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Developing Minds Want to Know: Q&A with Airbnb’s mobile platform lead, Andrew Vilcsak

by Brad Spirrison

Founded in August of 2008, Airbnb is a huge success. It’s now the trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world, covering 26,000 cities in 192 countries. What’s more, it can all be done from your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet. In June, the company reached the landmark of 10 million guest nights booked. With some $120 million in venture capital investment, Airbnb continues to grow from strength to strength, and the app was a welcome addition to our best Android Apps of 2012 so far.

In this installment of Developing Minds Want to Know, we talk to Airbnb’s mobile platform lead, Andrew Vilcsak who offers insight about how Airbnb was created, what inspires him, how to succeed in the mobile sector and what the future holds.

Key Company Facts

Name & Title: Andrew Vilcsak, Mobile Platform Lead

Company: Airbnb

Location: San Francisco, CA

Size: 500 employees

Primacy Apps/Platform: Airbnb on Android and iOS

APPOLICIOUS: What inspired you to become an app creator?

ANDREW VILCSAK: Back in 2008, Apple launched the App Store and I immediately saw an incredible potential. It was a distribution channel to reach an incredible number of people that simply didn’t exist before. After hearing stories of dozens of developers “striking it big” and raking in millions, I set off to learn Objective-C, the computer language used for creating iPhone apps. I shipped handful of titles that got a few million downloads, but it wasn’t until I joined Airbnb that I started working on more substantial products.

Here’s a video that highlights what went into the making of the Airbnb app:

APPO: How long have you been developing apps, and what is the most significant difference between now and when you began?

AV: My position at Airbnb has enabled me to work on genuinely impactful apps. Our iPhone app is used by hundreds of thousands of users every month. It enables our hosts and guests all around the world to make connections that simply wouldn’t haven’t been possible only a few years ago. For hosts, this means opening up new possibilities with a new source of income, and for our guests, this means opening up completely new travel experiences that can’t be found anywhere else.

APPO: What apps (outside of those that you develop) inspire you the most and why?

AV: I think this recent wave of location-based social connection apps is fascinating – Highlight (iOS) and Circle (iOS), for example. They did a good job, but it’s incredibly clear that nobody has yet figured out how a mobile device can help facilitate deep, meaningful offline connections in the real world. I believe the potential here is incredible.

APPO: Where do you see the most innovation in the app sector?

AV: There has been a lot of cool stuff happening around mobile banking and payments with apps like Venmo (Android and iOS) and Simple (iOS). I think we see the most innovation when new companies aren’t just using apps as an afterthought or a secondary method of accessing information, but rather as a primary means of interacting with the product. In the case of something like Simple, their mobile app is an example of something that’s attempting to disrupt a century-old industry.

APPO: How do you harness that innovation in your own titles?

AV: At Airbnb, we’re fundamentally unlocking a completely new, local travel experience around the world. Bringing this experience to the mobile platform means bringing a wealth of almost a quarter million incredible, unique accommodations that can be booked directly from your phone.

APPO: In such a crowded space, explain how you generate awareness and drive downloads to your applications.

AV: You have one shot to get people’s attention. Make it great.

We wove together our skills as designers and developers and launched a great product. We won awards, we got great reviews – both from the press and our users – and we’ve continued to iterate on the experience as we use it ourselves everyday. This sort of attention and drive to your product is what naturally drives awareness and therefore downloads for our app.

APPO: What are the biggest technical constraints that exist today in the app sector?

AV: It might seem a little obvious, but an incredible amount of constraint in mobile devices comes from battery capacity – in developing for mobile devices, there is a constant concern of how much computational power (and therefore, battery power) your app is using. Actions like turning on GPS sensors or running expensive graphical computations can burn a phone out in a matter of hours. Especially when traveling, it’s a constant engineering struggle to optimize one’s work as much as possible to

APPO: How do you (or will you) make money from your application?

AV: Our mobile apps are an extension of the Airbnb offering, so they make money in the same way our company does. Guests who book on Airbnb pay a small service fee for their reservation, and mobile accounts for about 25 percent of Airbnb’s traffic across the entire site.

APPO: What advice do you have to those working on their first applications?

AV: Ship something quickly, but ship something excellent. As I said before, you’ve got one chance to impress when someone downloads your app from the store – even a great idea executed poorly doesn’t stand a chance.

APPO: Where do you see the app sector one year from now? Five years from now?

AV: When the app store first launched, consumers viewed it as a source of amusing, transient content. It seems as though in the past year or so, people are now viewing apps as a necessary extension of their world: apps that help them stay healthy, manage their finances, explore the world and live a better, more efficient lifestyle. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible in a mobile device.

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