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The Digital Skeptic: Airbnb Pumped Full of Investor Hot Air

Bauer is conscious to target his operation to those under 35, who are comfortable in social media, making it easy to provide a sense of service and safety. The idea is not his. He recalls hearing how Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook (FB), said he bet his social media service on the .edu email domain early on, limiting the service mainly to those in college or at least in academia.

"It gave everyone that level of trust," he said.

But now that Facebook manages a billion users, it is no surprise security remains one of its biggest challenge.

What I found so refreshing about talking with Bauer was his complete transparency on how the minutiae of growing a next-gen, trust-based service tends to be lost on investors. What happens, he said, is that people hear about Airbnb as if it were new, not realizing the company has worked for years to get where it is. And the trajectory of that company is not some easy direct flight into tomorrow. It is a long, complex, multi-stage flight with many stops, gusts and bumps.

"People have to understand that there is a story behind the story," he says. And the rush to participate can warp the value of what a business is trying to do.

Little room in first class
The biggest indicator of the difficult ride ahead for Airbnb is how crowded and bare-knuckled online travel has become. The days of sauntering into a market of slow-to-react, entrenched travel and lodging providers is long over. Big names such as Hilton, Sheraton, Southwest (LUV) and Delta (DAL) must push aggressively to keep interlopers such as Priceline (PCLN), Kayak (KYAK), Expedia (EXPE) and TripAdvisor (TRIP) out of the market.

These former disruptors are now a backbone of their own established -- and highly profitable -- virtual travel industry. Priceline CEO Jeffery Boyd said gross bookings were up about 25%, to about $7.8 billion, in the last quarter. And the company is pursuing mobile apps options to compete in the global market where Airbnb hopes to fly.

Bauer says that as new and creative as his and Airbnb's concepts might be, the major challenge he works on every day is making sure people will see value in RidePost.

"We have to give people incentives to continue to use the service," he says. "It's our challenge to create a product people want to use."

To these tired eyes, that means one thing: Airbnb's flight plan is to be yet another in a long line of oversold, good-only-for-insiders digital investments. Will it continue to grow? Sure. Will it be the next Priceline? Maybe. But this business is being built on a fundamentally new way to do business.

That means it's a long, bumpy flight ahead for Airbnb.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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