6 valuable lessons for entrepreneurs designing startups from Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia

Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia helped start a company when the notion of a designer-as-founder was pretty much unheard of – and he has the psychic bruises to show for that.

At Roadmap 2013, he shared some lessons learned on the way to building Airbnb into a company valued at $2.5 billion.

1: Get out of the office. You need to talk to people first to find your audience and then to validate what you think you should do, and keep doing that as you build your product. “The single greatest piece of advice” the Airbnb founders ever got came from YCombinator co-founder Paul Graham who told them to “go out and meet your people. Go out into the world and interact with customers.”

2: Think holistically: One advantage of putting a designer in charge of a product or company is designers tend to think of the whole process, the entire product as an end-to-end experience, Gebbia said. That meant in the beginning, 7 years ago Airbnb co-founders started out thinking about renting out air mattresses on their floors to conference goers, but also providing them with breakfast, maps, a subway pass.

“It’s not just about the room but the airport pick up, the experience of entering the apartment,” he said.

3: Solve a problem: Know what your target audience needs and experience that problem first hand. Gebbia cited an early project at RISD when his class had to design a medical device. They talked to doctors, nurses, patients at Rhode Island Hospital, but the defining moment came when the students lay down in hospital beds and had the device applied to them. They immediately “got” the problem, he said.

4: What you take out is as important as what you put in: Simplicity matters. In the early days, one Airbnb pain point was the payment system, which took eight clicks to complete a purchase. “it was almost an obstacle course.” They decided they had to sweat that process down to three steps. And they did.

5: Embrace rejection: When they started out no one wanted to fund their idea. One VC actually left them mid-pitch — his smoothie  melting on the café table — and never came back. While this was hugely and personally demoralizing, the co-founders decided to looked at those rejections as “invitations to keep going,” Gebbia said.

6: Let go: When they started out, Airbnb co-founders were the design team. But as the business grew they had to turn it over to a bigger group and no book on entrepreneurship does a good job prepping founders for that. “There’s a moment where you hand off the baton and your creation becomes a creation of many people,” Gebbia said. “You have to build up trust in talented and capable designers and let go a little bit.”

Check out the rest of our Roadmap 2013 coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page