Why does it take some bad PR to shame companies into doing things that should have been done in the first place?
Airbnb, a small start-up that fell into a vat of public relations hot water last month, has just launched a new set of features that are intended to protect its customers from being victimized by people they meet on the Internet. Yet, these new features are so basic that I can’t help but wonder why they weren’t part of the company’s original business model.
Here’s the back story: Airbnb is a site that teams people who want to rent their homes or portions of it to strangers who will be visiting the homeowner’s town for a short stay – maybe a vacation or an overnight business trip or even just a lost soul trying to find himself on a cheap journey around the world. In theory, the site is an unconventional alternative to a traditional hotel room.
It’s a scary concept, for sure – but not unheard of. People rent out beach homes and mountain cabins all the time. The difference is that Airbnb customers are just regular people in their everyday homes who are basically putting out a welcome mat for a stranger on the Internet who is willing to pay the asking price. Scary, right?
Earlier this year, the concept blew up in Airbnb’s face when a San Francisco woman who used the site to rent out her home returned to find that the place had been ransacked, robbed and vandalized. And while Airbnb initially had her back, the company seemed to turn against her – according to her accounts - when the PR hot water started to boil. Suddenly, she was on her own to deal with this problem.
That brings us back to Airbnb’s new features. Since the incident with the San Francisco woman, the company has launched 20 new safety features. (It boasts that it is “delivering over 40 new features and services,” but I only counted 20.) On the plus side, features like address verification, video profiles and reservation requirements are probably effective at avoiding agreements with petty criminals or irresponsible college kids.
But others, such as references, social connections and photographs, are easy for criminals to hack and manipulate. And then there’s that $50,000 Host Guarantee that’s like insurance but isn’t really insurance, but is subject to the terms and conditions, which still say that “the entire risk… remains with you.” Sounds like a lot of legalese intended to protect Airbnb’s interests, instead of the company’s.
I’m not trying to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy nor am I trying to rain on the company’s parade. Believe me, I’m all for startups that are entering the market with unique, innovative ideas. But the responsible business owner has to think through the potential pitfalls of the business model. Anytime you facilitate the potential meeting of two strangers over the Internet, you have to think about the potential worst case scenarios.
It’s not like we don’t know the lengths that people will go to in order to victimize other people. We’ve seen example after example about victims being robbed, assaulted and even killed by people they met via craigslist ads. (This is one of the reasons that Geebo does not accept personals ads.) Maybe that’s why it bothers me that a company like Airbnb would launch a service that puts so much trust in complete strangers without these basic safeguards and protections in place right out of the gate. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of evidence that people will victimize each other over the Internet if given the chance. Why did it take a tragic incident and a PR nightmare to push Airbnb into launching these features?
Yes, there’s a bit of a bias here. In all honesty, I’m not a fan of the business model that Airbnb has launched – and that’s really only because I’m concerned about the users of the site. Read the story about the woman in San Francisco and then ask yourself if a $50,000 Host guarantee would make you feel any better if you were her.
Yeah, me neither.