Airbnb Names First Independent Board Member

Another of Silicon Valley’s biggest unicorns appears to be slowly edging toward the public stock markets — even if only by baby steps.

Airbnb announced on Thursday that it had named its first independent board member — Kenneth I. Chenault, the departing chief executive of American Express. Naming an outside board member is often an early step by a company that will eventually seek an initial public offering.

At the same time, Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, wrote in a letter to the online room-rental service’s top hosts that he was building a company with an “infinite time horizon.”

The moves are the latest sign that another of the biggest privately held companies in the technology universe may be preparing to go public. These companies, typically valued at more than $1 billion by private investors, are known as unicorns. Dropbox, the file-storage provider, which was most recently valued at $10 billion, recently filed confidentially for an initial offering. Spotify, the music streaming giant, is pursuing an unconventional “direct listing” of its shares on the public markets.

Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, has publicly committed his company to going public as soon as next year. And other big private companies, like the ride-hailing provider Lyft, the gadget maker Xiaomi and the online polling company SurveyMonkey are all at least considering going public within the next few years.

The number of these unicorns is growing as the stock markets continue to climb. But the companies must also work to overcome the skepticism of I.P.O. investors who have been burned over the past year by market debuts that have proved to be money losers, including those of Snapchat’s parent, Snap, and of the meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron.

Many of these companies are under little pressure to go public to raise money, since they have already raised billions of dollars from private investors. Airbnb has raised several billion dollars from investors like one of Google’s investment arms and the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and has been profitable. Over all, the company is valued at more than $30 billion.

Still, deal makers and investors have speculated that Airbnb would pursue an I.P.O. in the next few years to gain a stock that can be used as currency and to let existing holders sell out more easily, as well as to mark an important corporate milestone.

Airbnb, which was founded in 2008, has already hired a chief financial officer with public company experience, Laurence Tosi, formerly of the Blackstone Group. Adding an independent director helps provide outside supervision of the company. And in Mr. Chenault, the company is gaining one of Wall Street’s respected leaders.

“Airbnb is built on trust,” Mr. Chesky wrote. “As the C.E.O. of American Express, Ken has built one of the most successful trust-based companies in the world.”

In his letter, Mr. Chesky reflected on his company’s past decade and the need to build a company that can last for — in his wildly ambitious description — an “infinite time horizon.”

“A close adviser told me that now was the time to ‘institutionalize your intentions so that even as you grow, you can minimize what conflicts with your vision,’” Mr. Chesky wrote. “It made me realize that we should write down what we want to institutionalize before it’s too late.”

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/business/dealbook/airbnb-ken-chenault.html by MICHAEL J. de la MERCED