We spoke to Kevin from Innclusive about the way they’re tacking discrimination in the sharing economy.
Chaz: I feel again privileged today to have you guys in. I think what we’re going to talk about is really interesting. I’m super excited. Welcome, Kevin. How are you?
Kevin: I’m great. Thanks for having me.
Chaz: Are you enjoying the English weather?
Kevin: I am now. Not so much a few weeks ago. It’s gotten a little bit milder now so I’m enjoying it, yes.
Chaz: Fantastic. Okay, so before we dig into the details, let’s just talk briefly about Inclusive. What is Inclusive? Where did it come from? Fire away with that one.
Kevin: Well, Inclusive is a home sharing platform. Everyone is aware of Airbnb. We’re very similar. We connect people with spaces to stay. So we’re a marketplace for rooms. We’re trying to do it in a way that everyone feels comfortable and they can be whoever they want to be wherever they are, and that’s the basic story behind Inclusive.
Chaz: Talk to me about the actual story then. So where did the idea come from and why did it originate?
Kevin: So Inclusive came really from an experience from our founder, Rohan. It was kind of a negative experience but out of it came something really positive, I think. Rohan was engaging on Airbnb to rent a cabin in Idaho in the US. Through communication, he realised that this cabin was just never available. So he asked a friend of his, who let’s just say doesn’t look quite like him. He asked his friend Crissy to book the same cabin for the same dates that he had been repeatedly rejected for and lo and behold ten minutes later after she did it, it was accepted. The booking was accepted. ‘Oh great, we’d love to have you.’ Rohan was a little bit stymied at first. ‘I thought you said you were doing maintenance. Then I thought you said it wasn’t available.’
So he put a post on Medium and it went immediately viral. 450,000 reads. He woke up to his email inbox full of similar stories from a number of people. So he thought, ‘Why don’t I just build a platform and try to reduce the bias that’s out there?’ So he’s a big traveller. I’m a big traveller. So we can take advantage of the whole home sharing trend. That’s where it started. Originally it started with the mindset of targeting a niche community. It was Noirbnb. It was for the African American community, but within a few weeks of being Noirbnb, the emails then stopped. So LGBT folks, people of Muslim backgrounds, everyone was telling similar stories. So Rohan made the decision to expand it and call it Inclusive and, basically, everyone under one tent. So that’s what it is.
Chaz: Absolutely love that. Look, obviously Harvard Business School. There are various studies out there with some very well-known statistics this is happening. What are Inclusive doing? What are you guys actually doing to make this not a problem and quite frankly this problem shouldn’t exist, but what are you guys doing?
Kevin: I’m going to answer that question in two quick ways. The first is just thematically. We’re trying to shine a light on it. So having a conversation about bias and about discrimination and that it doesn’t really matter, etc. So, basically, by being a role model in the space or in the conversation, we’re helping to have people become more comfortable. In terms of the platform, etc., we’re doing three things. So we have a technology solution, our technology approach, kind of a business process approach and then an organisational one. In terms of our technology, we have redesigned the booking system for transactions such that a lot of the key identifying information occurs after a transaction’s accepted.
So we’ve just de-emphasised the size of the pictures and when it occurs to the host, etc. That was coming out of the Harvard study by Professor De Lucca that recommended some of those steps. In terms of the business process, we’ve decided to kind of take a hit a little bit on the business by having availability penalties, such that if a host says, ‘Well, this room is not available,’ to x person for x real reason, then it’s not available to anyone. That’s a little bit of a stick at the moment and we hope to obviously reduce that over time but to just make it such.
Chaz: Fat Lama is kind of similar. There are certain areas of our business where from a business and balance sheet really perspective we suffer, but it is offering that kind of value add for the service.
Kevin: The third one I was going to say, which we think is actually the most important, is organisationally we’re staffing such that we have people looking at data trends. So if we identify cases where it appears that discrimination is occurring, we’re going to take steps to address it, as well as more proactively engaging with hosts to explain kind of how our customers value this and why it’s important and asking people to commit to being a more inclusive platform. So that’s come at a cost but that’s what we’re doing.
Chaz: That’s kind of what I was going to ask as well. A lot of this stuff is up in the air, but I really want to dig into how this happens in practice. So let’s say something does happen on the platform. Something that you guys would deem not the correct way to behave. What do you do? How do you notice it and what do you do to address that?
Kevin: There are two ways that we, at this moment, believe that we’re going to notice it. The first way is customer complaints, customer response. When Rohan had his issue, he approached the host and he also went to Airbnb but after a week there was no response, crappy response, nothing was happening. So our commitment is that we are going to take customer complaints and investigate them and try to take some action. It’s a two-sided marketplace. Our hosts are as important to us as our guests. So it’s not that there’s an immediate, a customer complains and you are taken off the platform. However, what we are looking for is repeated patterns of behaviour.
So we have committed that we will address with the host, ‘Hey, we believe that this occurred, take some actions there.’ If we find, however, repeated incidents then we are prepared to limit or reduce or even remove entirely from the platform, but of course, that’s not what we want to do. We want to encourage people to be more open and trusting.
