We Talked to Joseph Zadeh, Airbnb’s Vice President of Product

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He's chasing magic.

Joseph Nadeh, Airbnb

Surfer Mark Matthews and Joseph Zadeh, Bondi Beach

We take slim risk in saying that the founding of Airbnb in 2008 probably overhauled the way you holiday forever. When we booked our first trip staying in someone else’s digs, we traded in the overpriced joys of a mini-fridge and never looked back. In turn, we got a total stranger who so bravely allowed us to stay in their home, sometimes in their bed, and experience life as they do. Occasionally, your Airbnb host was particularly kind, extending their hospitality to show you around town, or take you out for a legit taco. These are the unexpected interactions that make travel so rich, so compelling, and so worth the jetlag.

Joseph Zadeh (pictured above-right), Airbnb’s Vice President of Product, noticed this too. People were going way beyond what is typically expected of a host, showing visitors the depths and delights of their home cities. In essence, they began to offer plenty more than a place to crash.

“New ideas take a long time. And if you see something awesome, don’t lose hope and keep trying and trying and iterating.”

“I’ve stayed at a yoga commune in Costa Rica, where we rented a room but we could also surf and take yoga classes,” says Joebot, as he’s known to friends and greater Silicon Valley. “We see this behaviour happen a lot, and so we spent a couple of years thinking, how can we turn this into actual business? Accommodation is only one part of travel.”

This is how Trips was born. But let’s pause there and get clear on how Airbnb came to be, courtesy of Joseph, who came onboard as the start-up’s ninth ever employee. So early in its history, in fact, that his interview took place in a three-bedroom apartment.

Foodie and former owner of Thanh Binh Restaurant, Angie Hong, has developed a special culinary walking tour of Cabramatta, Sydney, Australia. 23/3/2017 Photo - James Horan

Former owner of Thanh Binh Restaurant Angie Hong has developed a special culinary walking tour of Cabramatta, Sydney.

“The story is, hotels were sold out in San Francisco for a design conference. Our founders were designers, [so] they provided a place to stay during the design conference. [In doing so], they made their rent, the travellers were able to go to the conference, and [they] had a place to stay. But when we look back, we realise that the founders were taking the travellers around the city, showing them things to do; it wasn’t just a place to sleep.”

Trips is the company’s newest product, released officially last November and launched in Sydney this week. It’s a platform that offers homes, authentic local experiences, tips, social events and recommendations from local insiders. “We have over 800 experiences worldwide right now. The thing that I didn’t expect that happened at launch was, basically overnight, the amount of hosts’ interest was off the charts,” says Joseph, who considered moving to Sydney after grad school, but ultimately chose San Fran.

“Get the right idea out and you’ll figure out how to scale it. Scaling’s the easy part, it’s how do you find something that hits? That people really love?”

Some people have begun using the platform as a step-ladder to their side-hustle. “A lot of folks are stuck in a 9-to-5 rat race job they don’t like, and they have this dream. All of a sudden, they see our platform and it’s a way to monetise a passion,” Joseph explains. “They love doing it and the travellers get a really great sense of the local vibe, but we’re also starting to see that locals like it too, so they’re starting to book experiences in their own city.”

A stand-out of the 20 “curated experiences” on offer include a rabbit-hole adventure of the Sydney Opera House that’s inaccessible to the public. Here’s what happens: first, you’re taken into the green room, where the musicians eat their dinner. Next, you’re taken to a secret door that goes up a spiral staircase, behind the scenes, over a catwalk (this is no exaggeration, I’m assured), and you end up in the “old audio room, watching an entire performance from a secret room that nobody knows about and can’t get tickets to.”

“Seeing that completely changed how I thought about the interior of the Opera House, now I have a connection with it that I didn’t have before,” Joseph explains. “Only one in five travellers will even step foot inside the Opera House.”

Understandably, there are obvious perks to the job, but it’s not what Joseph considers the best part of his work. “Ultimately, it’s the global impact. I mean, travel’s such a fun space, it’s so life altering. Nobody hates travel. It’s a great space to work in.”

We probe for a business wisdom, and his lesson is one of hope. “We first started talking about Trips inside the company [at the] end of 2011. So this is not a new concept for us. But it’s now 2017 and we’re finally getting to Sydney with it. This is a long way of saying that your new ideas take a long time. And if you see something awesome, don’t lose hope and keep trying and trying and iterating. We went through multiple iterations of [Trips] before we really cracked the code on what we wanted to do.”

Before they kicked off on the project, however, it was crucial the team understood the vision. “One way that we approach prod development is we, instead of trying to make something that would work all around the world on Day 1, we said, let’s make a great trip for one person. So instead of starting with scale and trying to give a little bit of magic, create no scale with one person and have a lot of magic.

“We always had that ethos in our company, which is, [try and] do things that don’t scale, because a lot of times people self-edit: ‘Oh, I can’t do that idea because it won’t scale very well.’ No, no – get the right idea out and you’ll figure out how to scale it. Scaling’s the easy part, it’s how do you find something that hits? That people really love?”

Photography by James Horan

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