Book review: The Airbnb story

I was pleasantly surprised when this book landed on my desk ahead of publication date. I always relish digging into a book more when it feels like I am getting a sneak peek.

I had high expectations – a behind-the-scenes look at a brand I admire, written by a journalist I like and follow. In many ways, it didn’t disappoint. My only slight criticism is that it could have gone a little further into what makes a successful business like Airbnb tick.

For all the detail about the excruciatingly hard work it takes to build a business like Airbnb, I was left with the feeling that it’s just that. Bloody hard work! As someone who’s built (and is building) businesses myself, I crave rays of inspiration and motivation.

If you’re considering reading this book, here’s my take on what you’ll get from it:

The book promises an in-depth look at Airbnb, touching on everything from cultural zeitgeist, disruption, regulation and a character study of founder Brian Chesky. And on almost every level it delivers.

The detail about the workings of the business is phenomenal and fascinating. As with every successful business, there is always an element of ‘right time, right place’, but Gallagher digs far deeper than many would on the elements that have conspired, since its very beginnings to create the business that Airbnb is today. As a reader, you feel involved – like you are getting access to the machinations of a business and a market that has, until now, been largely secret.

While the book is beautifully written, it does seem oddly unemotional. Perhaps this is intentional?

If you are looking for a book that will motivate and inspire you, I’m not sure this is it. On the plus side, the book is not a hyperbole-filled promise that if you simply ‘believe’, you’ll achieve your goals. To my mind, that’s a great thing. The book offers a thoroughly researched and professionally written look at an iconic business of our time. You will undoubtedly learn a lot from it.

Despite – or perhaps because of – what I’ve written above, I just didn’t connect with Chesky. Although Gallagher has included insights into Chesky as a character, she didn’t really expose any vulnerability. There are attempts to do so throughout the book, but they end up being statements about events rather than how the founders felt about what was happening. But maybe that is something that can only happen if Chesky ever chooses to write a book himself.

How devastating must it have been to have heard reports of a sexual assault taking place in one of your apartments, and to hear that your staff said they couldn’t help? How utterly exhausting it must be to go up against regulators time and again in major cities like New York, when all you want to do is focus on adding value to your customers?

We hear about how Chesky and his team tackled these issues, but not much about how they found the emotional resilience to do so. And that’s what was missing for me.

Overall, I enjoyed the book a lot and I would highly recommend it, particularly for people building a business in a complex market.

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