BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

This week, Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky sat down to discuss the company’s new Icons initiative and how Airbnb plans to surprisingly pivot their business in the next year. Chesky also shares the inside story behind the antagonistic Airbnb vs hotels ad campaign, and why bodybuilding inspires his leadership. The second part of this interview releases on Friday—with Chesky revealing his bold strategy for an AI future.

This is an abridged transcript of an interview from Rapid Response, hosted by the former editor-in-chief of Fast Company Bob Safian. From the team behind the Masters of Scale podcast, Rapid Response features candid conversations with today’s top business leaders navigating real-time challenges. Subscribe to Rapid Response wherever you get your podcasts to ensure you never miss an episode.

You’re here in New York for earnings. Earnings cannot be the most fun part of this job.

Before I went public, I was forewarned by so many CEOs—stay private as long as you can. But having been public now for a little over three years and having done maybe a dozen or so earning calls, I actually kind of enjoy earnings calls. And I think being a public company CEO, I don’t want to diminish its difficulty, but I think it’s easier than a late stage private company CEO. Because when you’re a late stage private company, you have a lot of the downsides of being public. You have audited financials. you have a lot of scrutiny. But you don’t have the upsides, and there’s always the sense that you’re hiding something. “We’re not getting the full story.” And so once we went public, it was like this pressure valve just released.

I had a discussion with Michael Dell when he took Dell private. And he said that one of the upsides was he wouldn’t have to share everything—his competitors wouldn’t know everything he was doing.

Well, the good thing for you is I tend to be an oversharer. That might not be what my team likes, but I think for you and everyone else that works.


So, last summer, you launched this Barbie Malibu Beach House. And now you’ve announced 11 Icon locations from X-Men Mansion to Ferrari Museum to Prince’s Purple Rain House. It almost seems like this opportunity, this idea, sort of presented itself to you?

A hundred percent. I think it was Mattel and Warner Brothers that reached out to us and they said, “can we do a promotion with Barbie?” ‘Cause they were going to do a bunch of these like Barbie marketing activations. This Barbie house we put on Airbnb, it gets more press than the IPO. And we’re like, “what the hell?” The universe is telling me that the world wants this.

I rally the team together—this is only like six, seven months ago—and I said, “we need to create a platform for Barbies. Because this is going to be a bridge to where we’re going. We’re going to eventually relaunch experiences.” And I said this can be the way to do that.

Probably my favorite concept that the team came up with is the Up house. Up was one of my favorite movies. And I said, “if we’re going to build this, you better make sure it is done to the level of Disneyland craft.

We assemble fabricators, prop designers—a team of a hundred people. Then I said, “wait a second, if it doesn’t go in the sky, it’s not really the Up house.” The problem is, most houses aren’t constructed to be lifted in the air. It collapses. So we worked with structural engineers: How can you construct a house that’s 40, 000 pounds that can be lifted 50 feet in the air? And then we found one of the biggest cranes in the world. We found land in New Mexico where they filmed Oppenheimer. It kind of looks like Venezuela, where Up takes place. And so that’s just one of the Icons. We do this for 11 of them.

As you’re talking about the Up house, it costs you a lot of money.

It’s a very marketing-driven industry. We spend about half what our other competitors spend on marketing, but we still spend over a billion dollars a year. If you consider this a marketing expense, this is some of the highest ROI marketing you can do. We’ve had nearly 10, 000 articles written about us—almost twice as much coverage as the IPO. What’s an IPO worth? People say it’s tens of millions of dollars of free marketing. This was way more than that.

But there’s another reason that we did it. Before Walt Disney built Disneyland, he built a small train set in his backyard. And what he was doing was practicing. He was building the muscle at a small scale for something that was eventually Disneyland. Icons helped us build some muscle for something that we will unleash that will reach millions of people.

They’re Disney-like experiences. But you’re not going into the theme park business. Or are you?

When we launched experiences, it never really captured the public’s imagination. It didn’t quite have enough magic. So we said, “let’s start with something completely unscalable that’s pure magic”. There’s about 4, 000 tickets a year. So clearly these would be sold out and they’re going to be a low price. We’ll start with the craziest of magic and then figure out how can we bring it to millions of people. So we’re gonna’ start very high end with Icons, and then we’re moving to mass. It won’t be a theme park. It’s gonna’ reinvent the company, the next chapter of Airbnb and we’re gonna launch it next year.


So when Icons was announced, there was nearly as much social coverage of your biceps as of the house.

I wasn’t expecting that.

You did bodybuilding when you were younger.

I was 19. I was a competitive bodybuilder.

So what is your routine like? Is it an outlet for you for frustration? Is it like meditation?

It’s all the above. I remember telling my friends when I was 17—they were playfully teasing me that I was super skinny. I said, “well, I’ll be the most muscular teenager in the country in two years.” And two years later, I was the seventh most muscular teenager in the country. I competed in basically the teenage Mr. America called the NPC Teenage Nationals and Collegiate Nationals.

I learned two lessons from bodybuilding that I brought to tech. The first lesson is if you can change your body, you can change your life. The second—you can’t get in shape in one workout. There’s this narrative in tech and business that somebody has this flash of insight. But it’s not one idea. It’s a hundred thousand ideas. You don’t build a company in a day, just like you don’t get in shape in a day.

And yes, I think it’s an outlet. The amount of stress can drive you crazy. No one talks about when you start a company, the mental health toll. The amount of people I know that’ve had panic attacks, they’ve had to stop. They’ve gone through really dark periods. No one talks about it. It’s a lot and you need an outlet.


Do you take moments to step back and think about the progress you’ve made and reflect on it? Or is your impulse always the next hill?

Kind of always the next hill. If I’m a rock climber, the part I like isn’t standing on top of rocks. The part I like is the climbing. I don’t do all this for the result. I do it for the process. And so I’m a little bit of a lunatic. But you do also have to stop and take stock in what you’ve done and have some appreciation.

My fellow CEO friends aren’t like, “can you believe what you’ve done?” They don’t say that. None of us do. We’re like, “can you believe how far we are behind at AI?” All of us are just egging each other on.

Being a CEO can be such a fun and rewarding job. It can also if you’re not careful, be at times close to an inescapable nightmare you can never escape.

Most of us started as good founders. If you’re super determined and creative and resilient, you can be a good founder. But no one’s born being a good CEO. So you go from being a world class founder to a pretty crappy CEO because it’s just a totally different job. That’s what I would describe as corporate adolescence. It’s a painful period. Most companies probably don’t actually make it out of that awkward adolescence. I think my series of podcasts with you was the journey from crisis, to recovery to growing up.

Part Two of Brian Chesky’s conversation with Bob Safian for the Rapid Response podcast will be available here on Friday. It covers Airbnb’s bold strategy for an AI future, including Chesky’s collaboration with legendary Apple designer Jony Ive, plus Airbnb’s unique operating culture.