When Joe Zadeh landed a job at Airbnb as a software engineer in 2010, he was the company’s ninth employee and the “office” was a three-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.
Since then, he’s watched the startup, which broke new ground by letting people rent their couches and guest rooms to travelers, become the $25 billion juggernaut that helped spark the global phenomenon known as the “sharing economy.”
“We really had no idea what this would become,” said Zadeh, now Airbnb’s vice president of product, “but we were all really committed to the mission.”
To Zadeh, the mission is doing away with wasted resources – whether it’s a car that sits in a garage 23 hours a day, or a drill that’s used once and then forgotten. Society is moving away from mass production and toward collaboration, Zadeh said, and he envisions a utopian world in which communities share belongings both on monetized platforms such as Airbnb, but also without cost “for the good of the community.”
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Zadeh sat down with the San Jose Mercury News and opened up about everything from the future of the sharing economy, to Airbnb’s push into new areas of the travel industry (it recently rolled out a new guidebook feature), to the controversy associated with home-sharing platforms. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You joined Airbnb as a software engineer when the company had fewer than a dozen employees. What was Airbnb like back then?
A: It’s probably best to start with my interview story. I met the founders on Hacker News, which is a Y Combinator community board, and I had a couple email exchanges. I’d been hearing about the company from a few different people. And so when I arrived, I got to the Airbnb offices and was really, really confused – because it was an apartment building. I was like, “This can’t be right. I have the address wrong.” But I ring the doorbell, they buzz me up, and then they ask me to take my shoes off.
Q: Tell me about one of your most memorable moments from those days.
A: I remember the first time that we saw a private island appear on the site, and it was just amazing. It was a private island in Fiji, and it just really pushed our boundaries of what we could do.
Q: Aside from its massive growth, how has the company changed or pivoted over the years in ways you might not have expected?
A: On the technology side, originally the concept was: Here’s a site (where) you can list your home and rent it out to someone. We want to move into more than just the home – we want to really think about the entire travel experience. You saw that with Guidebooks and Neighborhoods (new features that give travelers sightseeing recommendations and match them with homes in neighborhoods they might enjoy), but we’re even thinking bigger.
Q: Was there anything you tried with early Airbnb that didn’t work?
A: Probably about 2011 we started having some existential questions: OK, where should this be going? For a while, we considered that we’ve gotten really good at sharing, we have all the technology for sharing, why don’t we do more sharing? Should we do car sharing? There’s a fun stat that a drill has only 13 minutes of life. Should we actually be getting into drill sharing or something like that? What we realized is we actually don’t want to do that. What we want to do is really get into travel. So I think that point in 2011 is when we started thinking about the entire experience of travel.
Q: What is your response to critics who say home-sharing platforms like Airbnb are exacerbating the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco and other cities?
A: It’s really interesting. The whole company was founded on the inability of our founders to pay rent. And when I moved to San Francisco I wouldn’t have been able to live in the city without some extra support by renting out my primary home. So we’re super excited about that. We see around the world about 81 percent of our hosts fit this model of people renting out their primary spaces to make a little extra income.
Q: What’s the coolest technical aspect of the platform that people might not notice or appreciate day to day?
A: I think the matching is really special. Matching behind the scenes is learning about preferences from hosts and guests and starting to match people in a way that will maximize the likelihood that they'll have a great experience. For example, hosts can say, “I want someone for a minimum of one night, two nights, seven nights.” And sometimes they’ll say, “I have no requirements.” But then we start noticing their behavior and noticing that they don’t accept people for shorter stays. And so we’ll start removing them from those search results.
The other amazing piece of technology that’s really impressive is our pricing technology. Our hosts have been adopting this new feature called smart pricing. When I joined in 2010, our hosts had no idea how to price. How would you know? We built a system that can actually predict what price is likely to get booked for any given host with any given set of amenities anywhere in the world.
Born: Orange County, Calif.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northwestern University, doctorate in bioengineering from the California Institute of Technology
Position: Vice president of product at Airbnb
Previous jobs: Software engineer at Airbnb, software engineer at Mint.com
Residence: San Francisco
Family: Wife and 1-year-old daughter
Five facts about Zadeh
1. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran.
2. Both of Zadeh’s parents were entrepreneurs – his mother in the medical field and his father in tech – and he grew up managing their computer systems.
3. In 2011, Zadeh was the first person to stay in an Airbnb rental on Easter Island. He proposed to his wife during that trip, right outside the house.
4. Everyone at Airbnb calls him Joebot. It’s his Twitter handle, which he took from a toy robot named Joebot that he once saw in a store. When he joined Airbnb, two of the six people in the product department were named Joe – Zadeh and co-founder Joe Gebbia – so people started calling him Joebot.
5. Zadeh regularly posts his own electronic remixes on SoundCloud.