Nathan Blecharczyk

Airbnb: Changing where backpackers and billionaires sleep-away

April 5, 2011: 1:26 PM ET

The startup with "startling" growth is part of a second generation of disruptors -- improving on businesses like Craigslist, that were disruptors themselves.

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

FORTUNE -- The sad truth about hotel rooms is they are at bottom hostile to the spirit of adventure. They lock tourists away from the city's vibrant social life, isolating their guests in charmless, anonymous spaces with no kitchens but plenty of cable TV and booze. It's novocain for travelers.Small surprise, then, that the web has offered alternatives to hotels. HomeAway offers 225,000 vacation rentals on its site. Couchsurfing.org is an online network that has found 2.6 million travelers a free place to crash on the road. And Craigslist has long offered classified ads for travelers seeking short-term accommodations.

But a company much younger than all of those is the one getting the loudest buzz and may well prove to be the most disruptive. Airbnb is building a community-cum-marketplace linking world wanderers with people willing to open their homes to them. Just as eBay transformed the sleepy niche of collectibles into a vast global marketplace and turned millions of consumers into retailers, Airbnb's online community of travelers aims to reshape the accommodations market and free tourists from the dreary confines of the hotel room.

The idea has been catching fire in recent months. "Their growth is startling," says Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Y Combinator, a seed capital firm that has invested in Airbnb. Graham says Airbnb reminds him of eBay (EBAY) in its early days. "They're a peer-to-peer marketplace for a very basic commodity: accommodation." More

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