Airbnb tests Journeys, a fully-managed travel service

Airbnb is testing a new service that will give people something to do in new cities and, in the process, forever dispel the notion that its platform is just about helping people find a couch to crash on in a kindly stranger’s apartment. It’s called Journeys, and it’s currently available as invite-only to people who want to visit San Francisco in December, but haven’t yet booked their trips.
Journeys offers full three-to-five-day travel plans to its selected testers. Through it, Airbnb will offer a free meal during each day; planned excursions devoted to San Francisco’s nightlife, natural wonders, or food scene; agent-selected rooms; and a Lyft ride from the airport to wherever the person is staying. These trips will reportedly cost between $500 and $750 for the individuals invited to use it.
Journeys is focused more on providing a good trip — think of it less as a personal assistant and more as a travel agent. The Next Web, which first revealed Journeys, compares it to the discontinued concierge service Airbnb introduced in 2011. That service was supposed to give travelers everything they could ever want, from offering advice on restaurants to locating the nearest emergency room.
The service also follows other Airbnb tests, including a service that gathered strangers together for meals in San Francisco, and another that made cleaning services available to hosts in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Neither of those services has become available to people outside the invite-only tests; Journeys could be destined for a similarly long time spent in the testing phase.
Consumers will decide if Journeys is worth the cost. People visiting a city on business, or staying in a neighborhood with which they are familiar, are unlikely to find much value in the service as it currently exists. But those heading to a diverse place like San Francisco on a lark might appreciate having someone to plan their trip for them instead of having to worry about everything themselves.
Journeys could have a larger impact, though, and that will be on the perception of Airbnb as a member of what tech executives dubbed the sharing economy.
The term “sharing economy” has always been a misnomer. Sharing implies that people are offering something without expecting anything in return. But the economy aspect of that all-too-common buzzphrase requires money to change hands, turning the entire concept into a paradox that allows companies to use it in their marketing even as they got lots of money for their “sharing” platforms.
Airbnb was founded to give people a cheap place to stay. Now it’s operating much like a hotel company — and, with Journeys, a full-fledged travel service — that doesn’t happen to own the rooms its customers are renting. This reduces overhead, allows the company to avoid training a full staff for each rental, and otherwise gives it a nimbleness that traditional lodging companies are lacking.
This convenience often comes at the expense of luxury. Billing a platform as the place to rent someone’s apartment in Brooklyn is great for spendthrifts, but the real money is in getting people to see Airbnb properties as a valid alternative to expensive hotels instead of to the Holiday Inns or grimy hostels of the world. Journeys is one step towards that goal, and one away from the sharing economy.
“We are always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences on Airbnb,” a company spokesperson said when I asked for comment on this story. ” We don’t have anything specific to share at this time.”

Airbnb open sources SQL tool built on Facebook’s Presto database

Apartment-sharing startup Airbnb has open sourced a tool called Airpal that the company built to give more of its employees access to the data they need for their jobs. Airpal is built atop the Presto SQL engine that Facebook created in order to speed access to data stored in Hadoop.

Airbnb built Airpal about a year ago so that employees across divisions and roles could get fast access to data rather than having to wait for a data analyst or data scientist to run a query for them. According to product manager James Mayfield, it’s designed to make it easier for novices to write SQL queries by giving them access to a visual interface, previews of the data they’re accessing, and the ability to share and reuse queries.

It sounds a little like the types of tools we often hear about inside data-driven companies like Facebook, as well as the new SQL platform from a startup called Mode.

At this point, Mayfield said, “Over a third of all the people working at Airbnb have issued a query through Airpal.” He added, “The learning curve for SQL doesn’t have to be that high.”

He shared the example of folks at Airbnb tasked with determining the effectiveness of the automated emails the company sends out when someone books a room, resets a password or takes any of a number of other actions. Data scientists used to have to dive into Hive — the SQL-like data warehouse framework for Hadoop that [company]Facebook[/company] open sourced in 2008 — to answer that type of question, which meant slow turnaround times because of human and technological factors. Now, lots of employees can access that same data via Airpal in just minutes, he said.

The Airpal user interface.

The Airpal user interface.

As cool as Airpal might be for Airbnb users, though, it really owes its existence to Presto. Back when everyone was using Hive for data analysis inside Hadoop — it was and continues to be widely used within web companies — only 10 to 15 people within Airbnb understood the data and could write queries using its somewhat complicated version of SQL. Because Hive is based on MapReduce, the batch-processing engine most commonly associated with Hadoop, Hive is also slow (although new improvements have increased its speed drastically).

