Unlike global giants Facebook, Amazon and Uber, Airbnb didn’t make any show-of-strength in India, nor did its founders flew to the country in the first four years of setting up its office here to make big announcements, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Travis Kalanick, did. But a substantial part of the $1.5 billion that the company raised in December, is likely to come to India.
The $25-billion San Francisco-based, community-driven hospitality startup is a marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world — from desktops, smartphones or tablets. India has the world’s fastest-growing internet population, and this is what Airbnb’s business in the country depends on.
“India has been a small market historically… However, now it has reached a critical mass... It has got some momentum and this is the time to invest,” says Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder of Airbnb, which has around 17,000 homes listed on its platform in India.
But, as India slipped through the cracks for Airbnb, homegrown startups, such as, OYO, Stayzilla, and Fab Hotels, built almost-similar businesses.
Blecharczyk, however, disagrees. “They have a slightly different model. Slightly different proposition… I guess we are competing in mindshare…,” he says.
Airbnb believes in connecting travellers with the surroundings and people they are visiting. It doesn’t aggregate hotel rooms such as OYO does, neither does it have hostels like ZO Rooms. People who have some spare space in their houses feature the same on Airbnb, and offer to host travellers in exchange for money.
Airbnb’s forte is to connect people with unique travel experiences in more than 34,000 cities and 191 countries at different price points.
On June 9, Airbnb in partnership with Disney Pixar’s movie Finding Dory, created a floating bedroom on the one of the largest natural wonders on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef, where the movie is set. For the first-time ever, people got a chance to stay at the Reef.
“We strive to create unique experiences for our guests all across the world… We hope to continue this trend in the India,” says Amanpreet Bajaj, Airbnb’s India head.
However, Blecharczyk still doesn’t know what the right model for India is, but he doesn’t want to put up a façade in the name of a hotel package for travellers.
“India is a top priority for the company,” he says.
The indicators are clear — the number of homes that got registered in India last year grew 150%, compared to the previous year, and the number of travellers coming to the country rose 185% to five million.
Airbnb wants to expand the community of travellers who use the platform. To start with, it aspires more and more Indians who travel abroad to stay in an Airbnb property. Typically, they will post reviews, and some of them will also be encouraged to put up their houses on the platform after returning. The more and better the reviews are, more people will be inclined to try Airbnb properties.
“This wasn’t the case a couple of years ago... If the community is very small, the flywheel doesn’t spin,” says Blecharczyk.
Globally, this community is big and the flywheel spins very fast. More than 80 million have used Airbnb, and it has two million homes. That is something an OYO or a Stayzilla will take a long time to replicate.
“We are entrepreneurs. New things often need to be protected, and at times it’s only the founders who can protect it,” says Blecharczyk.