Book Review: How Uber and Airbnb are changing the world

The power of these entrepreneurial ventures is continuously rising.
Updated 09 August 2017
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Book Review: How Uber and Airbnb are changing the world

The rise of smartphones and social media has enabled the expansion of the sharing economy, a phase during which the likes of Uber and Airbnb were born.
The power of these entrepreneurial ventures is continuously rising. Airbnb has already exceeded 10 million guest stays and Uber continues to grow despite its current failings. No matter how bad the PR is getting for Uber, consumers do not seem to care. As long as the company’s ride hailing app continues to outperform rival apps, Uber will continue to dominate the market.
Brad Stone has covered the Silicon Valley as a journalist for more than fifteen years. After his book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2013, he is back with an enthralling account of how Uber and Airbnb came to be and how a new generation of entrepreneurs are changing the way we live in “The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World.”
Travis Kalanick and Brian Chesky, the young CEOs behind Uber and Airbnb respectively, are part of a new breed of tech leaders who are different from the previous generation of introverted innovators such as Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg.
“Instead, they are extroverted storytellers, capable of positioning their companies in the context of dramatic progress for humanity and recruiting not only armies of engineers but drivers, hosts, lobbyists and lawmakers to their cause” Stone wrote in the book.
Chesky grew up in Niskayuna, New York, in a middle-class family. Joe Gebbia, who co-founded Airbnb with Chesky, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. The pair met in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design and became firm friends.
After Gebbia graduated, he went to San Francisco and asked Chesky if he would like to come and share the rent of his apartment. Chesky told Gebba that if he made the move, he would keep a new part-time teaching job in Los Angeles but would spend the weekends in San Francisco. For that reason, he asked Gebbia if he could rent the couch in the living room for $500 a month instead of renting a whole room. Gebbia replied that Chesky needed to be fully committed or else he would have to give up the apartment. Just as Chesky decided to make the move, Gebba sent him the e-mail that would change their lives: “I thought of a way to make a few bucks, turning our place into a designer’s bed and breakfast, offering young designers who come into town a place to crash during the four-day event (a design conference), complete with wireless Internet, a small desk place, sleeping mat and breakfast each morning. Ha!”
It took the pair three days to put together the first Airbedandbreakfast.com website using free tools available online. The first guest to use Airbedandbreakfast.com was Amol Surve. He was greeted at the door by the site’s co-creator Gebbia. Surve, who came from Mumbai, had use the Internet to rent an airbed for $80 a night because all the hotels in the area were either booked or too expensive.
He did not know what to expect but soon loved the experience of living in a temporary home. Two other guests also used the apartment during the design conference. After the three travelers left, the co-founders were not only able to pay their rent but they were also touched by the friendships they had made with their guests.
For a year, nothing happened. Chesky and Gebbia looked for investors but “very few people even met with us, they considered us crazy,” Chesky admitted. However, by 2010, Airbnb covered 8,000 cities.
While Chesky and Gebbia were working on better versions of what was still known as Airbedandbreakfast.com, Garret Camp, a Canadian entrepreneur, had just sold a website discovery tool, StumbleUpon, to eBay for $75 million. He was rich and living the good life but he had one problem — his Mercedes-Benz sports car. It stayed in the garage and he barely used it as he found driving in San Francisco to be too stressful. He became obsessed with the idea of an on-demand car service that passengers would be able to track via a map on their phones. He soon found out about the German word “Uber” and settled for the name “UberCab.”
On Nov. 17, 2008, Camp registered UberCab as an LLC in California. In December, on his way to attend LeWeb, a high-profile technology conference in Paris, he stopped in New York to meet Oscar Salazar, a friend. He shared his idea with Salazar who had also experienced problems with cabs in Mexico, Canada and France. “I don’t know if this is a billion-dollar company but it’s definitely a billion-dollar idea,” Salazar said before developing a prototype for Camp.
When UberCab looked for capital, most Silicon Valley investors passed on the deal, just as they had with Airbnb. Eventually, Uber gathered $1.3 million and proceeded to make history.
Uber, unlike Airbnb which had become global as soon as it was launched, had to enter each market on an individual basis. Each city was different and presented unique challenges. One of the greatest problems that Uber faced was the fact that it used contract drivers instead of full-time employees. This triggered endless controversies linked to background checks, proper insurance and the safety of both the drivers and the riders using its service.
By the end of 2016, Uber introduced a new type of work flexibility for its drivers and it also lowered the price of its fares. These measures boosted Uber’s business. In 2014, Uber booked 200 million rides while in 2016, the total number of rides reached one billion and six months later, the number had already doubled.
By the end of 2016, Airbnb and Uber had thousands of employees and offices around the world.
Stone gives us a detailed account of how this new breed of CEO — bold, ruthless and resourceful — is making a lasting impact on the way we live and travel.


Secrets of the world’s greatest trailblazers

Updated 14 July 2018
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Secrets of the world’s greatest trailblazers

  • The author takes us on a fascinating journey through the minds, experiences and ideas of people whose innovations have transformed the world

Why are some people so innovative? Are they different from the rest of us? Is it a question of genes, education or luck?

The idea for the book “Quirky” goes back to 2011. Melissa Schilling was teaching a class in “innovation strategy” when she overheard students commenting on Steve Jobs’ sudden weight loss. What would happen to Apple without its iconic leader, they asked.

“I began to study Steve Jobs, comparing every detail I could find on him with the existing research on innovation and creativity,” Schilling said. After finding similarities between Jobs and other innovators, she decided to go ahead with a research project on eight serial innovators.

“I didn’t care if it turned into something I could publish,” she said.  “I knew it was a high-risk project. I did it because it was pure fun. It was illuminating.”

This enthusiastic tone is present throughout the book. The author takes us on a fascinating journey through the minds, experiences and ideas of people whose innovations have transformed the world. One characteristic shared by most innovators is a sense of separateness and estrangement that manifests itself in a rejection of rules and norms, and a lack of interest in social interaction. 

Jobs was described by his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan as “disconnected and awkward.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates has also been characterized as an introvert, lacking strong social skills. Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and Tesla, has said that “he never truly had a chance to make friends.”

What is surprising is that some innovators possess little previous training or knowledge in their field. Musk, for example, had only an undergraduate degree in physics and economics but was able to design a prototype for a reusable rocket after being told by US manufacturers that it was impossible.

Breakthrough innovators do not live normal lives. They cross boundaries, ignore limits — and remain in a league of their own. As our “quirky” journey comes to an end, we understand the potential for innovation lies within all of us.