Airbnb Co-Founder And Boston Native On Tech, Housing And Becoming An Entrepreneur

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In this file photo from June 2015, co-founder of AirBnb Nathan Blecharczyk smiles to the camera as he points to an old telephone inside the guesthouse of Armando Usain in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
In this file photo from June 2015, co-founder of AirBnb Nathan Blecharczyk smiles to the camera as he points to an old telephone inside the guesthouse of Armando Usain in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

It's hard to imagine a time when entrepreneurship wasn't a cool thing to do in Boston. That was the case not too long ago, says Airbnb co-founder Nate Blecharczyk.

The Boston native says he always knew he was an entrepreneur at heart, but the local innovation scene was very different when he was coming along.

BostonomiX caught up with Blecharczyk when he was in town this fall to speak at his alma mater, Harvard.

(No, he didn't stay at an Airbnb while he was here. He stayed with his parents in West Roxbury).

Here's what Blecharczyk had to say about Airbnb, entrepreneurship and the innovation economy.

How He Got Started In Tech

Blecharczyk started young — at age 12, to be exact. He taught himself how to code by reading books. Then he began posting his work online.

"And at the age of 14 I got a phone call and somebody said, 'I like what I saw. I want to pay you $1,000 to create something similar,'" Blecharczyk said. "I told my dad, 'somebody from the internet wants to pay me $1,000!' And he just laughed and said 'son, nobody from the Internet is going to pay a thousand bucks.' I said, 'Whatever, it's my hobby, I'll do it anyways.' And sure enough, I did get paid."

He also got more coding work, which led Blecharczyk to start a business that he ran throughout high school.

"I actually almost made a million dollars while in high school," Blecharczyk said.

The experience showed him that he could create things that people valued, he added. And he knew then he wanted to be a lifelong entrepreneur.

Where Airbnb Got Its Name

It all started as a way to earn extra cash to pay rent.

It was the summer of 2007 and Blecharczyk was living with two roommates in San Francisco. Suddenly their rent went up 25 percent, he said. His roommates came up with the idea to rent out a room to people who were in town for an international design conference.

"This bedroom had no furniture, but they set up an air bed and instead of calling it a bed and breakfast they called it an air bed and breakfast. So, Airbnb is short for air bed and breakfast," Blecharczyk said.

The roommates, who were designers by training, ended up hosting three designers, attending the conference with them and taking them out around town, according to Blecharczyk. And, they made about $1,000 doing it.

"It was based on that one-off experience to pay the rent that the three of us came together and thought maybe we can do this for other people and other situations," Blecharczyk said.

A 'Quiet Period' For Tech In Boston 

Tech was really growing when Blecharczyk was a teenager in the 90s. And he spent a lot of time on a computer in his parents' basement.

But by the time he got to college and was studying computer science, the tech bubble burst.

"As a result of that, enrollment in computer science at Harvard fell in half. And so the next couple of years was actually a really quiet period in Boston and I think in tech in general," Blecharczyk said.

Spending hours on a computer "wasn't particularly cool," he said. Most of his friends were looking towards business school or law school.

"I was probably one of the few self-labeled entrepreneurs. And there wasn't really a community of entrepreneurship on campus or really in Boston for that matter," Blecharczyk said. "That has totally changed since then. It's a much more thriving scene now."

Could Airbnb Have Been Founded In Boston?

Starting Airbnb in San Francisco wasn't a deliberate choice, according to Blecharczyk.

"I happened to be in San Francisco and we happened to try to do this experiment one weekend and it became a company by accident," he said.

Blecharczyk does see advantages to starting a company outside of Silicon Valley. He says there are more opportunities for entrepreneurs to thrive outside of that environment.

"Silicon Valley is super competitive and super expensive for talent, for office space for everything," Blecharczyk said. "And when you're trying to start something up you don't have a lot of cash [and] you need to be scrappy. So, I think you could be a lot scrappier here and you can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond."

Regulation And The Future Of House Sharing

As Airbnb has grown into a company worth billions, so have concerns about its short-term rentals taking up local housing stock. Cambridge has already moved to restrict short-term rentals. And state lawmakers are considering taxing such rentals.

Airbnb does support regulation and efforts to tax its rentals. The key for them is balance, Blecharczyk said. Sixty percent of Airbnb users say they depend on it to pay their rent or mortgage, according to Blecharczyk.

"We have to be careful that we don't have so much regulation that would prevent all of the people who are benefiting from Airbnb to benefit," he said.

Airbnb plans to continue expanding into new markets around the world — and give travelers more features. (Like allowing them to make restaurant reservations through Airbnb.)

"Ultimately what we're trying to do for our customers or our guests is create magical travel experiences," Blecharczyk said. "We're going to be a one-stop shop and platform for the entire trip."

This segment aired on December 29, 2017.


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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