If you’re a frequent traveler, chances are you have stayed in at least one property listed on Airbnb. Alumna Ellie Thiele returned to campus as part of the HINDSights program to share her “Syracuse to Airbnb” story with School of Information Studies students. Throughout the course of her visit, she met with a variety of student groups and classes to share her story and field questions from students who may also want to work at a startup.
The Road to Airbnb
Airbnb is now a world-renowned travel company and a household name. That was not the case when Thiele first joined the team as employee number 13. She explained that back then they were working out of one room in the founder’s apartment in Silicon Valley, a major change from now with their 22 offices worldwide with over three thousand employees.
Thiele, a San Francisco native, said she first learned of Airbnb on Craigslist as she was searching for summer internship opportunities after her sophomore year. Airbnb’s mission to have people “travel like a human” resonated with her and she applied immediately for the internship. After going through several rounds of interviews, she was called by one of the founders and given a task. Thiele says, “They asked me to find a photographer in Amsterdam to do a shoot for them for less than $40.” With little other information, Thiele got to work contacting art schools in Amsterdam to find someone, and went in the next day with the photographer’s information she found and secured the internship.
Contacting and arranging photographers to photograph properties ended up being her first role at Airbnb. She said that they found that properties with better pictures got more reservations and as a result, the hosts were happier. At the end of her summer, she was ready to return to junior year at SU where she was an Advertising and Neuroscience double major.
However, Airbnb asked her to stay on and work full time. After talking it over with her parents she decided to return to school, working part-time for Airbnb while she was on campus and returning to work there full time over the breaks. She did this for two years and this led to her being offered a full-time role upon graduation. She has worked there, in a variety of different roles, since. Of the team she started with, Thiele is one of five (including the three founders) who is still at Airbnb.
Current role at Airbnb
Thiele’s current role at Airbnb is a User Experience Researcher. In her day to day work, she juggles many tasks including but not limited to “conducting user tests and surveys, optimizing various products and documenting the decisions that go into each of the projects she works on through slide decks.”
When asked about the changes that she’s seen in the company going from the thirteen member team that she joined to the thousands-strong worldwide network that it is today, Thiele said the biggest changes have been how she communicates day to day and the volume of communication that is now part of her role. She also noted that collaboration, which is central to all that they do, has also changed as they have developed more streamlined tools and processes across the company.
Thiele works primarily on the Experiences product being developed by Airbnb. This gives travelers access to unique experiences in the places they travel to. She also is working on small-scale concerts that are put on by Airbnb to further enrich travelers’ experiences. She said that this has been one of her favorite projects saying that it, “really is my two loves, Airbnb and music, working together.” This has also given her a closer look into the music industry which is different from what she is used to and has helped her discover amazing new bands that she wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.
Hosting iSchool Students at Airbnb
While Thiele wasn’t an iSchooler while she was at SU, she’s become involved with the iSchool since then as a host to the Spring Break in Silicon Valley trip at Airbnb. She said that hosting students has been a “great opportunity to get involved with SU,” and she loves giving the students on the trip an inside look at Airbnb. She likes to get a variety of her friends in different departments and roles to speak on a panel for students and she said they often come back to her afterward asking how they can sign up to speak to the students again next year!
Life outside of Airbnb
Thiele wrote in her bio that she believes that “hobbies improve productivity.” When asked about this, she explained that she had some trouble with work-life balance when she first started working full time at Airbnb since she enjoyed working there so much. However, over time she has learned to take a step back and find time for other hobbies such as running, figure drawing classes and concerts at her favorite San Francisco venue. She also recently ran in the New York City marathon.
Advice for Students
Thiele had a lot of advice for all iSchool students to make of the most of their time here. Her big pieces of advice consisted of, “keep moving, keep trying new things, and don’t be afraid to fail even if it is hard.” She also stressed the importance of “surrounding yourself with better people and learn how and why they think the way they do.”
Going along with this she highlighted the importance of never losing the student mentality. She is constantly taking online courses to learn more about the world.
As for having success in startups and entrepreneurship Thiele suggested “learning to be introspective since that helps you understand where you should go with a project or problem next.” Similarly, given the turbulent world of startups, she offered some advise. “Learn to function in chaos and find a manager or mentor who can help you learn and navigate the ups and downs.”
Her final piece of advice included, “intelligence and pure drive cannot be taught, but skills can.” She believes those two factors are the basis of a lot of success, both within Silicon Valley and elsewhere.