Startup Advice

Airbnb executive on why startups must work with the community, and government, for a better future

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Brent Thomas_Airbnb

Airbnb's Brent Thomas. Source: Supplied

Keeping the community and legislators up to date with innovation will ultimately serve to benefit startups, according to Brent Thomas, Airbnb’s head of public policy for Australasia, South Asia and South East Asia.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Thomas says when startups are disrupting traditional industries, they would do well to keep lines of communication open.

Airbnb is working with Australian government “in whole new ways”, he says. Rather than lobbying for change behind the scenes, the home-sharing tech giant works with hosts and travellers to “mobilise those people and make sure their voices are heard”.

“We’re working with those people because they’ve got a stake in the future of travel,” says Thomas.

People are changing the way they are booking accommodation, but they’re also changing the way they’re shopping, working and catching cabs.

“Consumers have changed their behaviour, and those same consumers are voting,” Thomas says.

“It’s a wise government that pays attention,” he adds. “There’s an opportunity for community-based companies to collaborate with the government on regulations.”

That said, Thomas doesn’t believe Airbnb is, necessarily, disruptive innovation. Home sharing is by no means a new concept, there was simply an opportunity for “a whole new business model, now the internet has come along”.

“People 200 years ago used to stay in other peoples’ homes,” he says.

Equally, he says Airbnb is more of a ‘human’ company than a tech company, saying: “We’re passionate about people, not robots”.

“Others in the space are moving away from humans. We’re the exact opposite of that, using technology to enable people-to-people diplomacy, empowering human lives.”

In turn, this allows tourism to grow in a “respectful and responsible way”, Thomas says.

Airbnb means people can travel more without new complexes going up, which Thomas says has environmental benefits. The company has also expanded into experiences, allowing guests to book wine tours, crafts events or private tours, as well as learning about their destination from their host.

“When you’re going to a new place and you don’t know what to do, you can learn about a city from someone sharing their life experience,” he says.

“Everything Airbnb does is about empowering micro-entrepreneurs.”

What can startups do?

Thomas still thinks of Airbnb as part of the startup community, and while he’s focused on sharing experiences with the government, he is also keen to impart his wisdom in this area to other game-changing tech businesses that are just starting out.

Startups “often have a business model that the government doesn’t understand”, he says. Despite this, “how they engage with the government can’t be an afterthought”.

The government itself should focus on “running to where the ball is going”, and working with leading innovators that are likely to have an Airbnb-sized impact on the future.

Regulating disruptors like Airbnb “is going to be a walk in the park compared to what’s coming”, Thomas says.

“Just wait until AI comes along, until robotics comes along.”

Equally, he advises startups to engage with their communities, and “not only the people using the products but also the people who may not be yet”.

Now, a quarter of Australians have an Airbnb account, Thomas says. That wasn’t the case five years ago.

“We all tell our own stories,” he says.

“Bring the community along with you.”

Brent Thomas will be speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Conference in Sydney this August. 

NOW READ: Fresh Airbnb marketing partnership gives Sydney startup Hometime the edge on competitors

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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