Airbnb, a ‘Sharing Economy’ Pioneer, Files to Go Public

SAN FRANCISCO — Airbnb said on Wednesday that it had confidentially filed to go public, taking a key step toward one of the largest public market debuts in a generation of “sharing economy” start-ups.

A public offering by the company, which lets people rent out their spare rooms or homes to travelers, would cap a volatile year in which its business was devastated by the spread of the coronavirus. Airbnb had been privately valued at $31 billion before this year, and the company must now convince investors that it can thrive and turn a profit in a new era of limited travel.

Airbnb declined to comment beyond its brief announcement.

Airbnb’s offering would signal the end of an era for the first wave of highly valued start-up “unicorns,” many of which were founded in the recession of 2008 and then rode a wave of growth fueled by smartphones, gig work and copious amounts of venture capital. In recent years, many of Airbnb’s well-known “sharing economy” peers have gone public (Uber and Lyft), sold themselves (Postmates), or unraveled spectacularly (WeWork).

Its debut will most likely be helped by an ebullient stock market, which has remained robust despite the economic destruction caused by the pandemic. On Tuesday, the S&P 500 hit a new high as investors focused on signs that the worst might be over.

“It really did feel like a moment of truth, a bit of a test,” Mr. Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, said in an interview this year.

In May, Airbnb’s revenue began bouncing back as people took summer road trips and sought to stay in private homes away from crowds. The company’s gross bookings — which is its total revenue before it pays commissions to hosts — rose to last year’s levels in June and July, according an internal presentation attended by The New York Times.

Perennially an initial public offering candidate, Airbnb has been officially preparing to go public since last year when it announced plans to do so in 2020. Pressure for the offering has mounted as some of its early employees have sought a payday from the company shares that they own, which begin expiring this fall.

Last month, Mr. Chesky announced to employees that Airbnb had resumed its plans to go public, declaring that Airbnb “was down but we were not out.”

The company is likely to pitch investors on its fast rebound and ability to adapt to the new reality, but some forms of travel — like international vacations, business travel or anything related to large events — are unlikely to return anytime soon.

Airbnb also aims to make its public market debut stand out by highlighting its business philosophy, called stakeholder capitalism. The philosophy focuses on what is good for society over short-term profits.

Yet Airbnb has tussled with regulators and local communities. Local regulators have battled the company over taxes and enforcement, while community members have criticized the platform for turning neighborhoods into tourist areas and contributing to housing shortages.

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