Airbnb didn’t create a brand new concept. So, what made it different?

“Few startups to come out of Silicon Valley in recent years have been as disruptive, to use an overused word, as Airbnb. The nine-year-old, $30 billion short-term accommodations platform, offering a way for people to host paying travelers in their home or to rent someone else’s when they travel themselves, has become a consumer sensation, a lightning rod for opposition, a major threat to the hospitality industry and one of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories all at the same time. I found this company’s trajectory so fascinating that I recently wrote a book about it, and as I start to make the publicity rounds (a process that’s part fun part very stressful), one question keeps coming up over and over again: There were many other home-rental websites long before Airbnb. Why did it take off? What about it was so different?

It’s a great question; in fact, it was one of the first things I asked myself when Airbnb first started to edge onto the radar of Fortune’s team of tech reporters back in 2009 and 2010. As the keeper of Fortune’s 40 under 40 list, my colleagues were frequently coming to me with the names of the hottest new startups coming out of Silicon Valley that we should keep on our radar for the list. Someone mentioned Airbnb to me around that time, and I distinctly remember rolling my eyes. I should note that I’m not a Silicon Valley reporter who covers the tech sector day-in and day-out; I cover all aspects of business more broadly from far away in New York City. But I felt that distance gave me a healthy arms’ length perspective on some of the breathless euphoria that tended to waft out of the region. I often pointed out when I thought certain ideas were overblown and overhyped. This new company, I thought, was definitely one of them.

I made a mental list of all the other companies that already existed that did something similar: HomeAway.com, VRBO.com, both of which I’d used for years; Couchsurfing.com, BedandBreakfast.com, even Craigslist. I wondered how this new company could be so different. What is it about these tech startups, I remember complaining to a colleague at the time, that think they can take an old, unoriginal idea; gloss it up with a slick, minimalist, design-friendly website; and re-release it back onto the marketplace as something new?

Soon, it became clear that whether the idea itself was brand new or not, there was something different about this company. By January 2011, it had hit a million nights booked, then doubled that figure four months later. It became a ‘unicorn’ that year, though the term hadn’t been coined yet—and today, it has a valuation of $30 billion. It has 3 million listings worldwide (more than 80 percent of them are outside the U.S.), as of last fall, 140 million trips had been taken on its platform since its founding. It is a verb; it is a thing.

So then, if it wasn’t the first in its category, what about Airbnb made it so different?”

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