OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — When Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia took to the stage at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, he used an unconventional approach to engage the audience that, at first, appeared to have nothing to do with disrupting the hotel industry.
He tossed rolls of silver duct tape into the surprised audience and explained how the utilitarian item helped him look at the world differently when launching the Airbnb, an online marketplace that allows users to lease or rent their homes. The company now counts 2,000,000 listings in over 191 countries and has created a new economy for thousands of people around the world.
“Duct tape is something that you take for granted,” said Gebbia. “It might seem like the most basic material ever, with far-ranging uses from repair on NASA missions to fixing your sneakers. But it also saves lives.”
Duct tape was invented by a woman called Vesta Stoudt, explained Gebbia. She had two sons serving in the Navy and would package cartridges used to launch rifle grenades used by the soldiers. One day, Stoudt noticed that the cartridges — packed eleven to a box — were sealed with thin paper tape that easily tore off.
She proposed using strong, cloth-based waterproof tape instead of the thin paper tape, but the idea was quickly dismissed by her supervisors. So she went right to the top, writing to President Franklin Roosevelt with a plea to consider the implications for her sons, as well as his own. The letter worked. Johnson & Johnson was appointed to make the tape that Stoudt had suggested.
“Turning fear into fun is the best gift of creativity,” said Gebbia, who had his own duct tape moment at his San Francisco apartment ten years ago, when, almost broke and facing a rent increase, he noticed a design conference was coming to town and all the hotels were booked.
Gebbia decided to rent out his flat to those who had come to town for the event. “This was our improvised duct tape solution and it evolved over time into the design solution that became Airbnb.” What fashion companies can learn from this is to approach, he says, is “use opportunities to innovate.”
The innovation has paid off. The sharing economy is growing at a rapid clip, set to hit $335 billion globally by 2025, according to McKinsey. The potential for impact in fashion, where Rent the Runway is the best example so far, is significant.
“Duct tape opportunities come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s most powerful when it’s able to connect different worlds,” said Gebbia, using examples such as Net-a-Porter, whose success comes from Dame Natalie Massenet’s forward-thinking, in which she combined the potential of online shopping with fashion.
Meanwhile Airbnb continues to innovate. This year, the company launched Open Homes, a platform that provides housing for the many refugees in need of shelter. On Thursday, VOICES started the day with a conversation with activists Amed Khan and Chin-Chin Yap who addressed the more than 65 million people in the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. “By 2044, it will be 325 million,” said Gebbia. “That’s equivalent to the current population of the US.”
Open Homes allows users who are already registered on the site to act as hosts and offer their rooms to refugees and displaced people for free. More than 15,000 people have volunteered their homes, according to Gebbia. The entrepreneur hopes to house 100,000 displaced people by 2022.
“It showed us the possibilities of tapping into other people’s potential, which also made me think: what if Airbnb helped revitalise other world communities?” Gebbia said, describing his second duct tape moment. “It’s philanthropy for the 21st century.”