Brian Chesky (chief executive of Airbnb) in “The Corner Office”

CheskyAdam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, the apartment sharing service. “One of the things I always tell entrepreneurs is to solve your own problem. A lot of people are way too academic about what they’re trying to create.”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

* * *

Were you in leadership roles when you were young?

I had two different sides to me growing up. I was captain of some of the hockey teams I was on, and that taught me a fair amount about leadership. My dad also taught me a lot about setting a good example for other teammates and trying hard.

But the other side of me was an artist, and my parents realized early on that I had this proclivity to art and design. Most kids would ask Santa Claus for toys because they wanted to actually play with them. I would ask Santa Claus for badly designed toys so I could redesign them. I was obsessed with video game consoles because I thought the layout of them was terrible.

Then I got into footwear. I have old sketchbooks of hundreds of redesigns of Nike and Reebok shoes. After my friend’s parents started redesigning their deck and backyard, I got into landscape architecture and designing decks. That led to an interest in massive-scale design, like cities and towns. I’d go to Disney World, and I became obsessed with Walt Disney growing up; he was the person I looked up to.

And what about college?

I decided I would go to art school, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I was searching for my identity within that school and I found it through industrial design. I think it helped me become a good C.E.O. because it really teaches you empathy. It’s like method acting; you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s very easy for C.E.O.s to become transactional and focus on numbers and quantitative analysis, and that can create an emotional detachment. Industrial design teaches you exactly the opposite.

How did industrial design lead to Airbnb?

After I graduated, I worked in an industrial design shop in Los Angeles. But a year in, I realized this isn’t what I should be doing for the rest of my life. Part of it was that I was working with entrepreneurs on small projects, and I started to think, “Why are they doing that and not me?” I realized the difference is that they took the chance and I didn’t. I needed to take the risk, too.

Everyone’s got a moment or two in their life where something happens and you make a decision and then your entire life changes. Everything has just been a chain reaction from that decision. That ultimately led to a few of us having the idea to turn the house we were renting in San Francisco into a bed-and-breakfast, because there was an international design conference going on, and all the hotels were sold out.

We didn’t have any beds, so we pulled three airbeds out of the closet, inflated them, and called it the Air Bed & Breakfast. This was not going to be a business; this was a way to make rent for the month. We, of course, evolved from there, but the name stuck.

And I think there was a lesson there. One of the things I always tell entrepreneurs is to solve your own problem. A lot of people are way too academic about what they’re trying to create. But everyone has their own itch — something they’re trying to solve. For us, our problem was we didn’t know how to make rent, we had this extra space and we wanted to meet people. So we created this idea.

* * *

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

Posted in

Leave a Comment