Book Report: The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

In 2015, when I went back to my hometown, Chengdu, I found people were using a car-sharing app called Uber. During that summer break, I had a more convenient way of getting to the places I wanted to go with car-sharing apps, and I never thought taking a private car could be that cheap. At that time, Uber was having a battle with another Chinese car-sharing company called Didi. To attract more customers, both of the companies lowered their prices and consistently spent out coupons. Sometimes, I could get a ten-minutes ride for only one dollar. In addition, I didn’t worry about going out during rush hours. Before that, it was almost impossible for me to go out with a taxi during rush hours, five to seven o’clock in the afternoon, because lots of people got out the work during that period and taxis, were in high demand. However, with Uber and Didi, I could find private cars easily, even during rush hours.

In the winter of 2016, I traveled to LA with my parents and booked an apartment through Airbnb. During my time in LA, I really felt being a local people. We could cook our own breakfast in the morning and parked our rental car in front of the apartment. Also, the host was hospitable and willing to show us around.

Both Uber and Airbnb brought surprising experience to my life and made my traveling easier and more convenient. Therefore, I was very excited about getting to know the founders of Airbnb and Uber.

After I read the book, I was surprised by the background of the founders of Airbnb and the initial idea of Airbnb. I thought the founders of Airbnb must be someone had strong computer science background and graduated from the most prestigious tech school in the U.S. However, the founders of Airbnb, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, both graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. They didn’t have any background in technologies or computer science. At first, the idea of Airbnb was elementary, which was preparing the room for the people who couldn’t have room during big events or conferences. The initial idea was very different from Airbnb today. Also, the idea came out in 2007 when smartphones and the internet were not as prevalent and powerful as today. In 2007, I was in elementary school, and it was the golden time for real estate and traditional manufacturing industries in China. I believed it was tough for investors to see the future of the sharing economy at that time. In addition, because they were graduated from a design school and had no background in technologies, nobody in Silicon Valley looked at their idea seriously. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had a hard time finding venture capitalists who wanted to invest them at the beginning.

Later, McAdoo and Graham, two famous venture capitalists were impressed by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia’s determination and decided to invest in Airbnb. In the book, the author wrote: “ mental toughness, the ability to overcome the hurdles and negativity that typically accompany something new, was the essential characteristic of great entrepreneurs.” I can’t agree more with this sentence. I indeed believe grit is one of the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur. When venture capitalists are investing, they are not just funding the idea or the project. They are also investing the people, the entrepreneurs. They invest people who would try everything they could to run a business and get over all the challenges they face. The fact is that Chesky and Gebbia are the people who have mental toughness and grit. The history of Airbnb is the history of fighting. The fighting with the local government, with regulators, with hosts, with copycats, etc. If Chesky and Gebbia didn’t try everything they could and gave up in one of those fights, Airbnb wouldn’t be as big as today.

Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, has lots of similarities to Chesky and Gebbia. Besides mental toughness and steadfast determination, Kalanick has his own philosophy of fighting. Facing the uncertainty and strong regulation in China, Kalanick didn’t bail out. Instead, he fought to the end, even Uber didn’t profit at most of the time in China. Later, when people asked him why he had stayed in the Chinese market for so long with high risk and loss. Kalanick said “We wanted to engage in these places and learn and see if we could do something interesting and beautiful. I didn’t want to miss out on that learning, on that experience. And by the way, there’s also an economic and business case for it too. Competing makes you strong because it means you’re serving riders and drivers better. As an entrepreneur, you want to see if the way you’ve created is a way that can work. Sometimes it’s really easy to go and acquire a competitor, but we resisted that.” I’m impressed by his entrepreneurial spirit and his courage to fight. As an entrepreneur, Kalanick didn’t do everything just for the profit. Instead, he enjoyed the process of conquering new markets and wanted to prove Uber’s real value to the world and make people believe his philosophy.



3 thoughts on “Book Report: The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

  1. I like how you touch on the entrepreneurs and their perseverance in finding success in their companies. You made a key point that the investors are investing in the people of the company rather than the idea, which completely changed my mindset about venture capitalists. This book seems like an interesting read about how disruptive tech companies overcome difficulties in their industry.


  2. This is the one I’ve read most recently. It was really interesting to hear about the different struggles each company faced. Interestingly, we saw Brian Chesky when visiting AirBNB in SF last spring. Nice post. It would be improved with the addition of multimedia. Please include in the future.


  3. Great summary! I liked how you incorporated your personal experiences with Uber and Airbnb. 10 minutes for $1 sounds amazing to me! I wholeheartedly agree that mental toughness and grit are essential characteristics, but it seems like true, unassailable grit can be incredibly hard to come by. I can’t wait to read this!


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