Editor's note: This story was corrected at 9:37 a.m. March 27. A previous version included an incorrect title for Niskayuna High School media arts educator Stephen Honicki.
Art may have been Brian Chesky’s claim to local fame, but it’s his business savvy that’s made the Niskayuna native a household name.
Especially if that household is listed on Airbnb, which he co-founded.
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It’s one of the most successful couch surfing (or yurt surfing) companies — in 2016 it was valued at around $30 billion. It allows users to rent their homes to others and to stay in other homes from around the globe.
Airbnb is what is known as a disruptive company, one that is changing not only the hotel industry, but the way people think about travel.
At the same time, it has come under fire from regulators in many countries who say that allowing renters into residential areas presents safety concerns for neighbors as well as a host of other legal issues.
According to author Leigh Gallagher in her new book “The Airbnb Story,” Chesky wanted two things: To make his family proud and make something that would actually change the world.
“. . . he had a normal childhood in an enviable way,” Gallagher said in an interview with The Daily Gazette.
Growing up in Niskayuna, Chesky was a creative kid who was passionate about everything he did.
According to his mother, Deborah Chesky, Brian was “very curious and interested in learning all he could.”
Deborah is a former social worker who now works in fundraising at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; his father, Bob, worked for the state before retiring in 2015.
The Cheskys traveled frequently when Brian was young, as Deborah attended national social worker conferences.
At each city the family visited, they made a point to visit art museums.
“As a child we constantly brought him to museums and he would study the works; Norman Rockwell Museum especially in Massachusetts,” Deborah said.
David Orcutt, one of Chesky’s elementary school teachers, said Brian had a difficult time listening and sitting still as a child.
“So he would often draw and doodle at his desk,” Orcutt said. It seemed to help him focus, Orcutt added.
Chesky was also athletic, playing ice hockey and soccer from an early age. In high school he played on the combined Niskayuna-Schenectady team, the Mohawks. John Rickert, now the principal at Niskayuna High School, was Chesky’s social studies teacher.
Rickert remembers Chesky as an excellent hockey player, but also as a uniquely creative student.
“He was kind of a quiet kid. . . he was tremendously creative in the art program,” Rickert said.
Chesky’s former guidance counselor, Karl Swisher, still has one of Chesky’s works in his office and said that Chesky was always creating something.
“He would come in and he would have a piece of paper and he’d start drawing from the lower left-hand corner and you wouldn’t know what it was for a minute,” Swisher said, “He was a guy whose mind was always working.”
According to Gallagher, one of Chesky’s art teachers told his parents that Chesky had the potential to be a famous artist.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Gallagher said.
Niskayuna High School media arts educator Stephen Honicki taught Chesky when he was in his senior year.
“He was a creative problem solver who was never afraid to take risks,” Honicki said.
Scott Walroth, who was director of Niskayuna High's Art Department when Chesky attended, was influential in Chesky's artistic education.
After Chesky won a congressional art award, Walroth even traveled to Washington, D.C., with the Chesky family to see Brian's piece on display.
Pointed him toward design school
Sue Ellen Williams, a former art teacher at Niskayuna, told Vanity Fair she was stunned by Chesky’s talent and encouraged him to attend the Rhode Island School of Design.
Chesky took her advice and went to RISD after graduating from Niskayuna in 1999. He majored first in illustration and then in industrial design to expand his resume and skills, making him more marketable to employers, according to Gallagher.
“I didn’t really hear much about him after he graduated. Then a few years ago I started reading about him,” Rickert said.
During that time, Chesky was, of course, building the basis for what the world now knows as Airbnb.
Chesky, along with RISD classmate Joe Gebbia, and, later on, engineer Nathan Blecharczyk, founded the company in 2008, although they’d been working on its creation since September 2007.
“They took an old idea and made it extraordinary,” Gallagher said, who is also the assistant managing editor at Fortune Magazine. She’s followed the company and Chesky’s story closely over the past few years.
When she first heard of Airbnb, she didn’t think very much of it.
“The years when I rolled my eyes at the company were 2008 and 2009. But by 2011 and 2012 it became clear it could not be dismissed,” Gallagher said.
She interviewed Chesky in 2012 during a Fortune forum and was struck by Chesky’s presence, describing him as forthright, thoughtful and honest.
“He had a lot of ideas beyond his [current] business and he was pretty new to being a CEO . . . so that was interesting,” Gallagher said of their first meeting.
After graduating from RISD, Chesky moved to California to work for an industrial design firm called 3DID. The work was interesting, but not of the groundbreaking, world-changing stature that Chesky was looking for.
Reuniting with friend
Luckily, he’d kept in touch with Joe Gebbia, a classmate and close friend from RISD. Although they lived a few hours apart, they were also constantly creating things together.
In 2007 Chesky left 3DID and started working more with Gebbia on plans for their future business or design idea.
