Picture the scene: It’s 2004, and Brian Chesky, the future cofounder and CEO of Airbnb, runs up on stage in full cap and gown to the pulsating bass line of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Chesky’s set to give the student commencement address at Rhode Island School of Design–but before reaching the mic, Chesky rips off his black robes, revealing a white tuxedo underneath, and starts dancing to the beat: moonwalking, crotch-grabbing, robotting….
Fast-forward a mere eight years, and rhythmically dubious Chesky’s the chief executive of a company now valued at $1.3 billion. (His comical graduation speech is pretty much the opposite of Steve Jobs’s Stanford address.)
On second thought, don’t imagine that dance number from yesteryear. We dug up the video, which hasn’t been seen for years–we found a single VHS copy at RISD, stuck on a shelf collecting dust. (The sparks start flying at 1:37.) The commencement video not only gives you a sense of what Chesky was like before he hit it big in Silicon Valley with Airbnb, the online accommodations marketplace, but it also provides a sense of how much the 30-year-old entrepreneur was influenced by his alma mater.
“I think RISD produces great entrepreneurs,” Chesky recalls today, of his art school background. “They teach you that creativity can solve any problems.”
It was at RISD where Chesky says he and cofounder Joe Gebbia first gained insight into what it might take to start their own company. The two helped develop RISD’s basketball and hockey teams, the Balls and the Nads. (“Go Nads!” Get it?) “These were basically our first startups,” Gebbia says. “We had to form a team; we had to raise funding; we had to create a budget; we had to put a schedule together, call other teams, and get uniforms. Actually, I think it was one of the hardest marketing challenges that you could ever face: How do you get art school students to a sporting event on a Friday night?” (The answer: a mascot called “scrotie,” wild half-time shows, and, of course, free beer.)
In his graduation speech, a young and confident Chesky touches on many of the challenges he would later face at Airbnb, the startup we just named one of our Most Innovative Companies in business. He talks about the right-brained solutions he had to pursue at RISD to complete assignments (an experience likely shared by another RISD grad who runs a billion-dollar empire, Seth MacFarlane). The mindset would later influence the company to create Airbnb-branded cereal and offer free professional photography. He talks about how important the RISD network will be going forward (the “Chesky Solution,” as he calls it) to his career–a network that would have tremendous impact on his life: Classmate Joe Gebbia would later become his cofounder and chief product officer; it was a fellow grad living in Berkeley who agreed to manufacture boxes of “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCain’s” cereal when Kellogg’s turned the idea down; Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, who spent a few years at RISD, became the startup’s first investor; and even RISD’s president, John Maeda, has become an informal advisor to the company.
Lastly, Chesky presciently touches on the skepticism RISD students face, from the perspective of his family. Chesky jokes that his uncle thought RISD was a “low-fat biscuit,” and that his father said to him, “It’s a good thing you went to art school because usually the smart kid speaks at graduation.” Later, the pair of RISD grads would face skepticism from investors on everything from their crazy startup concept to their design backgrounds.
“You spent $140,000 so we can paint with Jell-O and roll around with Silly Putty,” Chesky tells parents at one point during his speech, mockingly. Certainly, this sentiment rings true for any parent of an art school grad who has wondered whether the education was worth the investment.
But with Airbnb reportedly seeing $500 million in flow-through sales last year, I’d say the investment was well worth it for Chesky and Gebbia.
Read our full profile on Airbnb, No. 19 on our list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in Business.
[Thumbnail homepage image: Flickr user Abe Novy]