6 tips on designtrepeneurship from Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb

During an AIGA event in San Francisco, Joe Gebbia, co-founder of $2.5 billion dollar company Airbnb discussed the growing trend of “Designpreneurs,” or designers turned entrepreneurs. He told the story of Airbnb and gave advice for designers who also want to make their ideas happen in a startup environment.

Airbnb was founded in 2008 by Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who realized there was a need in the market for consumers who wanted to rent unused living spaces. They sought to create an online community that would address this need, and teamed up with Harvard grad Nathan Blecharczyk, who became their technical architect.

After many hardships and maxed-out credit cards, Airbnb became the phenomenon it is today. Clearly, 2 designers plus 1 developer equals a dynamite combination of right and left-brained ingenuity!

Here are 6 tips that future designtrepeneurs can take away from Joe Gibbia’s story:

1. A designer’s responsibility is to seek out the details

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A heart symbol on Airbnb’s Wishlist page has a lot more meaning than a star symbol!

Designers are some of the most detail-oriented people you’ll find — their craft demands it. “Great designers see the separate little parts and connect them in a new and different form no one’s ever seen before,” said Gebbia, “that to me is quintessential design and entrepreneurship.”

A great example of this is the feature on Airbnb that allowed users to “star” the properties they liked and save them to a list. When the team was looking for ways to improve user engagement they decided to change the star to a heart, realizing that a heart carried a lot more meaning and aspirational symbolism than a star. Changing this 1 detail “showed [Airbnb] the potential for something bigger,” Gebbia told Co.Design in another interview. As a result, user engagement increased 30%.

2. To design for people, become the people

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Empathy is key to discovering an audience’s needs. Source: China Daily/NY Daily News

Great designers put themselves in the shoes of their audience so they can empathize and create designs that address their needs. Fellow designer and co-founder Brian Chesky is so committed to this idea that he lives only as a guest in the homes of Airbnb hosts, and as a result is 1 of the richest homeless people around.

3. Do things that don’t scale

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Professional photography makes a huge difference.

Going out and individually meeting your customers is an important entrepreneurial strategy. It’s a costly, time-consuming task that would be impossible for a company to do on a large scale with millions of customers. However, using a few non-scaleable strategies will help you build loyalty among your customer base, and give you information that helps improve your product.

Doing just that was the key to Airbnb’s success. When Airbnb was still trying to get off the ground, they were based in California while most of their first hosts were in New York City. Investor Paul Graham gave strict orders to go “meet [their] people.” Gebbia and the other founders flew to New York, stayed in the homes of their customers, and conducted extensive interviews. An issue they were able to address was that customers were using very amateurish, unappealing photos to advertise their homes. The team rented a nice camera, went door to door, and took professional pictures of their hosts’ homes. “It was design research at its best, ” said Gebbia.

The trip helped them discover what people needed from the site, and when they implemented those changes, revenue doubled. Gebbia and the team repeated trips to New York every weekend, and revenue continued to explode. Now, Airbnb is able to continue meeting their users on a much larger scale: they have a photography program where they hire photographers all around the world to take professional pictures of hosts’ homes.

Doing things that didn’t scale directly resulted in expanding their online community, and it’s an approach that Airbnb plans to continue. “You can’t solve people’s problems from behind a computer screen,” he emphasized, “It’s about going out into the world and meeting whoever you’re designing for.” Meeting and empathizing with their people wasn’t a scaleable strategy, but it clearly helped them become a multi-billion dollar company.

4. Design is not how something looks, but how it works

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Good design is feedback loop between you and your audience.

A design that is just pretty on the surface — with no meaning or story behind it — has no value. Designers need to be good story-tellers so they can communicate a design’s value and function to non-designers, which in Gebbia’s case, was tech industry people.

“One misstep of design [is that people forget] it’s not simply how something looks, but how it works,” says Gebbia, “it’s how it’s made, the whole life cycle of something. For example if you have a water bottle, it’s not just about the shape of the bottle, or the graphic on the bottle, it’s about what goes into the process of making the bottle, the symbol that the bottle represents, what happens after that bottle’s life is over. It’s not just the surface level of things, it’s way of seeing, a feedback loop between you and your customers.”

5. Approach designtrepeneurship with courage and curiosity

Modern business concept

The two C’s: Courage and Curiosity.

As a design founder in the early days of Airbnb, Gebbia often had to address issues that weren’t design related, because even after designing a brilliant user interface, he had never run a company before. Nevertheless, he and Brian Chesky threw themselves into it.

“Entrepreneurs should stick to 2 things in any situation: living life based on courage and curiosity,” said Gebbia, “have the courage to throw yourself into something without knowing how you’re going to get out. That’s what makes a good entrepreneur. If you have curiosity to learn, you’ll figure it out. Hopefully we can be a good example.”

6. Embrace the Sharing Economy

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On Airbnb, sharing is caring (and money in your pocket if you’re a host).

The Sharing Economy is “where asset owners use digital clearinghouses to capitalize the unused capacity of things they already have, and consumers rent from their peers rather than rent or buy from a company.”(Forbes) Airbnb is the most commercially successful example of this kind of online community. In the last 200 years, production has evolved from craft, to mass production to the Sharing Economy. Embracing this change in society and using design-thinking to create new products that help people share resources (like extra space in your house) is a huge, growing market.

“We’ve spent the last 100 years making this stuff,” said Gebbia, “Now we’ve got to spend the next 100 years sharing the stuff we’ve made because we’re running out of resources. [The Sharing Economy] is shifting the power to the people.”

When we talked to Gebbia directly, we asked him for 1 last piece of advice for designers who want to become designtrepeneurs. His response:

“Have ideas, and go do them. Start creating things and put them out into the world.”

After using Airbnb’s incredible online service, I never plan to stay in a hotel again! If something as powerful as Airbnb can be created by designers, who knows what kind of innovative products and services will be created by designers in the future.

As freelancers on and outside 99designs, you’re meeting the future CEO’s of big startups every day. These people need designers like you to help build companies by creating innovative user, and consumer experiences. You may have already created successful relationships with certain clients because both your personalities and visions work well together — it’s relationships like these that lead to collaboration on future projects and startups.

Now, more than ever, traditional barriers to starting a business are disappearing and as Gebbia’s story demonstrates, it’s even more possible that a designer with a crazy idea can found a business that forever changes how people share resources with each other.

Here are some more resources for designtrepeneurs:

Do you have a desire to be a designpreneur?

The author

Rebecca Creger
Rebecca Creger

Rebecca was born and raised in the Bay Area, where she currently lives. She has a BFA in Design with a Visual Communications emphasis from UC Davis. Her passions include travel, design, pasta, and hanging out with her Beagle, Spud.

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