Bedrock: Airbnb shakes things up

Senior Counsel
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Posted on August 1, 2017

DON NEWMAN IN CONVERSATION WITH AARON ZIFKIN AIRBNB’S COUNTRY MANAGER FOR CANADA

Airbnb has revolutionized the way we live — and travel.

DN: Airbnb is at the nexus of advancing technology and the shift to a “sharing” economy, but other companies have not been as successful in this space. Why?

AZ: I think there’s a few things that have converged in making Airbnb what it is today. The rst thing is that this is not a new idea, the idea of people sharing their home. It pre-dates even hotels, so you’d have families that were travelling from village to village, and they were travelling on the reputation of their family name, and that’s how doors would open up. There was a sense of trust. Hotels did it on a much larger scale. That’s what it is with Airbnb. It’s not anything new in terms of behaviour, in terms of people sharing homes, but Airbnb has unlocked trust at a scale which has never been seen before. And that trust has really been unlocked by the introduction of various technologies. I think that’s what Airbnb has done differently.

DN: How have you managed to preserve that nimble, start-up culture over nine years?

AZ: Although we’re a technology company, our business is an of ine product. We’re in a business that is connecting human beings. We are about mobilizing people. This is a movement that we are now connected to, so the rate of change that we have to go through in order to keep up with that is just amazing. It’s always going to be a ne balance between people and technology.

DN: You talk about complementary technology instead of disruptive technology. What does that mean for your business?

AZ: You get to a city and you may need help when you book your travel through some online travel agency. The stuff that you remember when you’re travelling is those serendipitous moments where someone says to you, “Here’s the best coffee shop, here’s the best up-and-coming restaurant, or you’ve got to go on this hike that only locals know about,” and that’s what Airbnb does better than anybody. It’s connecting people. So you’ve got this age where artificial intelligence is coming up, machinery is coming up, but what Airbnb is doing is using it to connect people and experiences in the real world.

DN: How do you stay nimble as the company grows so rapidly?

AZ: I think the best explanation is that we’re building the plane while ying it. We are very nimble. Decision-making is really quick because we have to be. We have to be that fast, given the triple-digit growth we’re seeing at once.

DN: You are getting some push-back in certain markets. What is your position as aspiring members of various communities?

AZ: There are very few businesses in the world that say that they want to be regulated and pay tax. But that’s Airbnb’s position. I was the rst employee in Canada for Airbnb and I met with a federal minister, and he was doing the pre-budget consultations and talking to stakeholders in different industries. I said, “We want to be taxed and we want to be regulated,” and I think half the table blacked out at those words. But to be regulated is to be recognized as a business model. We want to be regulated, and we’re working toward that.

DN: Are you concerned about imitators and competitors, now that you’re successful?

AZ: I think competition is something that we’re always going to keep an eye towards, but we’d rather be spending our brain cycles on making sure that our user experience keeps getting that much better. We try to spend energy thinking about that versus worrying about our competition. We always want to be cognizant of what they’re doing, but we’ve got a laser focus on creating the industry rather than worrying about what’s going on behind us.

DN: Well, Aaron, it sounds like you have your course charted. Thanks for taking the time now to talk.

AZ: My pleasure.

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