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Airbnb’s CEO spent 6 months living in his company’s rentals—and found the core problem with his business

Brian Chesky found himself in the same boat as millions of Americans during the pandemic: working from home, joining daily Zoom calls, and suddenly struck by the realization that he could do his work from anywhere.

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Joining the digital nomad movement—which picked up steam as travel and lockdown restrictions loosened—didn't just allow the Airbnb CEO to work from somewhere other than his San Francisco home office; it sparked an idea that helped him fall back in love with the core business and understand the customer experience, he says. And he hopes it will help re-engage Airbnb’s users.

"Last year, I started living in Airbnbs, and I stayed in like a dozen and a half over the course of six months. It became this one-year journey of becoming the ultimate guest, only living in Airbnbs from one house to the other," Chesky told Fortune in a recent video call, his dog Sophie roaming behind him. "And when I started staying in homes, I started noticing variability."

Some hosts asked him to sign rental agreements, imposed "giant" cleaning fees, and even gave him a list of chores to perform before checking out. He questioned the need for these requests. "I'd ask them, 'Why are you doing all of this?'" Chesky says. They didn’t always know he ran the company.

"The worst 10% of guest and host experiences were making it worse for everyone," he continues. "And the whole point of our platform is to take those things off the table."

Chesky's endeavor to understand the experiences of hosts and guests mimics a pattern seen among other prominent CEOs. Often, executives in the corner office drift further from their employees and the core part of their business as they scale and diversify product and service offerings.

Two Harvard Business School professors authored a study on how CEOs spend their time and found that, on average, just 6% of their time is spent with frontline teams and 3% with customers. They spend 72% of their time in meetings.

“CEOs face a real risk of operating in a bubble and never seeing the actual world their workers face,” the authors write. “Spending time with the rank and file and with savvy external frontline constituencies is an indispensable way to gain reliable information on what is really going on in the company and in the industry.”

Chesky himself admits to being distracted pre-pandemic with all the shiny new things Airbnb had in the pipeline.

However, the idea of a frontline CEO is not unique to Airbnb, especially as companies reevaluate their post-pandemic business model amid cultural and inflationary pressures. Laxman Narasimhan, who took over as CEO of Starbucks in March, said in a letter to employees that he planned to take barista shifts once a month. And Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi got behind the wheel and moonlighted as a driver during the pandemic, which led him to "reevaluate every single assumption that we’ve made," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Airbnb is launching more than 50 new features and improvements this week, resulting from Chesky's experiences as a guest and host and months of digging into customer complaints via social media, its support line, and conversations with platform users.

Among the improvements Chesky is most excited about is Airbnb Rooms, "an all-new take on the original Airbnb,” the corporate tagline reads. Airbnb has more or less become the go-to place for entire vacation rentals. But Chesky and his team now want to encourage room rentals as a low-cost option to house rentals. The cost of Airbnb rentals has increased, and social media is littered with user complaints about the prices. Cue the Airbnb room, which costs an average of $67 a night, Chesky says, compared to the $153 average daily rate across all Airbnbs on the platform. One hurdle the company must overcome is convincing guests to cohabitate with a stranger in their home. In response, Airbnb is adding hosts' mini-profiles to listings as well as security information, inclulding whether a room has a lock and a 24/7 safety line.

Chesky and his team hope the new offering will make Airbnb more appealing than a hotel. In addition, the company plans to roll out a total pricing feature after guests and hosts complained that fees didn't show up until booking, and it will unveil tools to help hosts keep their pricing competitive.

"To make a change, you have to touch the product, the policies, the service across all these different touch points," Chesky says. "A lot of this came from my firsthand experience and just looking at the product and booking with fresh eyes. It's building a product for the person you were when you started the company."

This round of new features is the most expansive Airbnb has done, Chesky said during a recent press event in New York City, and he expects some 300 million guests to use the platform this year. But Chesky acknowledges there's more to fix.

He says he hopes people see the changes, see that he's listening, and keep flagging updates they'd like to see.

"You always want to work on something new, but when you have a service like ours, and so many people use it, it's easy to forget what they actually want. You have to have their permission to do new things," Chesky says. "A good lesson is: Fall back in love with your core business. Get into the nitty-gritty. I spent the last couple of years just doing the thankless job, improving things, being a glorified customer support agent."

“I finally feel like I found how I want to run the company."

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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