Kat, Michael, and Amol, Joe hosted me. He not only took me into his home, but he connected me to the startup community in San Francisco. Joe was the OG host. Joe was also the one who showed me how to chase a dream. We’d huddle around his desk late into the evening, with the only light emanating from the blue glow of his giant cinema display. Inevitably, we would have an idea. It would always start with, “What if…” One day, Joe said, “What if we inflated three airbeds?” That’s how Airbnb began.
But Airbnb didn’t get going until Joe brought Nate and me together. By January 2009, Joe, Nate, and I fully dedicated ourselves to Airbnb during Y Combinator. We were part band, part sports team, and we lived together like a family. The three of us would get into Joe’s red Jeep Cherokee and drive down to YC in Mountain View every week. Joe had this one Jose Gonzalez CD that he kept in his car for probably like 10 years. No matter how good or bad of a day you were having, the same acoustic guitar would be playing. Every Sunday, we would do a comprehensive discussion of everything that was going on—a tradition that we still do, every Sunday, to this day.
Within a few months, Airbnb took off, and we haven’t really looked back since. If I was the fuel, then Joe was the launch pad.
Since the beginning, Joe has always focused on helping others. Our first community support number was Joe’s cell phone, and I vividly remember him taking calls while we were standing at an airport terminal gate about to board an airplane. No issue was too small for Joe. He used to say, “Every customer counts; treat them like a family member.” He led the mobilization of our community, printing signs for our hosts and standing outside city halls with them in solidarity. And he always had a big idea to help people, like in 2013 when Hurricane Sandy flooded NYC. Joe huddled with a small team in a tiny glass conference room for days on end working to provide housing for people that were stranded. That’s how Airbnb.org was born.
The reason I tell you these stories is because there are a few things you need to know about Joe.
I remember someone once told me, “Pessimists are usually right, but it’s the optimists who change the world.” Joe is the quintessential optimist. But it’s not rooted in blind faith. His optimism is rooted in his greatest superpower: his relentless imagination.
One day I asked Joe, “What would success for Airbnb be?” You know what he said? It wasn’t to become the biggest company in the world. It was to expand the definition of the word family. He said that if we were successful, you would open the dictionary one day and in the dictionary the word “family” wouldn’t be limited to your parents, siblings, or children. It would also include all the people you took into your home—the people you cared for, travelers that you were entrusted with.
Joe’s got the heart to redefine the word family, and the imagination to believe it’s possible. That is why Joe is the uncompromising True North of Airbnb. With Joe, there is always a way, and that way always travels through kindness.
Reflecting back on it now, I just can’t believe how lucky I am. If anything had gone just a few degrees in a different direction, I would not be writing this letter. That’s how fragile ideas are, and it’s what gives me gratitude to know Joe and Nate. What I’m most thankful for is that we’re still together, still meeting every Sunday. We built a dream together. And now, after all of these years, we still continue to dream.
Thank you, Joe.