San Francisco's Radius Cafe is one of those places where "local" is the rule—all the food is sourced within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant. So it's a touch ironic to meet there with Brian Chesky, the hoodie-wearing 32-year-old co-founder of Airbnb, whose game plan is global.
Airbnb is a Web service that lets travelers book couches, beds, rooms, houses, boats and even castles on a nightly basis. In six years Airbnb has become a company valued at $2.5 billion, with 500,000 properties available in more than 190 countries—a stand out in what is often called the sharing economy. Airbnb could do to hotels what Amazon has done to bricks-and-mortar bookstores. By year's end, Airbnb says it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains.
As might be expected, hoteliers and hospitality-industry regulators are suspicious of the Airbnb model. In October, New York state sued the company for violating a law passed in 2010—just when Airbnb was picking up steam—barring private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days.
"I want to challenge the status quo, but in a way that's constructive," Mr. Chesky says. "There were laws created for businesses, and there were laws for people. What the sharing economy did was create a third category: people as businesses. . . . They don't know whether to bucket our activity as person or a business."
That the New York lawsuit was issued from Albany hit Mr. Chesky close to home: He grew up just outside the city, the son of social-worker parents. To hear him tell it, disrupting the hospitality industry—let alone working on the Web—couldn't have been further from his ambitions growing up. Back then he was a fidgety doodler. His interest in art led him to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in illustration, later switching to industrial design.
"Industrial design teaches empathy," Mr. Chesky says. "Basically you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are designing for and you have to experience the end-to-end system." His mother just wanted him to have a job with health insurance.
In 2004, Mr. Chesky moved to Los Angeles to work as an industrial designer with a small firm. Three years later he quit, packed up an old Honda Civic, and drove to San Francisco to crash with a college friend, Joe Gebbia, who had recently quit his graphic-design job. "I realized I didn't want to walk in someone else's path," Mr. Chesky says. "I wanted to create a path of my own." He also had a more immediate challenge: His share of the rent was $1,150, and Mr. Chesky had $1,000 in the bank. His roommate was not in much better shape. "How the hell were we going to make rent?"