Last year, Airbnb guests booked nearly 400 million accommodations for vacations, bachelor(ette) parties, temporary housing and other stays. There are some 6.6 million rental spaces listed on the platform by an online community of over 4 million Airbnb hosts around the world. That’s a lot of spare living space, and a convenient side hustle—the average Airbnb host earned around $14,000 in supplemental income in 2022.
“One of the things I love so much about Airbnb is economically empowering people and how much that can do for people in their lives,” says Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb, regarding the company’s customers. “I’ve always been interested in finding the next novel way to do that.”
Incidentally, that “next novel way” is already up and running. In 2022, Gebbia took a seed he’d been cultivating at Airbnb and launched it as an independent startup called Samara. Its first product, simply called Backyard, is a made-to-order studio or one-bedroom accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that homeowners can configure online, like a Tesla. Once you’ve made your design choices, Samara will survey your property, arrange the necessary construction permits, ship the unit to your backyard and install it for you—all within a matter of months.
Besides providing homeowners with a sleek in-law suite or home office, ADUs like Backyard also increase property values and can be a source of rental income. Plus, because Backyard powers itself with integrated solar panels, it runs net-zero. Gebbia says Backyard is actually three times as energy efficient as a normal structure of the same size, since any extra energy it produces gets channeled back to the main house.
Backyard is only available in California right now, but Gebbia says expansion to other U.S. states is in the works. After all, extension is the name of Samara’s game.
“Samara is the name of the seed that falls from a tree and comes down like a helicopter,” he says. “It’s a seed with a wing attached to it, which allows it to travel farther from the tree to ensure its survival and success. And we were inspired [to] plant the seeds within Airbnb and now outside Airbnb.”
Making Joe Gebbia
If Airbnb produced Samara’s seed and Gebbia produced Airbnb, what tree produced him? In analyzing the roots of an entrepreneur worth over $8 billion, whose line of work is propagating communities, one might expect Gebbia’s cultural upbringing to be something out of the ordinary. As it turns out, his childhood was fairly simple.
“It was the middle of the middle class,” he says. “You know, there was nothing fancy or special about our lifestyle. Just loving parents and a loving sister.”
Gebbia grew up during the 1980s in Lawrenceville, Georgia, a town in Atlantan suburbia where the highlight of his summers was watching his dad run in the annual Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10K. The Georgia peach didn’t fall far from the tree—as a teenager, Gebbia discovered his own love of running cross country at Brookwood High School. As an exhausting communal sport in which individual success and the success of the team are mutually dependent, cross country taught Gebbia an important lesson he’s since applied in his adult life.
“It required self-determination at a level unlike anything else,” he says. “The willpower to keep running when your body wants to quit, because it’s sore, it’s achy, it’s tired, it’s out of breath—to find the willpower to push through all the reasons to quit. I later would come to understand [this] is an incredible life skill for entrepreneurship. If I crossed the finish line and I could still walk, you knew that was a bad race. I still had energy I could have used to run a faster time.”
Design as a means to solve problems
A more prominent variable in Gebbia’s growth, however, was art. Gifted with an eye for design, Gebbia credits his teachers for fanning his natural creative flames. At Brookwood, his art teachers regularly modified the curriculum to make classes more challenging for him. It was another lesson in determination.
“Art consumed most of my high school,” he says. “I filled up my semester with art courses.” Brookwood had a “really robust art department” that included an array of disciplines, ranging from drawing and painting to sculpture and graphic design. “And I took all of them,” Gebbia says. “And the teachers were always supportive of me.”
Gebbia says that though his childhood was nothing special, his community made it so. Without the creative motivation he received from his Brookwood teachers, he never would have attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he encountered even more inspiration from a simple source—this time in the form of a photograph he found in one of his design textbooks. The picture was of a plywood chair designed in 1954 by Charles and Ray Eames, a couple synonymous with 20th-century industrial design.
Industrial design is, as Gebbia defines it, “anything made by man that’s not art or architecture.” It’s the clothes we wear, the phones we talk on, the lights we see with and the cars we drive. It’s the application of an artistic mind in a tactile, at-scale world.
