Lifelong entrepreneur, Nathan Blecharczyk started coding at the age of 12. At the age of 14, his first customer paid $1000 for his work he saw online. By the time he finished high school, he made over $1 million. After graduating from Harvard, where he studied together with peers like Mark Zuckerberg, Nathan moved to Silicon Valley in 2008. Browsing through Craigslist for a flat-share, he got randomly matched with co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. This was the beginning of something called AirBed & Breakfast. The rest is history.
We caught up with Nathan during his recent visit to Factory to chat about how serendipity can shape one’s success, what’s Airbnb’s vision for the future, and how his role has evolved from the company’s CTO to CSO.
You get the chance to hop on a time machine and tell your younger self one thing. What would that be?
I’d tell my younger self that there are different paths to success—and I should stay confident that I’m on the right path. To understand this, we have to rewind to my university years. I studied at Harvard together with Mark Zuckerberg, who’s just a year younger than me. Back in 2004, Mark had an ad going on campus, saying that he’s looking for someone to join him to work on Facebook. I told my roommate that I’d like to do this, but he didn’t share my enthusiasm and talked me out of it. Obviously, Facebook became a huge deal and I deeply regretted this decision for quite a long time. A few years went by, and the possibility to work with Facebook presented itself again. A bunch of my friends joined the company and invited me to jump on board. At this point, Facebook had a team of 40 engineers. They were already present at all universities in the US, and I figured there was not much innovation left for them to do. Shortly thereafter, when Facebook launched their platform on a global scale and reached a whole new level of growth, this just seemed like another one of those missed opportunities that come once, or maybe in my case, twice in a lifetime. Looking back I know, if I had gone down on any of those roads, I would have never started Airbnb…
You’re a role model to many young founders launching their companies today. Who were your role models?
I’ve had different role models at different times. Growing up, Bill Gates was the tech entrepreneur in the spotlight, who had an influence on my choice to become a founder. Then when we launched Airbnb, the founders who really inspired us were just a couple of years ahead of us—like Y Combinator Partner & CEO Michael Seibel, who had gone through YC’s program a year before us with his previous company, Socialcam.
As we’ve matured, become bigger and more successful, our mentors have changed as well. Now we look at different role models on different issues. When we wanted to learn how to build out world-class customer support, we reached out to Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. When it came to scaling the company, we asked Salesforce founder Marc Benioff for advice.
From writing every line of code, to hiring talent, managing teams, and overseeing a giant company’s technical infrastructure—how has your role evolved over time?
In the first one-and-a-half years I did write every single line of code myself. In the next three years, it was all about hiring a team: I spent most of my time screening candidates and trying to convince the outstanding ones that it’s worth joining Airbnb on this journey. As CTO, I did not only run engineering, but also data science, the data-driven aspects of online marketing, as well as our payments team.
You’ve recently changed your position from Chief Technology Officer to Chief Strategy Officer. What does this new role entail? What challenges are you most excited about?
The tipping point came when I managed to hire a VP of Engineering. Having another technical leader on board allowed me to take a step back and focus on other areas. Over time, I’ve taken on a broader strategy role, and my title has recently evolved from CTO to CSO to recognize that change.
As a co-founder you have a certain ability to think long term, see the bigger picture and facilitate decisions that are otherwise tough to make. Decisions, that don’t clearly map to any single function or any single leader, but are spread across departments affecting different teams. For example, when you get very focused on growth, you can easily miss out on quality—which is a long-term investment. My mission is to make sure we’re paying enough attention to quality in every aspect of our business.
What’s Airbnb’s vision for the future?
Right now, our focus is on going beyond home-sharing and expanding our offering to the entire trip. End of 2016, we’ve launched “Experiences”; personal and authentic tours, where guests are guided by local, in-the-know hosts. So far, I’ve tried a bike tour around San Francisco, hunting for truffle in Tuscany, and exploring a fish market in Tokyo. Good news is that we’ll also bring “Experiences” to Berlin.
You’re an active Airbnb host. Do you rent your place under your real name?
The listing doesn’t go under my name, I try to keep it discreet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not an active host. In fact, I host people about 300 nights a year in my guest house. I do get recognized from time to time, so there have been a couple of funny situations. One time a guest needed some extra towels, so I brought them down to her. As it turned out, she was a German reporter, who interviewed me four years prior. That was my very first interview abroad, when we first started to expand globally in 2011. She was a super tough interviewer at the time and threw us a curveball. It was great to see her a couple of years later, being such a devoted user of the product she was then a tiny bit skeptical of.