Joe Zadeh is obsessed with one Frank Lloyd Wright house on the outskirts of LA.
As a bioengineering student wrapping up his doctorate at Caltech, Zadeh would walk by and hold onto the gates, imagining what it was like to own or even step foot in one of those homes, he said.
Years later, Zadeh clicked on a Hacker News job listing. It took him to the homepage for Airbnb.
“The first thing I saw was this Frank Lloyd Wright house that you could rent for $300 a night. Everything changed for me then,” Zadeh said.
It wasn’t the Ennis house, the one he loved in Los Angeles, but one in Wisconsin. And instead of only dreaming about what it would be like to live in an architectural wonder, he could actually stay in it.
Zadeh realised in an instant what incredible moments Airbnb could unlock for people. As its VP of product in charge of 40 project managers, he’s one of the key executives in charge of making that experience happen again and again.
The artist meets the scientist
Unlike the “typical” programmer stereotype, Zadeh didn’t drop out of college or move to Silicon Valley straight out of undergraduate school. Instead, he spent 6 and a half years studying the intersection of biology and computer science. He thought programming could help find the cure for diseases, but he soon realised that the science industry moved too slow for his temperament.
He wanted to be doing, building, creating, so he moved to Silicon Valley to try out the startup life.
His first go-round ended up being a bust. The small startup he joined was swallowed by a big company he had never even heard of moments after he joined. That’s when he started hearing about a company called Airbnb.
His first interview with Airbnb was in the founders’ loft apartment. “I remember walking up to my first interview and thinking this cannot be the right place,” he said.
Along the way, Zadeh worked through the weird curveball questions startups like to ask.
His theme music? Boogie Oogie Oogie by a Taste of Honey. His ideal superpower? Teletransportation, or in his words, “to travel like a photon.”
His science background showed through, but Zadeh’s years in academia ended up being the perfect balance to the design school training of its founders. He brought the science to the team, and its founders showed him that design was more than just Photoshop.
“I’d always felt like a creative trapped in an engineer’s body,” Zadeh said.
On the wall during his interview, he saw a note from a host who had saved their home in the 2008 financial crisis by renting it out.
It hit him hard: He had moved to San Francisco after years as a student, racking up credit card debt in the transition from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley.
He joined the company as its third engineer and started hosting on Airbnb to try to pay off the bills he owed. Zadeh also picked up the name “Joebot” to distinguish himself from the cofounder Joe Gebbia.
“The most striking moment I ever had as a host was the first time I handed my keys to someone. That was a very foreign feeling to me because it’s like ‘Alright, here’s the keys’ to someone I’ve never met before,” Zadeh said. “That was an aha moment for me to realise how important was to the future of our platform.”
It also taught him an important lesson: “Don’t f***ing break it”.
Art meets science
To build a better Airbnb, Zadeh starts by looking for people who can use their imagination and then go and build it.
“The company I most admire is probably Pixar. They start with a beautiful story that speaks to your emotions, and then they use technology to tell it the best way possible,” Zadeh said.
Airbnb’s founders have the design backgrounds to craft that beautiful story. It’s Zadeh who approaches building the product like a scientific problem. His team starts with a hypothesis, a grand vision of what the future could look like, and then tries to prove it. Ultimately, though, it’s the data — or the science side of Airbnb — that has to support the idea.
“We form hypotheses and we learn from them when they work out and when they don’t work out. Learning from what didn’t work out is just as good as when it does work out because we learned something new about the world,” Zadeh said.
Being able to think bigger and bigger about the future though is a key to the fast-growing company. Now eight years old, Airbnb has grown to be worth more than $25 billion and is just beginning to hint at becoming more than just a booking platform.
Zadeh’s challenge is turning a spark of wunderlust into someone booking a life-changing trip.
“The vision that we want for the booking process should be it’s incredibly easy to find the right match, the prices are unbeatable, and you can book instantly,” Zadeh said.
In April, Airbnb unveiled an updated mobile app that is starting to better match hosts with guests.
Playing matchmaker is a difficult challenge in an industry where people might be travelling for work or with family and need different accommodations each time. But, Airbnb is getting better at learning someone’s inherent preferences — some hosts claim that they’re open to guests staying any length of time, but really only accept ones that stay at least three days — versus specific needs of a vacation, like wanting a pool when you visit Florida.
“The challenges Airbnb is dealing with at scale are challenges most people have never seen. How do you bring millions of people together every night to trust each other? That is something that at our scale has never been done before,” Zadeh said.