The definition of what it means to be a "designer" has greatly evolved over the past few years. From building systems to creating new economies, the role of designers in today's world has expanded to include all aspects of human interaction. Joe Gebbia's story epitomizes this shift, and his experience was the topic of a talk he gave last Friday, as he kicked off the second annual RISD Entrepreneur Mindshare.
RISD Entrepreneur Mindshare is an initiative started by Greg Victory, Director of the RISD's Career Center. The event aims to inspire students to be more entrepreneurial—providing the studying artists and designers with the tools and resources they need to launch their own entrepreneurial endeavors, getting advice from people who have done it themselves.
Gebbia is perfectly suited to be the commencing speaker: he works in the magical intersection of design and entrepreneurship as a self-described "designtrepreneur." His work covers a wide spectrum, ranging from Ecolect.net, an online database of green materials, to CritBuns, a product whose appeal anyone who has enjoyed the pleasure of an 8-hour critique can understand. Hitting upon each of these ventures, Gebbia shared the secret behind his successes.
He summed it up in four words: "Take the next step."The phrase became the mantra for Gebbia's talk. Talking about the meteoric rise of his company, Airbnb, Gebbia spoke to an audience, which he had been apart of not too long ago. Gebbia graduated from RISD in 2005 with BFA's in both Industrial and Graphic Design. With his diplomas, big dreams, and not much else, Gebbia headed to California with fellow RISD alumn, Brian Chesky, shortly after graduation.
The cash-strapped duo had big dreams of becoming entrepreneurs, and it was this levelheaded rationale that led them to take the next step, quit their jobs, and move in together into a spacious San Francisco apartment. Not too soon after, Gebbia opened a letter from their landlord notifying them that the rent had gone up.
"We did what RISD taught us to do, and we pulled out our sketchbooks," Gebbia told the crowd. "...and started figure drawing."
Not quite. Gebbia joked, but continued on to say how the skills he gleaned while at RISD had provided him and Chesky with the confidence and ability to solve any problem. Delving into their learned creative process, the two brainstormed ways to make some quick cash. Gebbia and Chesky looked over their spacious apartment and made an observation.
"RISD taught us to see," said Gebbia. "We did something else that RISD taught us to do. We connected the dots." Gebbia related how they pulled out an air mattress, laid it in the living room, filling the empty space, and realized that they were on to something. That coming weekend in San Francisco, there was a design conference so large that all the hotels in the vicinity were completely sold out. Gebbia and Chesky wanted to provide more than just an airbed, however, they wanted to provide a memorable experience. They tossed in a map, a subway pass and, of course, breakfast.
Thus the seeds for AirBed&Breakfast were planted, and, by the end of the day, it had blossomed into a full-fledged concept. The next day, they launched a website and by the third day, it went viral. Gebbia and Chesky quickly filled three air mattresses and had a fantastic experience showing their temporary boarders around the Bay Area. Not only did they get rent in their pocket, but they now had a big idea.
They wanted Airbnb, as it came to be called, to allow users to travel anywhere, anytime. Taking on another team member, Nathan Blecharczyk, they re-launched in August of 2008, just in time for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, which was suffering a crisis in accommodations. Airbnb allowed Democrats in the area to connect, sharing their space along with their experiences. Airbnb became more than just a way to couchsurf while traveling.
"Airbnb saved my life," Gebbia quoted from an email he had received a few years ago.
During the economic downturn, Airbnb became the savior to many looking to make ends meet. The ability to share spaces provided a source of additional income for many who had fallen on hard times, allowing them to live independently and avoid bankruptcy. Gebbia showed photos of people who had used the site in this way, including a couple who was able to raise $26,000 through the site, which helped them save their home and make some international friends along the way.
Through experiences such as this, Airbnb has created a new economy—an economy of spaces. TIME Magazine has referred to the company, recently valued at a little over 2 billion dollars, as the "eBay of Space." Gebbia shared that he is excited by the opportunity Airbnb provides and what they have in store for the future.
Gebbia did a fantastic job challenging people to think about their own ideas, and their own next steps-- and the audience left with a buzz.
The 2012 RISD Entrepreneur Mindshare continues this coming Saturday, with speakers all day, starting at 9:30AM until 6:00PM in the evening. This year features a fantastic line up of speakers ranging from Enrique Allen of the Designer Fund to designer Lindsey Adelman.
Find out more about the event here.