Unlike the other start-ups, which have seen demand for their products soar in the pandemic, Airbnb spent most of the year reeling as people canceled their bookings. In the first nine months of the year, Airbnb brought in $2.5 billion in revenue, down from $3.7 billion a year earlier. It lost $697 million during that time, more than double last year.
In April, it raised emergency funding, closed certain side projects and shelved its I.P.O. plans. In May, the company laid off a quarter of its roughly 7,600 workers.
To convince investors it belonged in the same category as “Covid-winners,” Airbnb’s offering prospectus presented a grand vision. The financial document featured magazine-style spreads of guests and renters in beautiful settings. It argued that it had invented a new kind of travel while also providing economic stimulus, a cure for loneliness and spreading “healthy tourism.” And it unfurled a well-worn underdog narrative of resilience and redemption.
A letter signed by Airbnb’s three founders — Brian Chesky, the chief executive, and Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharzyk — included talking points Mr. Chesky has repeated in numerous interviews praising the clarity the crisis had given him. The company emphasized that its home rentals could cater to travelers taking road trips outside of cities and that its bookings began rebounding two months into the pandemic. The prospectus even argued that the pandemic had accelerated Mr. Chesky’s bold prediction that people would someday “live anywhere.”
Those messages resonated with investors. “People are interested in the name, not the financials,” said James Gellert, chief executive of Rapid Ratings, a provider of financial analysis. “This is a company that is going in the wrong direction today, from a financial strength perspective.”
The pandemic was especially difficult for Airbnb because it has largely had a rocket-ship trajectory that made it the toast of Silicon Valley. The company was founded in 2008 as a way to let people rent out an extra room and quickly expanded to a network of seven million home rentals around the world.
Airbnb embodies the last decade of highly valued start-ups that used gig work, smartphones and piles of venture capital to upend old industries, grow fast, put off going public and worry about profits later. Its rapid rise brought the idea of vacation homes — and tourists — into city apartments and residential neighborhoods. Its founders pitched messages of trust, community and living like a local.