An Interview With Airbnb’s Co-Founder
Mr Joe Gebbia, 35, co-founded Airbnb in 2008 based on the principle that people can travel anywhere in the world, and have the experience of a “home” to return to, and a local host who can help you find your way — but the Singapore authorities have thrown a roadblock in the way, causing him to be “personally disappointed” in what has happened.
Mr Gebbia was in Singapore last Monday (March 13) to promote Airbnb Trips, which will offer travellers experiences curated by locals of the city they are visiting.
MustShareNews met him at Open Farm Community at Dempsey, and chatted with him about Singapore’s new law that bans homeowners from renting out their properties for less than six months, as well as his own experiences in our island nation.
When Airbnb started in Singapore a few years ago, the country was seen as a choice spot for a company that brings people together.
In fact, Singapore’s “multiculturalised” character is very much in line with Airbnb’s ethos of “belonging everywhere”.
“Singapore is such a melting pot of different cultures and languages — I mean the number of different dialects of Chinese that are spoken here is amazing — and so I think we saw it as a nexus of different cultures coming together and we saw that as a great spot to plant a flag for our team,” Mr Gebbia said.
He even revealed that the company had more staff in Singapore than any other Asian city. That explains the inviting office of its Asian headquarters in Cecil Street, which takes up 3 storeys.
To illustrate the popularity of Airbnb in Singapore, Mr Gebbia claimed that he saw statistic that said one million singaporeans had travelled with Airbnb outside of singapore as of 2016 — now that’s really a lot of Singapore travellers.
Alas, as Singapore is a country where people from all sorts of cultures come together, it means there will also be more opportunities for racial discrimination.
In fact, there have been cases of property owners not wanting to rent their places out to people from certain races, according to a CNBC article.
Thus in order to stay true to their ethos, Airbnb takes a stand against any signs of discrimination on their platform, including racial discrimination, as this is “in direct conflict with our mission to create communities so we can belong anywhere”, said Mr Gebbia.
He said they have removed property owners who have shown discrimination, and also required them to opt in to an agreement that they would not discriminate in order to remain on the platform.
Mr Gebbia also referenced the company’s efforts to oppose the Trump administration’s “anti-Muslim” ban on entering the United States. Just last Wednesday (March 15), Airbnb was one of a group of tech companies that filed legal papers against the revised travel ban.
It also offered free housing to those left stranded as a result of the original travel ban, reported CNN.
Thrown A Wrench
Though Airbnb seems to love Singapore, the love doesn’t seem to be reciprocated by the Singapore government.
The authorities have thrown a wrench in the company’s plans with the passing of a new law that makes it illegal for private apartment owners to rent out their apartments or rooms on a short-term basis (less than 6 months), except with permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to do so.
Asked about the new law, Mr Gebbia said he was “personally disappointed” in “the way they went about passing the amendment”.
“You know at the end of the day we decided to sit down and work side by side with the Singapore government to figure out fair and balanced regulations just like we have in 200 other cities in the world,” he added.
Comparing Airbnb to a new innovation akin to the ATM, automobile and online music, which initially met with “misunderstandings” and resistance from governments, Mr Gebbia said “anytime there’s a new idea… it takes a little bit of time to figure out the fair and balanced ways to regulate it”.
We guess that means that the Singapore government, or perhaps Singapore in general, isn’t enlightened enough to accept new innovations that deviate from the norm.
That idea may have some merit, judging from the increasing number of complaints from people over the short-term rentals. There were 608 complaints to the URA in 2016, 61 per cent more than the 377 complaints in 2015, reported The Straits Times.
However, as the nature of these complaints were not revealed, there’s no way for the public to judge whether any of them have merit, or most of them are complaints that should not have been entertained.
A Home For Travellers
We think Airbnb’s ethos of wanting to provide a “home” for travellers from all over the world is a noble one, and should be encouraged.
Also, there’s nothing wrong with people making a little extra income from renting out their flats or spare rooms for a few days — it could be much-needed cash amid Singapore’s slowing economy.
But alas, we’re still waiting for others to catch up to this new way of travel — we hope Airbnb will work out something with the Singapore government soon.