Chaz: It’s a good point that you made there around it’s a two-sided marketplace. I think that can sometimes be confused from a customer’s perspective because a lot of the time if you compare it to, people sometimes compare us to say Amazon or other b2c traditional models. It’s very difficult because ultimately, you’re the mediator and there are always two sides to the story. So I really do feel for you there.
Kevin: For me, what inspired me to make the jump from corporate to the startup world was because I thought that this is where I would have the most challenge. I will admit, Chaz, it’s incredibly scary at times. There is a healthy mix of excitement but with a lot of anxiety. I don’t regret it for a moment because of just the ability to create, deal with challenges, think on things like how do you deal with discrimination? Large, world-changing problems, even in my small corner of say Inclusive I don’t think that’s as available in a corporate world where there are existing models for how to behave and how to solve problems.
Chaz: I couldn’t agree more. I completely relate to the anxiety that comes with it. The same as you, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exciting with death just around the corner.
Kevin: That’s a good way to put it (Laughs).
Chaz: We say in our office working for a startup is like you’re on a treadmill. The treadmill’s on full blast but you’re in a room where there are no doors and the walls are on the side of the treadmill, so you can’t go anywhere, you just have to carry on sprinting.
Kevin: That’s pretty much what’s happening.
Chaz: I know you touched on this briefly earlier on then, so talk me through a little bit more around, so you were called Noirbnb?
Kevin: We were called Noirbnb. Our original target market, our first strategy, as we put it together, was to focus on the African American community because they’ve become increasingly significant in the travel world. Last year alone there was a 40 million (he said billion?!) sector of African Americans travelling. This year it’s supposed to be about 48 million. However, we realised that we couldn’t truly be talking about discrimination and bias if in our business model we were inherently just focused on one community. So we made the decision, I think it was a good decision because our interest has risen since then, we made the decision to throw it open to the entire (planet 0:08:20).
So it became Inclusive and I think that was probably the best decision so far that we’ve made.
Chaz: It’s a fantastic name. It is really fantastic. On that note then, one of the things that I really want to challenge you guys on, from what we’ve found and speaking to other sharing economy start-ups that you know that we’ve done, the big thing that happens is people are very focused on trust and trust comes from transparency. That is really the driver of why marketplaces like Airbnb and so on, Task Rabbit, BorrowMyDoggy, who we’ve also had on the podcast that is why they’re thriving. You are removing that transparency and ultimately in some cases might be removing the trust. So how do you get around that problem?
Kevin: Fantastic question. The way that we think that we’re addressing it is really replacing…
Chaz: We should say as well, so people on the platform are, in effect, anonymous.
Kevin: To the point at which the transaction is accepted there is some degree of anonymity and then all that information is revealed, the information in terms of contacting, etc. It’s similar to what Airbnb is trying to do now with instant booking. There’s a study from the University of Michigan that was just released that says more data reduces bias on these platforms. So we are going to provide more data but it’s going to be data that isn’t so much based on your sexual orientation, gender, etc. There is a challenge. We do have hosts who we’ve engaged with for a few months and there are some legitimate concerns or queries about individual determination. After all, it is your house.
How do we protect our hosts and our guests? For me, that’s the most exciting challenge that we’re going to face and trying to find that balance is going to be key to our success but also to the whole success of changing the discrimination landscape in the sharing economy.
Chaz: I think you’re dead right. I think it should be based around data. It should be based around reviews that shouldn’t be linked to who you are and what you look like necessarily. It’s such a complicated problem. Digging into that a little bit more, so what would happen, let’s say I am looking to rent a room, I’ve come on to the platform, I’ve found something that I would like. Do I exchange messages first or is it very similar to Airbnb where you request to book? How does that process actually work?
Kevin: You can do either. We have a system where you can communicate through the platform with the host to ask questions, clarify any questions, etc. Or, actually, just as the competitor’s also doing, you can just go directly to a booking request and, again, based on availability or whatever, review data that is going to be attached to your metadata. The host can make a decision based on that. It is a complicated problem but it’s a fascinating problem. To be frank, we are excited daily because we think it’s a very relevant problem in today’s world. The global population has gotten to such a state and such a size that now we’re all dealing with the fact that we have differences and how do we deal with those differences but still interact in a fair manner? You’re seeing it in our politics. You’re seeing it in many other areas.
So I think for everyone on the Inclusive team, we are just approaching it from the point of view of we want to help advance the conversation. We don’t actually know that we have the answer or the solution. So we’re looking to partnerships. We’re looking to people and we’re continually learning in this process to figure out is there a way that this can be done?
Chaz: Kevin, I think we’ll draw a line there. It’s been unbelievable having you in. The passion and what you’re trying to do on a very, yes, in some ways a small scale but it’s such a macro global problem that you guys are attacking and every step is an important step, so thank you.
Kevin: Thank you, Chaz. I’m really looking forward to seeing Fat Lama and its growth and development. I’m sure it’ll be there. We are inspired by the somewhat controversial, it can be very sensitive, but we’ve decided to try and take it on head-on and we think that a team of millennials are probably the best people to take on these social challenges.
Chaz: Agreed. Thank you very much, Kevin. We really appreciate it.
Kevin: Thank you.