Times Square was mostly vacant on the morning of Airbnb’s public offering, save for the dozen or so mask-clad photographers gathered in front of the Nasdaq building to document Brian Chesky’s enormous face, stretched across 9,000 square feet of LEDs. It was December 10, 2020, and Chesky, the high-spirited CEO of the world’s most highly valued hospitality company, wasn’t live from New York for the opening bell, but alone in his attic in San Francisco. Joe Gebbia and Nate Blecharczyk, his cofounders, appeared in dual video feeds below him.
A small group of Airbnb employees and alumni, huddled nearby, high-fived when the clock struck 9:30, the starting gun for Wall Street. “I think the stock market is thoroughly detached from reality,” one of them admitted, shrugging at the screwball logic of investing in a travel company in the middle of a pandemic.
It was a staggering public debut, even by the reality-defying standards of Silicon Valley. Eleven months earlier, the company had realized that it was facing serious trouble: In mainland China, where Airbnb has a sizable beachhead, “We started noticing bookings dropping. And, of course, we knew that was corresponding with the coronavirus,” Chesky recalls. As the virus ripped across the globe, reservations plunged 72% in April, from about 31 million a year before. After a decade of vertiginous growth, it was like nothing Chesky had ever seen. “A company dropping by 80% in eight weeks is like a car driving 100 miles an hour, and then hitting the brakes. There’s no safe way to do that. Things are going to break.”
In the second week of March, as major cities went into lockdown, Chesky convened an emergency meeting of the board to map out a strategy. He had written down a number of principles to guide his response to the crisis: Be decisive, preserve cash, act with all stakeholders in mind, play to win. “To manage a crisis, you need to be optimistic and you need to have imagination,” Chesky says. “Optimism is the most important criteria because the psychology of a leader often becomes the psychology of an organization. If you think you’re doomed, you probably are.”
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