EJ and AirBnB

Airbnb logoPaul often uses Airbnb’s founders as poster boys for the cockroach-like persistence YC looks for. He’s described their service making it easy for people to illegally sublet their apartments to travelers without knowing anything about them as “the next eBay”, and the company recently closed a $112 million funding round with a $1.3 billion valuation. So when EJ’s Violated: A traveler’s lost faith, a difficult lesson learned went viral, about her horrific experience after an Airbnb renter trashed her place, it unsurprisingly has dominated the Hacker News front page for the last several days.

As I write this, Tricia Duryea’s Airbnb’s Rental Nightmare Ends in Arrest and One Still Very Unlucky Customer on AllThingsD, James Terry’s Airbnb victim describes crime and aftermath from the San Francisco Chronicle and Laura Bly’s Plot thickens in Airbnb vacation rental horror story in USA Today have the latest; Hacker News threads at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Airbnb Investor Suggests Ransacked Airbnb User Is Lying on Business Insider summarizes Paul’s response:

Now Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, Airbnb investor and one of the most respected men in Silicon Valley, has taken to his site Hacker News to respond to the controversy.

He says that Airbnb has been trying to do right by EJ from the beginning: “From the beginning they offered to pay to get her a new place and new stuff, and do whatever else she wanted. … I’ve talked to the Airbnb guys and they are already doing everything they could be doing to help this woman.”

He adds: “Even if you don’t believe they are nice guys (which they are, among the nicest of all the people we’ve funded), do you really think they are so dumb that they don’t realize it’s not worth the bad PR to save money and effort in this situation?”

Hmm, I don’t know. When nice guys spend years in an environment where their investor and mentor encourages them to “break the rules, just not the ones that matter” they might well have applied some situational ethics here. Did Airbnb pressure EJ to take her blog post down and then stopped communicating with her when she wouldn’t? What if anything did they disclose about the situation to their investors? We shall see.

EJ from her blogI think part of the reason that this story has gotten so much attention is that EJ has done an amazing job at conveying her emotions. Here’s what she said in late June in Violated:

I can’t stay here much longer. The feeling of having been violated is overwhelming. The apartment’s energy – once light and airy – now feels thick and disquieting. I’ve had the place scrubbed and sterilized, every inch of it. I’ve burned candles and white sage, repotted my (near death – they didn’t water it) houseplant, and bought myself some bright flowers. I’ve tried, but I can’t settle back in. I can’t use a water glass without thinking it was used by them. I can’t put on a pair of underwear without picturing their filthy hands rifling around in my dresser drawers. I can’t ever be comfortable here again.

And from Airbnb Nightmare: No End In Sight earlier this week:

I recognize that my silence thus far has perhaps fed this storm, and I am sorry for that. But I have not written anything new on the subject in the past month for one simple reason: fear.

I was – and still am – scared of the unsettling fact that there are still psychotic criminals and identity thieves on the loose who already know much too much about me.

I was – and still am – scared of saying something that could jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation.

And I was – but no longer am – scared of Airbnb’s reaction, the pressure and the veiled threat I have received from them since I initially blogged this story.

Paul sees things somewhat differently, of course. Why the disconnect?

pg: I don't know her so I couldn't say.

I don’t know her either but can hazard a guess. The Airbnb guys were in the midst of raising a zillion dollars as this was happening and so under an immense amount of pressure. Now suddenly a blogger appears with a story that could screw everything up. YC selects for founders who are into breaking rules and not observing proprietries and as I highlighted fairly incessantly in this thread they spend their life in an environment where they don’t get a lot of practice interacting with women. Even if they are usually as Paul says “nice guys”, and really thought they were trying to help, they may well have come across as lacking empathy and making veiled threats.

Speaking of Hacker News guys who think they’re trying to help and come across as lacking empathy, here’s what happened next.

jacquesm: I've passed her contact info to PG
Did you ask her permission?

No, Jacques hadn’t asked permission. The mind reels …

I made some tweaks to the previous two comments after a Twitter discussion with Kara Swisher of All Things D

August 1, 1:51 p.m.: After another Airbnb customer discussed how his Bay Area apartment also got trashed by renters, the story contineus to escalate, for example in A. Powliaski’s Safety concerns hit online rental agency Airbnb.com on CNN.

Here’s the HN discussion:

Please note this story is now blocked

2:00 p.m.:
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky responds in Our Commitment to Trust and Safety:

Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn’t reflect my true feelings. So here we go.

There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words. In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts….

We want to make it right. On August 15th, we will be implementing a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests who book reservations through our website. We will extend this program to EJ and any other hosts who may have reported such property damage while renting on Airbnb in the past.