Airbnb disrupted the trillion-dollar travel industry with its new marketplace that set out to connect landlords with couch surfers. Airbnb started with just two guys — co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia — and in a matter of a few years, the company has been able to disrupt business for major long-standing brands like Hilton and Marriott. The concept of Airbnb is not a new one: people have been crashing on couches and spare bedrooms for as long as they’ve been traveling. What is new and successful for Airbnb is the digital marketplace that proved that spare couches and bedrooms were marketable.
Airbnb was able to get off the ground in the first place because of the movement toward a sharing economy. Again, this is a new economy that enables customers to share nearly everything with each other: houses, cars, boats, dresses, etc. The outcome of the sharing economy is twofold — those who own goods in the market make money from them, while those who don’t own goods are able to access them for a fraction of the cost. Owners pay off their debt faster from buying the asset, and users don’t go into debt. Win-win. This has enabled greater access to property rental without ownership and monetization of ownership.
The sharing economy offers cheaper alternatives to the consumer, a win for current owners or non-owners. If a user can spend $5,000 in a year on ride sharing to get around town, why would they buy a new $60,000 car and worry about all the other expenses? If a traveler can stay in an apartment for three hundred dollars for a vacation, why would they spend $1,200 on a hotel? The potential losers in the sharing economy are the car manufacturers and major hotel brands as new alternatives lower demand.
Hotel brands are built on the assets they own (property, hotels, golf courses, etc.). The hotel business model was built on occupancy and, like Blockbuster, scarcity. Major ownership was simultaneously their biggest competitive advantage and their weakness. Sharing companies, like Airbnb, are the opposite — they own nothing. The end product for the customer, however, is the same: a place to sleep. Because Airbnb doesn’t own anything (and has no overhead), it can provide consumers with a significant cost advantage. This would never have been possible had it not been for the digital marketplace to leverage the sharing economy.