What Airbnb learned from Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Airbnb cofounder and Chief Product Officer Joe Gebbia is one of a new crop of designer founders who have successfully morphed their design careers into building and running breakout startups. And these new designers have been looking to some very non-traditional creators for inspiration. Gebbia told a group of designers at an event, which was a collaboration between AIGA SF and Parisoma, in San Francisco on Wednesday night that the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi represents what they fundamentally believe at Airbnb.

In case you haven’t seen the documentary, which came out in 2011, Jiro is an octogenarian sushi master who has perfected the art of making sushi at his Michelin three-star restaurant in the Ginza subway in Tokyo. He’s spent decades perfecting simple tasks like selecting, cutting, and preparing the best fish. “Jiro embodies craftsmanship and detail,” said Gebbia, explaining:

One of the responsibilities of designers is to seek out and find the details. If we don’t who else will?

Gebbia, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, says he took his entire product team to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. “At Airbnb we’re joe-gebbia-headshot-highrestrying to build a culture that supports details, celebrates them, and gives our teams creative license to pursue them,” said Gebbia. I’m not interested in the debate about what comes first engineering or design, said Gebbia, “the important thing is designing the farm,” or the environment for these things to thrive.

For example, Gebbia cited a small detail that Airbnb built into its host messaging system. When a host is replying to a guest, the email can be repopulated with a message that the host sent to a former guest, but with the name changed for the current guest. The idea is that a host will commonly be emailing the same things to multiple guests, and the auto population can save them significant time. One host was so happy with the time-saver that they sent a gushing email to the team.

Airbnb might be a $2.5 billion-plus valued company now, but of course it wasn’t always so. Gebbia — who says his first entrepreneurial venture was selling drawings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to classmates in grade school — remembers the times of rejection quite clearly. Around 2008 we were “staring in the face of rejection,” after attempting to raise funding from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. “We got 20 email intros to investors, 10 emailed us back, 5 took coffee meetings with us, and zero invested in us,” recalls Gebbia.

Some of the best advice Gebbia says he got in 2009 from Paul Graham, the head of Y Combinator, who accepted the Airbnb founders into his accelerator. Graham gave the company permission to solve problems that wouldn’t scale, said Gebbia, explaining that Graham told his team to “go out and meet your customers.”

Airbnb neighborhood feature screenshot

The early team started staying in the Airbnb rooms in New York and realized the hosts needed much better photography to show off their housing assets. After spending a weekend renting a camera, photographing host accommodations and publishing them on the site, bookings started growing immediately. The team returned to the Bay Area and reported their findings back to Graham. Graham’s immediate response was: “what are you doing here? Get back to New York.”

Sushi master Jiro is just one newer influence on the design of Airbnb. Gebbia, who studied industrial design at RISD, says his early influences also include Charles and Ray Eames, the furniture and product designer team who are widely cited as helping democratize design. In terms of company culture, the early Airbnb team visited Zappos a few years ago to learn about how to create and maintain a fun company.

Gebbia spoke at our soldout RoadMap 2012 event, which focused on design in the age of connectivity. RoadMap 2013 will take place this coming November and tickets will go on sale shortly. To be the first to know when tickets will go on sale, sign up here.