“I really fell in love with this idea that you can channel creativity in other ways than the fine arts,” he says—“that you could solve problems through design and reach a lot of people with your imagination and your creativity… to use design for good, to go solve problems in the world, to make life better for people and for the planet.”
Airbnb responds to crises
The commercial facet of Airbnb and Samara is about convenient accommodations. And although Airbnb has dominated the short-term rental market, some say it has also contributed to local housing crises in cities and countries throughout the world. But Gebbia is optimistic that Samara will be a salve to communities with housing shortages—he has paid careful attention to the shifts in how people value their homes post-COVID, especially with the work-from-home migration and the increase in multigenerational housing. He anticipates the growth of ADUs (which are unnoticeable in backyards) will not only allow owners to benefit from boosts in rental income and property value, but provide lower cost options for residents without adversely affecting the visual character of a neighborhood.
Accommodating inconveniences is a whole other story. For more than a decade, Airbnb’s online community of hosts has responded to crises around the world by opening their doors rent-free. Gebbia reports that during various disasters, conflicts and tragedies, Airbnb hosts have housed more than 250,000 people in more than 100 countries.
“If there’s people fleeing a wildfire or have to evacuate [due to] a hurricane, or refugees seeking asylum in other countries, our hosts on Airbnb show up,” he says. “[They] offer what’s needed most, which is a safe, comfortable place to stay.”
Building on his userbase’s goodwill to expand its impact, Gebbia made a personal contribution of $5 million in 2020 to launch The Refugee Fund for Airbnb.org, an independent nonprofit with a distinct mission from its dot-com counterpart. By using the C2C platform and community as its foundation, Airbnb.org has fostered a thriving coalition of partner nonprofits—and individual Airbnb hosts around the world—focused on providing shelter to those without.
Asylum for evacuees
Just a few months after Airbnb.org was established in December 2020, evacuees started arriving in the U.S. from Afghanistan and had nowhere to go (the Department of Homeland Security estimates 88,500 Afghan nationals had arrived in the U.S. as of September 2022). Airbnb.org and Airbnb hosts announced they would provide short-term accommodations for 20,000 Afghan refugees, a goal they accomplished in six months. When war broke out in Europe, Airbnb.org set a goal to house 100,000 Ukrainians displaced from their homeland. Again, it only took six months to exceed the goal.
“We built the largest accommodation platform in the world, and we get to leverage that and make available those hosts’ homes in times of need, and repurpose that platform for good,” Gebbia says. “It’s been incredible to see what happens when you make it easy for people to be generous, how truly generous they are.”
Although Gebbia stepped down from his day-to-day role at Airbnb in July 2022 to focus on developing other projects, he’s remained at the helm of Airbnb.org as its chairman. Indeed, the organization would be hard-pressed to find someone who fits the seat better—his “nothing-fancy” upbringing molded him that way.
“I grew up in a family and in a community where giving back was just how things worked,” he says.
That simple, cultural principle has followed Gebbia to this day. As a matter of fact, he’s among the youngest members to join the Giving Pledge, a campaign founded by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and Warren Buffet that invites billionaires to commit more than half of their wealth toward philanthropic pursuits. (GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons has also joined the Giving Pledge.)
When Gebbia thinks about philanthropy, he thinks about his roots. Gebbia’s teachers and coaches at Brookwood motivated him to succeed, and in his success he returned the favor via a $700,000 gift to Brookwood’s arts and athletics programs. At the Brookwood Class of 2022’s graduation ceremony, Gebbia delivered the commencement speech and gifted all 890 graduating seniors with 22 shares of Airbnb stock. He’s also on the board of trustees at Rhode Island School of Design, where he’s pledged $300,000 toward an endowed fund to make the education that inspired him more accessible for creative minds in need of financial assistance.
Have a home, lend a home
Community is, if nothing else, a place to call home. As someone who attributes his success to the time and interest his community invested in him, Gebbia considers home a worthy investment, too.
“Home is fundamental. If you’ve got one, you know, I feel like you’ve got a responsibility to help those that don’t,” he says. “And I see that every day on Airbnb.org. If you want to talk about community helping each other, it’s most visible on Airbnb.org… [when] you can enable those with homes in practically every country on the planet to provide shelters to those who’ve lost theirs… that’s a pretty cool way to channel your creativity.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Samara.