SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Airbnb is a global company with millions of customers, but it was a struggling startup just five years ago.

The company’s cofounder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia took to the stage at GigaOm’s Roadmap design-focused conference this afternoon. He spoke openly about the challenges of raising venture capital funding in the early days for a startup that  helped people rent out spare rooms to strangers online. Back in 2008, when Gebbia and cofounder Brian Chesky dreamed up Airbnb, the sharing economy was still nascent — companies like Lyft and Uber didn’t even exist yet.

Gebbia recalled how one investor simply got up and walked out in the middle of a coffee meeting at University Cafe in Palo Alto, Calif.

“Every rejection we got was an invitation to keep going. We got a lot of invitations,” said Gebbia jokingly.

These days, it’s very trendy to invest in designer founders, and entire funds are built around this thesis. This is partly down to Airbnb’s success — in the company’s nascent stages, investors preferred to place their bets on talented software developers, and Stanford MBA graduates. “Designer founders were not really celebrated,” Gebbia recalled.

However, Gebbia believes the company’s design ethic, and emphasis on customer experience, is key to the company’s success. “We encouraged our team to get out of the building… to go out into the world and see and learn from some really inspiring touch points.”

In addition, Gebbia recommends that other consumer-oriented startups encourage their employers to regularly use the service. Airbnb employees are given a stipend to travel the world, and rent out Airbnb rooms. About a third of the workers are also active hosts — they rent out a spare room or entire apartment.

“I can’t tell you how many bugs we’ve found by using the product ourselves,” said Gebbia.

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