My first night as an Airbnb host was a near disaster.
I thought I was prepared. Glamour shots of the house – check. Coffee maker – check. Linens, towels, toiletries – check. Hit “go live,” and boom, I’ve got a booking. That afternoon two guys arrive in a vintage Ferrari on their way to an antique car show. They were looking for a place to spend the night.
I show them to their rooms, give them the keys, and they’re off to dinner. That night I “hit the books” on how to become a better host. There’s an article on how it’s good to bake your guests something to welcome them. Recriminating myself over the failure to bake cookies, I can’t get to sleep. I can’t stop thinking about cookies. So I take an Ambien.
The next day I get up and go into the kitchen . . . and there are cookies, everywhere. And I don’t just mean on the counter. I mean everywhere. On the floor. On the stairs leading up to the third floor where the guests were sleeping. And I wasn’t dreaming. This was real. It was a total nightmare.
I had sleep baked.
Forget about cleaning it up before the guests woke up. The guests had already gone. It was past 10 am. They had checked out.
So there I was, amidst the crumbs and debris of an Ambien-fueled baking binge, thinking my Airbnb career was over before it even began. Well, that’s the way the old cookie crumbles, I thought. Then I notice that my guests have left me a note.
“Dear Jennifer, thanks for the cookies. We know this is your first time hosting on Airbnb. For future reference, when you rent out the whole house, you are not supposed to be there. Hope you’re feeling okay.”
This episode is exhibit “A” in Steven Hill’s observation that simply being jobless is not a sufficient qualification for being a good Airbnb host, Lyft driver, or TaskRabbit task engineer.
In his Salon.com article entitled called “Good riddance, gig economy: Uber, Ayn Rand and the awesome collapse of Silicon Valley’s dream of destroying your job,” Hill argues that “not everyone is cut out to be a gig-preneur. . . . Being an entrepreneur takes a uniquely-wired brand of individual with a distinctive skill set, including being ‘psychotically optimistic,’ as one business consultant put it.”
So I cleaned up the mess and went about making my hosting operation a little more professional.
My first guests didn’t fire me – because while they didn’t hold the total power over me that a boss in a corporate job holds, guests, and hosts, hold a lot of power over each other in the Airbnb world. Generous? Yes. Kind? Yes.
And that’s the beauty of Airbnb, of capitalism in general, and of the so-called sharing economy, which is really the trading economy, in particular.
Because it encourages acts of kindness. Not “random acts of kindness,” mainly practiced by the annoying, but “Randian acts of kindness.” Acts of kindness that are in your selfish best-interest – not just in some large, vague, be-a-better-person, make-the-world-a-better-place kind of way. Rather, a real, money-in-your-pocket, pay-the-mortgage, buy-groceries, chip-in-like-everybody-else-when-we-go-out-to-eat kind of way.
As my guest, I want to make you feel good, and safe, and special, and, actually, lucky, to stay in my home. I want to give you an experience you’ll never forget – but hopefully not in a goofy way, like my first guests. In other words, I want you to come back. Why? Because I’m such a sweet person?
Nope, because it benefits me. Because it’s in my selfish self-interest to give you the most amazing, luxurious, glamorous, fun and friendly experience possible.
Now some of you may say, why did you have to go and ruin everything by talking about selfishness? Isn’t it better to just talk about “sharing” and “belonging” – that’s the symbol of Airbnb – the “belo.” Why aren’t you talking about how your life’s passion is hosting people from around the world? That even if you didn’t get paid you’d still do it, because it’s about others, right, it’s not about you. To share is fair, right?
Once again, I find myself agreeing with Steven Hill when he says “this sharing economy is not about sharing at all.” To me, Airbnb isn’t about sharing, it’s about trading.
When Ayn Rand was 12, she and her parents were forced to “share” their St. Petersburg apartment, “share” their business, and “share” their wealth with heavily armed Russian soldiers. You might say Rand wrote the book on home-sharing. We the Living, her first (and somewhat autobiographical) novel, is replete with re-allocating unused housing “inventory,” by making sure it was confiscated from each according to ability and given to each according to need.
Rand objected to this kind of sharing not just because it didn’t work but because it simply wasn’t right. She vociferously objected to the idea that someone’s need for a home represented a claim check on your ability to own a home. As for Airbnb, she would have loved the way it encourages values such as: Independence, Integrity, Self-Esteem, Benevolence, Reason, Trust, Innovation, and a commitment to Reality.
Whether she herself would have been an Airbnb host. . . that’s another story. I’m trying to imagine Ayn Rand’s Airbnb profile: “Russian refugee seeks selfish guests who reject altruism. Chain-smoking atheists preferred. No second-handers need apply. No weirdos, please.”
My Airbnb profile is more conventional. I’m doing Airbnb so I can afford to take a non-profit job running a philosophical think tank that allows me to pursue my selfish dream of promoting Ayn Rand’s ideas around the world. But the magic of Airbnb is that I have personally, face-to-face introduced Ayn Rand to people from Saudi Arabia, China, Germany, France, Japan, Brazil, Russia – over 45 different countries – without leaving my home.
I have not only introduced my guests to Ayn Rand, I have dispelled false stereotypes. Maybe they came to my home with a set of preconceptions about the kind of people who would sport an NRA sticker on their front door, or have bookshelves filled with the works of Jeffrey Tucker, Milton Friedman, Von Mises, Hayek, and of course, Ayn Rand.
Indeed, one of the guest “amenities” I provide is a copy of ANTHEM: The Graphic Novel, the comic book adaptation of Rand’s dystopian sci-fi novella, illustrated by Dan Parsons, in which an artistic rendition of my house (which I rebuilt after the 2007 fires) is woven into the narrative.
My hope is that they left with more tolerance for those of us who agree with Ayn Rand about the role of government and the importance of individual rights. Some actively seek me out, not just for the hospitality but because they are also libertarians or Objectivists and are seeking community.
In the bigger picture I find myself disagreeing with Steven Hill because of his focus on the worst aspects of the sharing economy, not the best. He argues that this “model destroys the social connection between businesses and those they employ, and these companies have failed to thrive because they provide crummy jobs that most people only want to do as a very last resort. These platforms show their workforce no allegiance or loyalty, and they engender none in return.” Airbnb has consistently gone the extra mile for its hosts – and of this writing, I’ve been privileged to attend three Superhost conferences around the world. A hall at Airbnb HQ is adorned with an oversized portrait of yours truly (and other Superhosts from all walks of life), taken at one of these conferences. Every interaction I’ve had with the host support team has made me a more ardently loyal Airbnb booster with a fierce dedication to the brand.
Hill’s problem is that he’s still stuck in the employer/employee paradigm, as opposed to entrepreneurs engaging in peer-to-peer transactions. True, I did become an Airbnb host as a last resort. But apart from that episode with the cookies my Airbnb experience has been anything but crummy.
Indeed, as a psychotically optimistic, rationally self-interested entrepreneur, I’ve experienced loyalty and genuine companionship from Airbnb clients, some of whom are now friends.
Hill may be right that being jobless isn’t a sufficient qualification to thrive in the sharing economy, but it’s a good place to start. And for many who find their lives “disrupted” by accelerating socioeconomic change, grabbing a gig may be the transition you need, not just to finding the right “platform,” but for creating one – for yourself.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.