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Why Airbnb’s incredibly successful IPO was a maverick move

In early 2020, Airbnb’s management announced that to address the slowing growth in sales, it wanted to scale back ancillary activities and focus on the company’s core strength of mid-range and budget short-term rentals. This was just before COVID-19 stopped the travel and leisure industry in its tracks.

Against such a bleak backdrop, it was a surprise when the company’s CEO Brian Chesky announced that the online holiday rental company would go public in December 2020 – and it did just that on December 10.

Shares were originally priced from US$45-US$50 (£34-£38) per share. This went up to US$55-US$60 the day before listing. By the time of the listing, the final share price was US$68. The Initial Public Offering (IPO) is expected to bring in fresh cash for the business of up to US$3 billion, and if successful, it will increase the value of Airbnb close to US$42 billion.

According to details filed by Airbnb with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the plan is for the business to raise additional capital for funding future growth.

Typically businesses prefer to launch IPOs during a phase of sustained economic growth to gain advantage of the confidence in the market. They avoid IPOs during economic slumps and catastrophic events: like World War I and II, the great recession , or a pandemic. Going by traditional corporate finance practice standards, Airbnb’s decision to go public was nothing less than maverick. And its timing has attracted extraordinary attention.

Airbnb’s IPO decision in a sea of business gloom

But Airbnb had some strategic advantages, the first being its tech-based business model. Unlike other leisure and holiday businesses – such as hotels and airlines – Airbnb does not need to spend large amounts of money on the cost associated with the upkeep of its fixed assets. Instead, Airbnb can successfully pass on the risk of such rigid payment obligations to its “hosts” – the property owners. It then retains the profitable parts of the business for itself with enough agility to face systematic disruptions like Covid-19.

The company’s second advantage is that it has become a well-known name in the world of travel, building a strong brand and a loyal customer base. If we compare the sales in the first nine months of the year for 2019 and 2020, everyone suffered a drop, but the decrease was least (in percentage terms) for Airbnb among all its close rivals like and Expedia.

In addition to its competitive status, ongoing market changes also created confidence for Airbnb’s IPO. Towards the end of 2020, markets across the world started reviving. South-East Asian, African, and Latin American travel destinations reopened for business , as vaccines for COVID-19 were announced. This bolstered confidence and hope for a return of “business as usual” and reflected in the immediate increase in the valuation of shares among the travel industry. The shares of Easyjet and Jet2 went up by more than 40%.

Nurse holding COVID_19 vaccine bottle