Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia on How Art School Prepared Him to Be an Entrepreneur
Three years before he would become a co-founder of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia was the proud creator of CritBuns—soft, foamy pillows that were intended to cushion (and keep clean) the bums of art students as they sat on hard stools and dirty floors during hours-long critique sessions, or “crits.” The cushions came in a range of vibrant hues, and after years of persistence, Gebbia got them on the shelves of the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious design store in New York.
CritBuns was just one of many entrepreneurial ideas that Gebbia had as an aspiring artist and designer. He looks back at his time as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)—where his co-founder Brian Chesky was also enrolled—as formative, characterized by daunting challenges and opportunities for creative problem-solving, which are still influential today in his role as Airbnb’s chief product officer. (Full disclosure: Gebbia is an investor in Artsy.)
The seeds that led Gebbia to enroll in art school were planted early. He had a well-rounded childhood and parents who supported his trifecta of interests. “I grew up an artist, an athlete, and a musician; studying piano, playing basketball, and pursuing art,” Gebbia explained. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that.”
Artmaking began to lead the pack as Gebbia attended one of the largest high schools in Georgia and benefited from the art department’s plethora of classes—including ceramics, photography, and jewelry metalsmithing. He took classes in figure drawing and painting at the Atlanta College of Art on weekends; as a sophomore, he was accepted in the Governor’s Honors Program, for which he spent a summer taking college art courses. “In that summer, I fell in love with the idea that this is what my life is going to be, that this is what I want,” Gebbia explained. It was there that a teacher suggested he go to RISD.
“I had no idea what or where [RISD] was,” Gebbia recalled. But he quickly figured it out and took classes at RISD the next summer, and started his freshman year there in 2000.
“I had this idea in my mind of being a painter and having my work exhibited in New York City,” Gebbia explained. By the end of his first year at RISD, he had new aspirations—in design. “There are so many things that happened in the [first] foundation year that still influence me today,” he explained. “Lessons learned and situations that you were put into where you had to create a new level of self-reliance.”
One experience that stands out the most, he explained, came about when he was assigned a semester-long project for his 3D foundations class. The professor had asked students to reproduce the works of a famous artist or designer on a 12-inch scale, simply by going off of images. They were to create 16 pieces total.
Around this time, Gebbia had become fascinated
“I had this idea where, if I was going to spend the whole semester making chairs, I wanted to make them full-sized chairs, so I could use them afterwards,” Gebbia recalled. He pitched the idea to his professor, who dismissed the idea and advised him to focus on the smaller scale. But this only motivated Gebbia to prove his professor wrong.
“The thing is, I didn’t know how to make a chair,” Gebbia explained. “I’d never worked in wood before; this was like an impossible task.” He began talking to furniture makers on campus and upperclassmen working with wood, then gained access to the woodshop and figured it out. He hid the finished chairs in his dorm room (which eventually overflowed with them), and whenever his professor asked about how the project was coming along, he told him it was fine, never showing him anything.
The final crit was scheduled for the last day of the semester, and Gebbia snagged the slot directly after a lunch break. During the break, he and his roommates carried the chairs from his dorm room to the art studio so that once the class returned, they’d be stunned to find the 16 functional, full-sized chairs.
“My only regret from the whole thing is that I don’t have a photo of my professor’s face when he walked into the room,” Gebbia laughed. His professor was shocked and delighted, admitting that’d he’d been proven wrong.
“There’s something so gratifying about that moment, that has informed me ever since….Anytime something feels impossible, it’s probably worth taking a second look, and certainly you can see the connections to Airbnb,” Gebbia reflected. “We were faced with rejection early on in the company’s history, by really smart people—just as smart as my professor, but in the business world—who said the company would never work: It’s too weird; strangers are never going to stay in stranger’s homes. We had to navigate rejection by very powerful people.”
That was hardly the only occasion where Gebbia encountered challenging scenarios that were ripe for creative solutions. Among his many claims to fame, Gebbia revived RISD’s basketball team. During his freshman year, when he tried to join the basketball team and found there wasn’t one, he created it.
“It was like my first startup,” he explained. “I had to raise money, recruit people, operate a team and the schedule of a season, create a brand, and then market the brand and get people to show up to games.” The team, called the Balls, would play local community colleges and other art schools like Cooper Union and Pratt Institute. It’s still going strong today, thanks to a document Gebbia created that detailed how to run and coordinate the team. “I really wanted to design it in a way that it could outlast me, and not [be] dependent on my presence in order for it to work,” he explained.
He played basketball during all five years of his time at RISD, staying an additional year to complete a double major in industrial design and graphic design.
As a senior, he put his industrial design chops to the test when he realized the idea for CritBuns, which he’d originally sketched out in a notebook as a freshman. He saw the need for such a product after enduring eight-hour-long crits as an undergrad. Once he knew how to make a prototype, he realized one of the foamy, butt-shaped cushions.
Around the same time, the school had opened a competition for students to submit original designs for gifts for the graduating class of 2005. CritBuns won—RISD would pay for the manufacturing of 800 of them. But Gebbia had no way of getting them made.
He had one month to produce the CritBuns (in addition to thesis projects for graphic design and industrial design), and manufacturers from Rhode Island to India had told him it wasn’t possible in the small window of time. At the last possible moment, he convinced a local man with a machine shop to create a metal mold, along with a business that created foam pool floats, to churn out the 800 buns.
Two weeks later at graduation, there were 400 red and 400 blue CritBuns for the graduating class. “It was the impossible of impossible tasks to try to pull off,” Gebbia explained. “Everybody told me it couldn’t happen, even professors that I really admired and professionals in the industry; but again, it was a classic case of somebody saying ‘This can’t get done, it’s not gonna happen,’ and just trying to find a way to persevere through that to find a way.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.