This week’s issue of New York Magazine covers the ongoing skirmish between Airbnb and the fair housing advocates and local leaders in New York City who are pushing back against the short-term rental site.
Although the article, titled “The Dumbest Person in Your Building Is Passing Out Keys to Your Front Door!” is not online yet, Skift picked up a print edition on the newsstand today. [Update: It’s now available in full online.]
Author Jessica Pressler spent time with the site’s co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, as well as public policy head David Hantman and branding expert Douglas Atkin, who is the site’s head of community.
She also spoke with State Senator Liz Krueger, one of the co-sponsors of the New York state law that some Airbnb’s hosts in the city violate, as well as community activists and a number of hosts that rent out multiple units on the site.
As features go, it is more critical than most about the startup darling; focusing on the conflict in New York and giving short shrift to the recent strategy evolution, like this Fast Company profile, or some of the service’s more transformative moves, like this Skift feature.
Instead, it captures the company’s leaders off-guard and draws out stories from New York hosts that don’t mesh with the marketing message.
Below are some of the more insightful quotes from the story, as well as the context in which they appeared.
After Airbnb plastered the city’s subway system with advertisements featuring hosts imploring people to legalize Airbnb, city residents took out its Sharpies in protest:
“But like the snow in New York City, subway ads do not remain unsullied for long … As the graffiti spread upward to Harlem and outward to Brooklyn and Queens, it started to become clear that this was no run-of-the-mill ad defacement; it was a countercampaign.”
Airbnb is actually co-founder Gebbia’s second startup. The first focused on better comfort for art teaches and students.
“He came up with a prototype for a butt-shaped cushion he called CritBuns, which he manufactured and began selling to art students.”
Startup founders like inspirational quotes, and Chesky is no different:
“He has developed the start-up founder’s tic of sprinkling one’s speech with quotes and anecdotes from great men that subtly imply belonging in the same class of genius.”
The 2008 economic crash helped Airbnb grow, and it helped some hosts weather total financial failure:
“Not only were people looking to save money; they were pissed at being exploited by the system, and using the site felt gratifyingly subversive … Guests liked that when they stayed at an Airbnb, they were paying a person, not a corporation.”
Growth is not all easy:
“… it’s gone from being a small company with presumably good intentions to a corporation large enough to have questionable ones.”
Airbnb still does not like Sen. Krueger:
“‘She lives to destroy us,’ one person at Airbnb complained.”
Airbnb’s head of community Douglas Atkin is an expert on using cult tactics to draw people to brands.
“In videos from the meet-ups, people say things like, ‘In my life before Airbnb, I always felt really beholden to the company I worked for. And now I just feel really free.’
And: ‘It unleashed this adventure in me that I didn’t know existed.’
And: ‘I feel human again. I feel like myself.’
‘Cults,’ as anyone who reads Atkin’s book will find out, ‘make people feel more themselves.'”
Later in the story, Pressler returns to Atkin’s expertise:
“In The Culting of Brands, Atkin refers to this as ‘Demonizing the Other’ …
Anyone who questions the cause is regarded with suspicion.”
There’s a disconnect between the advertising in New York City and the on-the-ground reality:
“This is one of the most muddled aspects of the debate over Airbnb. The backbone of the company’s ad campaign is that it is making housing more affordable for people who want to live in New York … And yet: Most of the company’s opponents are affordable-housing activists.”
Airbnb has studies about Airbnb’s economic impact, but they’re commissioned and paid for by Airbnb:
“‘But you guys commissioned that study,’ I say.
‘Okay,’ Chesky says sulkily. ‘So then we said other people should do it, and then they haven’t done it. So the only study we know about is the one we did.'”
It’s the old, out-of-touch people who don’t like Airbnb:
“‘…Most people want this. The only people who don’t are older,’ [Hantman] adds.
In the tech industry, it’s still somehow not considered breathtakingly rude to call someone old to their face, or to brush off their very real-world concerns as out of touch, or to otherwise deem their lives irrelevant. Maybe Hantman is just doing what Atkin refers to as Defining Yourself in Opposition to the Other.”