Airbnb also used [company]Amazon[/company]’s Redshift cloud data warehouse for a while, said software engineer Andy Kramolisch, and while it was fast, it wasn’t as user-friendly as the company would have liked. It also required replicating data from Hive, meaning more work for Airbnb and more data for the company to manage. (If you want to hear more about all this Hadoop and big data stuff from leaders at [company]Google[/company], Cloudera and elsewhere, come to our Structure Data conference March 18-19 in New York.)

A couple years ago, Facebook created and then open sourced Presto as a means to solve Hive’s speed problems. It still accesses data from Hive, but is designed to deliver results at interactive speeds rather than in minutes or, depending on the query, much longer. It also uses standard ANSI SQL, which Kramolisch said is easier to learn than the Hive Query Language and its “lots of hidden gotchas.”

Still, Mayfield noted, it’s not as if everyone inside Airbnb, or any company, is going to be running SQL queries using Airpal — no matter how easy the tooling gets. In those cases, he said, the company tries to provide dashboards, visualizations and other tools to help employees make sense of the data they need to understand.

“I think it would be rad if the CEO was writing SQL queries,” he said, “but …”

Two charts that show why Uber’s valuation isn’t ridiculous

Uber’s latest funding brings the company into the stratosphere of private company valuations.

At $40 billion, Uber is believed to be four times more valuable than Airbnb, Snapchat, Palantir or Dropbox. Its valuation is eight times larger than Pinterest’s, fifty-seven times larger than Lyft’s, 100 times larger than Instacart’s.

The news sent the tech world into a tizzy. People called Uber’s new valuation eye-popping, ridiculous, absurd. Just like Uber’s last round of funding, it was heralded as proof of a bubble, an upcoming crash, the tech apocalypse, etc.

[dataset id=”898119″]

But when you plot Uber’s valuation compared to big public tech companies, it looks less dramatic. [company]Amazon[/company], [company]Facebook[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company], [company]Amazon[/company], [company]Oracle[/company] and others are — as you’d expect from mature companies — much larger by market cap than Uber’s current valuation. Twitter is much smaller. Investors are essentially saying that they think Uber will be nearly as valuable as [company]Yahoo[/company] or [company]eBay[/company] and more valuable than Twitter when it goes public. It’s not a totally outlandish conclusion for them to bet on, given current tech hype and market trends.

Uber’s staggering valuation says more about the changing nature of tech fundraising than it does about Uber investors’ ridiculousness. Companies are staying private longer, choosing to develop their product outside of the prying public market’s eyes. Uber is leading that trend, a pioneer for a new kind of growth model.

Without much precedent, it’s hard to know what Uber’s eventual IPO will look like. It has more money and time to hone its business, so it’s not entirely fair to compare is to the IPOs of yesteryear and call its valuation outsized. We’re playing by a new set of rules.

[dataset id=”898108″]

There’s another way to look at Uber’s valuation. CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t content for his company to remain a car-hailing app. He plans to move into urban logistics and shipping, doing everything from delivering food to transporting supplies. When Uber drops off kittens on National Cat Day, it’s not just a publicity stunt — it’s logistics testing.

On that note, perhaps Uber should be compared to public transportation, logistics and automotive corporations. Companies like [company]Ford[/company] and [company]Tesla[/company] are distant cousins to Uber, but given that Kalanick wants Uber to replace car ownership, they may be competitors down the line. The same goes for [company]FedEx[/company] and [company]UPS[/company].

Uber’s valuation puts it at less than half the market cap of UPS, but close to the market cap of FedEx ($51 billion). From an automotive standpoint, the numbers are even more optimistic, with Ford and [company]General Motors[/company]’ market caps not that much bigger than Uber’s valuation. Tesla and Hertz’s market caps, $29 billion and $11 billion respectively, are smaller than Uber’s $40 billion valuation.

Uber’s investors are essentially saying that they think when the company goes public, it will be worth at least half as much as GM and Ford and more than Tesla and Hertz.

[dataset id=”898118″]

Airbnb gets a design facelift & a new logo

Airbnb was founded and is run by designers. That makes them hyper vigilant of the company’s brand and overall design, and now the company is getting a visual upgrade. On Wednesday Airbnb revealed a new symbol that it says represents Airbnb’s maturation and growth: they’re calling it the Bélo, “the universal symbol of belonging.” What do you think of it? Valleywag has its own hilarious take. And some peeps on Twitter pointed out it looks a bit like this logo.
Airbnb logo