Flying carpets? Airbnb has unveiled a “roadmap to bring magical travel to everyone”. Brian Chesky, the home-sharing site’s chief executive, added: “To go beyond, we must have magical experiences, like truffle hunting . . . ”
Not only is Airbnb’s ambition for new ventures limitless, but Mr Chesky had already channelled his inner Buzz Lightyear last month, describing his company’s “infinite time horizon”. This approach jars with the more urgent desires of some investors and employees (reportedly including departing chief financial officer Laurence Tosi) who had wanted less magic and more realism: focus on the core room-renting and go public this year.
The gloomy view of Airbnb — whose belief in the sharing economy, unlike fellow unicorn Uber, stops short of sharing its own income statement — is that it is approaching saturation, at least in developed markets. In November a Morgan Stanley survey of customers in the US, UK, France and Germany found that the frequency of bookings had slowed. It would be logical to think that some of the wackier-sounding initiatives indicate desperate grasping for revenue growth.
Even if some of his patter seems straight from the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, Mr Chesky has built a serious business, according to numbers that have escaped into the wild. Earnings were $100m last year before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, compared with a loss in 2016.
Even if growth has slowed in some markets, it is on a tear in Latin America and Asia and overall bookings increased about 50 per cent. Revenues were reportedly $3.5bn for the year and are now more than $1bn a quarter. That is similar to Uber’s revenues, but without the ride-hailing company’s losses. One of the few numbers that Airbnb is happy to provide is an estimate that gross booking from its Experiences business — truffle hunting to surfing or wine tasting — will hit an annual run rate of $200m by the end of this year.
Mr Chesky may need to buy off employees and some investors by allowing bigger secondary sales, if he wants to keep experimenting in private. But he certainly does not seem to be cash constrained. To infinity, and beyond.
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