During September, Gebbia’s two roommates suddenly moved out and he was stuck with the recently raised rent of an apartment on Rausch Street in San Francisco. He pleaded with Chesky to move in; after a few weeks, Chesky agreed.
Shortly after Chesky moved in, Gebbia informed him that they had to come up with $1,150 within one week or they would lose the apartment.
The only way they could think to raise the money in time was to rent out a few air mattresses Gebbia had in the closet to people attending a nearby design conference. To make it more appealing, they threw breakfast into the deal.
Thus the inspiration for Airbnb struck.
The pair were by no means business experts, but without jobs, they had the time to learn and to create a business model as they went.
“I think my lack of experience helped me not know any better. Not knowing any better helped me to achieve what seemed impossible,” Chesky said in a 2015 interview with Gallagher, “So many people said it would never work . . . people said ‘People will never stay with strangers’ and 60 million people later, obviously I’d beg to differ.”
Early in 2017, Fortune reported that Airbnb’s profits would reach upwards of $3.5 billion by 2020. That sort of growth would surpass Uber, the ride-sharing start-up that Airbnb is most often compared to.
“It’s part of the ‘sharing economy’ . . . it’s part of a new business model that we’ve been seeing over the past four years or so. . . the peer-to-peer model,” said Tomas Dvorak, a professor at Union College.
Airbnb has been on his radar for the past few years and although Dvorak said it’s hard to determine what the company will come to in the long run — “You never know where the next innovation will come from,” — he admits that they’re more than just an interesting idea.
However, any new ground-breaking technology usually prompts some backlash and new concerns arise with every technological solution.
Airbnb is no different in that sense.
“The way that they’ve dealt with regulators could be better,” Gallagher said.
Government regulators across the globe have been railing against Airbnb since 2010.
The latest, and what Gallagher refers to as the most heated legal battle, has been in New York. In late 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that would make it illegal for individuals to advertise their apartments as available for rent for less than thirty days, if the individual wasn’t present.
Airbnb has been challenged on a number of fronts, including the hotel industry, which has lobbied against the company. Lobbying groups for the industry have accused Airbnb of operating illegally.
Still, the company forges ahead. In 2016, they introduced trips and experiences, which was launched alongside an Airbnb application that connects the home renting side of the business, with suggestions for places to visit or see while users are staying in the home and gives users the option of buying different experiences. These experiences range from water skiing to learning how to make a great drink.
The company is also working to build a flight booking tool, according to Fortune.
The product that we know today to be Airbnb will probably be a small part of their revenue in the coming years, Chesky told Gallagher in an interview.
According to Gallagher, Airbnb’s 10-year goal is to be the first online travel company valued over $100 billion.
There have been rumblings that the company will eventually go public and if that should happen, it would be one of the largest initial public offerings of a start up company ever, according to Gallagher.
However, Chesky has not made any promises on when exactly the company would go public.
Within five years, Chesky said he hopes that Airbnb will be able to provide 100,000 people with housing during urgent times. The company has pledged to donate 4 million over the next four years to the International Refugee Fund.
‘With integrity and care’
Deborah, in emailed responses to The Daily Gazette, said her hopes for his future are that he will stay the course and “that he will continue to run a successful company with integrity and care and concern for others. Doing good things in the world and helping out others less fortunate.”
“That speaks a lot to his childhood. . . He wasn’t someone who had connections . . . he was a regular kid,” Gallagher said.
While Chesky may have had an ordinary childhood, Rickert said that his success with Airbnb isn’t all that surprising.
“He did have a quiet confidence . . . it came through mostly in his art. It [Chesky’s success] doesn’t entirely surprise me though,” Rickert said.
The two keep in touch and Chesky has tried to come home to tour the high school a few times, but Airbnb keeps him busy.
“It’s . . . neat, keeping in touch with him. It tells me that he still hasn’t forgotten his roots,” Rickert said.
1999 graduate of Niskayuna High School
2004 graduate of Rhode Island School of Design
Parents: Deborah and Robert
Sister: Allison Chesky
Girlfriend: Elissa Patel
According to “The Airbnb Story,” Chesky is known to quote George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the environment. The unreasonable man adapts the environment to him. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Another Chesky favorite: “You cannot kill an idea whose time has come.” (Victor Hugo)
What’s in a name?
The company name came about when Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia desperately needed rent money and decided to rent out some air mattresses they had and “host” visitors who were going to a nearby conference. They served their guests breakfasts of poptarts and whatever else they could find.
Hence the name Airbnb.
Plans for the future of Airbnb go well beyond renting out spare air mattresses.
Here are some ideas the company is discussing, as Leigh Gallagher discusses in “The Airbnb Story”:
- Working with real estate companies and home builders to develop and design apartment complexes that are perfect for apartment sharing.
- Delving into flight services
- Car rental services
- Partnership with Make-A-Wish to sponsor “Wish Trips”