How Airbnb Fell From Successful Startup To Crisis Mode

[Preetika Rana, Wall Street Journal Technology Reporter] 2020 was supposed to be the golden year for Airbnb, it was supposed to be the year that Airbnb went public. They were supposed to be the hottest offering of this year.

In just under a decade, Airbnb went from a single air mattress for rent to a global company valued at more than 30 billion dollars. The home sharing giant has thousands of employees, over three million hosts, and seven million listings in over 220 countries.

It even branched out with a new division called Experiences. Which allows guests to book outings. But travel is now at a stand still.

Airbnb's planned listing is in doubt. Expected revenue is down by at least half, and CEO Brian Chesky said 25% of staff will be cut.

So how did one of the most successful startups of the decade become such a vulnerable company?

[Preetika Rana] Airbnb was founded in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. A lot of ordinary people had lost their jobs and were looking for secondary income. Once the idea of sharing your home with someone took off, a lot of people bought into that promise.

[Brian Chesky, Airbnb Co-Founder & CEO] You know we had revenue from day one. And we didn't actually need to raise money at any given point. We decided that we invest ahead of growth and we've always tried to think about it like a throttle. So that we could at any given point throttle into profitability.

[Preetika Rana] Airbnb was profitable by a certain measure in 2017 and 2018. So that gave investors a lot of confidence and excited everyone, really, about the prospect of a startup like this that has become a household name around the world to go public.

[Brian Chesky] These are beautiful homes.

The company spent big during this period of growth. Administrative costs increased 113% between 2017 and 2019 as they hired thousands of employees and built out a corporate headquarters in a trendy San Francisco neighborhood. Then 2019 ended with a tragedy.

[News Reporter] Airbnb now says it is banning house parties. That after a shooting left five people dead in San Francisco in a suburb there on Halloween night.

[Preetika Rana] This mass shooting was really a moment of reckoning for Airbnb and that's what led them to invest over 100 million dollars into safety initiatives.

These expenses helped bring Airbnb's total costs to 5.3 billion dollars last year. More than double what they were in 2017.

[Preetika Rana] You had board members grilling some of the executives and saying, "Hey, your costs are outpacing your revenue growth. Let's reign that in, let's control that." And then of course the pandemic hit and changed everything for Airbnb.

[News Reporter] China says the number of people infected by a mysterious respiratory virus has more than tripled over the weekend.

In January, officials in China issued local travel warnings and restrictions following the spread of Covid-19.

[Preetika Rana] It wiped out bookings over night in China. So remember at the time, no one thought this would become a global problem.

And then on March 11th, President Donald Trump announced new international travel restrictions. As Airbnb bookings fell, Chesky held in-person meetings with employees to discuss what these new developments meant for Airbnb and their plans to go public.

[Preetika Rana] What was happening was a lot of anxiety was building among employees because a lot of them have stock options. And those are set to expire later this year, which meant that if they didn't go public this year, a lot of valuable options that employees hold would just be worthless.

[Preetika Rana] So Mr. Chesky really took it upon himself to reassure employees, to say, "It's gonna be okay. "We are still very much going to list this year." That changed in a matter of days. By the end of March, he struck a more cautious tone. He held a video conference with employees where he said everything is on the table.

Around this time many guests began to demand refunds for reservations. But Airbnb had a long time practice of allowing hosts to set their own cancellation policies.

[Preetika Rana] But in a world where you have guests fighting back and saying, "Hosts are not giving us any refunds, "what's Airbnb gonna do about it?" I think that really shook the company as well.

This led to a sudden decision by Chesky to give guests refunds for certain bookings. After backlash from some hosts, Chesky issued an apology to them.

[Brian Chesky] I am sorry. I'm sorry we didn't consult you as partners. And I've heard from you ever since that decision.

Airbnb said it would pay hosts 25% of what they would have received for canceled bookings. They also created a 17 million dollar mortgage fund to help top rated hosts cover mortgages. By April the company had barely any revenue coming in from short term stays.

[Preetika Rana] So they ended up raising a billion dollars in debt at a very high interest rate that is associated with distressed assets. So overnight Airbnb went from being the Silicon Valley unicorn that is a household name around the world, to being reduced to business that is in distress.

On May fifth, Brian Chesky announced massive staff cuts in a memo that has drawn praise for addressing the impending layoffs with compassion and clarity. Chesky said nearly 2000 employees, a quarter of Airbnb's workforce would be cut. He also said 2020 revenue would be less than half of what it was in 2019.

[Preetika Rana] I think everyone would be very surprised if they choose to go public later on this year. What I'm hearing from investors is that Airbnb would need at least two good quarters before they go public.

The pandemic has shifted Airbnb in fundamental ways. The company is pivoting to longterm stays, and recently rolled out cleaning guidelines to help guests feel safe whenever they do return to rentals. The sudden collapse of the Airbnb economy that was a lifeline for many has also exposed deep cracks in the sharing economy.

[Preetika Rana] If you think about it, Airbnb is really a property manager without the property risk. Unlike hotels that run and manage their properties, Airbnb doesn't own any of the properties. The pandemic has really held a mirror and has really made us all question the very fundamentals of the sharing economy. 

Who takes on the risk?

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