A peek inside the London offices of Airbnb

10 min read

17 March 2015

Former editor

As one of the fastest-growing digital companies in the world, Real Business wanted to find out how Airbnb was growing operations in the UK and Europe. After securing an invitation to its Shoreditch base, we found out just what the team and new country manager James McClure were up to.

The business started life in 2007 when co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia subsidised the rent they could not afford to pay on their San Francisco loft apartment by offering out the living room to lodgers. Over seven years later and the platform has now facilitated over 30m trips since inception (20m of which were in 2014) and has in excess of one million listings globally. As a mark of its potential, the business has also raised nearly $800m of venture capital investment to help fuel this growth.

Being a global-first business, growth around the world has been handled by country managers – those charged with leading the awareness push. At the head of UK effort since the beginning of 2015 is James McClure, someone who has experience in both working for a large technology company and handling a multi-region remit.

Prior to applying for the UK and Ireland country manager role on a whim after booking a weekend away using Airbnb, McClure ran Google’s emerging markets business in South East Asia. He spent eight years overseeing Google’s activities in places such as Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan before seeing his Airbnb move as a way of “coming home”.

When quizzed on why he wanted to join Airbnb, McClure drew an interesting comparison between his new and previous employers. “Airbnb is about promoting interactions with people, just using technology to do that – whereas people ask Google a question but never actually get to meet anyone,” he explained. “I found that quite an interesting difference in that both can be labelled as tech companies, but the way in which that manifests is quite different.”

Describing himself as a “passionate user” of Airbnb while working at Google, McClure went through a “rigorous” recruitment process involving the company’s founders and has now been given the task of leading the UK and Ireland.

Growth outside the US has arguably been more impressive than that inside, with Europe home to seven of the ten most popular Airbnb cities. With Paris sitting top of the tree, 60 per cent of nights stayed are in Europe, as are 58 per cent of listings.

Describing how he and Airbnb are going about building the company’s brand in a continent which has as diverse a set of cultures, attitudes and preconceptions as a meeting of the UN, McClure said: “It’s about thinking what people are after when they’re travelling. They’re interested in living like a local, visiting that great coffee shop round the corner or experiencing a different suburb.

“That’s a common trend whether you’re in the US, Germany, the UK or Australia. People’s experiences are what make a trip, so being able to meet someone who is from the place where you are helps.”

Picking on the UK, which has a track record for having people who are particularly guarded and private in nature, McClure emphasised that the concept is not that different to what has gone on before – only this time it has a tech overlay. “Everyone will have stayed at a friends or relatives place, or had someone to stay. Going back to the generation who had lodgers, it’s quite common. This is just about being able to do this at scale with trust, knowledge, conversations and using the internet.”

Airbnb underwent a dramatic rebranding in 2014, attracting attention and conversation that is still present nine months later. Employing the services of London-based creative house DesignStudio, the end result was Airbnb’s “Belo” logo. Devised as a logo that could be drawn by anyone, the tech firm ended up with a new website, mobile interface and business identify. Perhaps stemming from the fact that both Chesky and Gebbia were design graduates, indeed Airbnb started as an accommodation alternative for those that couldn’t find a hotel during the 2007 Industrial Design Conference in San Francisco, the business wanted an identify that didn’t need translating as it moved around the world.

“The fact that it is still being talked about nine months later shows the mileage we’ve got from it,” McClure added. “Thinking about where it’s had large benefits, when you’re expanding internationally in places such as Asia, where we have a big focus, having an iconic name and logo certainly helps. We’re happy with what it represents and have enjoyed the various discussions on what it may or may not look like.”

Read on to find out about Airbnb’s One Less Stranger campaign and see James McClure on camera discussing the sharing economy.

McClure’s team in the Airbnb London office, which overlooks Shoreditch High Street station and is a stones throw from the warehouse apartments which have come to characterise listings on the site, has a mix of people ranging from European-wide employees and those focused only on the UK. Ahead of the London Summer Olympics in 2012, Airbnb snapped up local rival CrashPadder, padding itself with six thousand international listings and gaining a foothold in the British market.

Commenting on recruitment, McClure said that having a brand people recognise and respects helps a great deal. “We have a lot of passionate users who tell us just so during interviews. They talk about being hosts or guests themselves for years, and have been waiting for an opportunity for a job that fits them – so it’s a privileged situation for us.”

Read more about Airbnb:

Brand awareness has been driven by initiatives such as unique overnight stays in places such as Waterstones bookshop and its $1m One Less Stranger campaign. Unveiled at the turn of the year, each of Airbnb’s 100,000 community members were given $10 and a challenge – “break the taboo of strangers”.

“We were really pleased with how One Less Stranger went, it produced some great stories,” McClure explained. “One London host was on holiday in Israel and ended up inviting round, through his host, ten difference people to cook a meal for.

“As a story and concept, it brought together people who had no reason to be together. We were proud of being able to be part of that and it shows the power of community.”

The next 12 months for McClure and his team will be more of the same – building up brand awareness and managing the supply and demand of the marketplace. He sees that as a combination of producing creative and exciting ways to introduce the brand to people that don’t know it in the UK, as well as, for those that do, reinforce the affinity through different experiences.

Airbnb now sits alongside the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay as big US digital and technology businesses that have firmly set up shop in London. But at just over seven years-old, compared to Facebook at 11, Google at 16 and Amazon at nearly 21, Airbnb is very much the kid of the family.

The small team that populate its Shoreditch office belies the fact that Airbnb is now worth billions of US dollars. However, my visit to its offices left me with a feeling that the intimate community element that runs through much of its branding still remains.