We had a chance to interview Jia Jih Chai, former Airbnb’s Managing Director for South-east Asia and currently in charge of growing social commerce and mobile commerce app Carousell internationally as VP.
He shares his experience within Airbnb, the challenges he faced in the different Asian countries, as well as his ideas on the main sharing economy trends and evolution.
IEV: I understand you were Airbnb’s first employee in SEA, how and why did you join Airbnb?
JJC: “Airbnb was looking to expand from the USA to Asia in 2011-2012, as there were a lot of people looking for places to stay in Asia (Bangkok, Tokyo, etc). I was the one they reached out to because I had worked in many different SEA countries thanks to my 5 years as a consultant for McKinsey and I had a tech background and an INSEAD MBA. I was the first employee to set up this part of the world.”
IEV: What are your key successes with Airbnb? Did you face any challenges?
JJC: “The lack of inventory was the main challenge. There was a lot of work to do on the supply side, getting people to list their spaces, putting pictures, setting up the entire team. The benefit of being part of a global marketplace made it easier for me to build and develop Airbnb in South East Asia. I didn’t have to build everything from scratch.”
IEV: How would you say Airbnb US and Airbnb SEA are different? Or similar?
JJC: “Asian countries have completely different infrastructure, so we had to adapt the product. They don’t make the same use of social media sites either. China users for example didn’t use Facebook to log in. Asia is also very fragmented in terms of languages, compared to the US. However, there was a shared desire from Millennial’s to experience the places with locals rather than to simply check out a bucket list of photos and visit. This increasing desire is consistent in every market and has changed the nature of travel.”
IEV: Did you see any major cultural differences in Asia?
JJC: “The go-to-market was different in every country. I faced different types of challenges for each country. For example in Japan, the specific challenge was that their homes are small and they don’t have so much space to share; but because of the declining population, there is also a lot of places left empty and underutilized.”
IEV: How would you describe the evolution of Airbnb in SEA in the last three and a half years?
JJC: “The hardest part was to get people to know about Airbnb. They liked the idea of staying in a home rather than a hotel, especially without huge marketing costs. But the biggest challenge was reaching out to the users and finding an efficient way to get the people to book a room and go. Two things helped us: product referrals of happy clients who shared their experience and stay on social media; and social media influencers who shared theirs with their followers. Airbnb has a lot of successful stays and is on a good trajectory for growth, as the general trend is that people are looking for unique experiences when traveling. It’s just a matter of how fast.”
IEV: What are your plans at Carousell now?
JJC: “People have too much stuff these days and don’t know what to do with it. My challenge as VP International at Carousell is to help people reuse the pre-own items, use a second hand rather than a new one that would use much more resources. It is helping them understand how they can use existing resources. I am focusing my energy on Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia and much more SEA countries.”
IEV: What would you say are the main trends of the Sharing Economy in Asia?
JJC: “The idea of consuming more responsibly and using what we already have for one. Hotels are trying to adapt, by being more environmental friendly and energy saving. Reusing our spaces, sharing our cars and our items are fundamental trends today, as we realize that we cannot continue to consume unreasonably. I am convinced that Airbnb will have an impact on the planet on the long run.”
IEV: How do you think the sharing economy will evolve?
JJC: “The fundamental will be towards helping the individual user access assets. The asset can be a car, a bedroom or an extra phone, and the technology will allow these kinds of things to happen much more easily, essentially because Internet entails more trust. With social media, you can understand what to expect before you get there and it is easier for the people to interact.”
As a conclusion, I want to emphasize that the broad trend around the sharing economy is to help the individual users make use of their assets. More than just the commercial transaction, the sharing economy facilitates human-to-human interactions, enables meetings, discoveries, idea exchanges and makes you learn something new every time. That’s all the beauty of the sharing economy!