Catching Up with Andrew Vilcsak, Engineer at Airbnb
Back in June 2014 we sat down with Andrew Vilcsak of Airbnb and spoke to him about his experience leading mobile development for the thriving rental service. Now, over a year later, we chatted with Andrew again, catching up on Airbnb’s relationship with evolving technology and Andrew’s foray into startup investing.
Andrew joined Airbnb five years ago as the 4th engineer on staff. He’d previously attended the University of Alberta where he studied Computer Engineering, leaving after two years to pursue his efforts at Airbnb. In addition to his present work, Andrew also mentors startups and is an active investor and panel member at FundersClub. Via FundersClub, he has backed the leading Bitcoin platform, Coinbase, as well as other leading startups including Instacart and AnyPerk.
Journey to Airbnb
Andrew was still in school, studying at the University of Alberta in 2010 when he cleverly found his way onto the Y Combinator Founders e-mail list through connections he made in Silicon Valley, a feat unlikely today. A notification came through that Airbnb, founded in 2008, was hiring for their 4th engineer, and it all started from there.
Andrew dropped out of university (or more specifically, went on “indefinite hiatus”) and joined the Airbnb team full time. Over that time, he grew from Mobile Engineering Intern to Lead of Airbnb’s mobile engineering team, most recently focusing on experimental and future Airbnb products.
How mobile traffic continues to grow at Airbnb in 2015
When we last checked in with Andrew, he had shared that mobile growth at Airbnb had gone from 8% to 35% in two years. Now a year further out, that share of mobile traffic has increased to more than 45%.
Andrew attributes this strong growth to two drivers:
Updated mobile tools available to hosts. Making it easy and more convenient for the 1.5 million hosts, worldwide, to use the app.
Travellers have shifted from planning trips ahead, to more spontaneous and last minute plans. The addition of Airbnb’s Instant Book feature accommodates travellers booking instantly on the go, without significant back and forth communication with their host.
Becoming a startup investor
Working at a successful, fast-moving company such as Airbnb and getting to help that company grow from the ground up is most startup employees’ dream. With all that success though can come a desire to relive that small team startup feeling which so many entrepreneurs and early startup employees crave. This is why Andrew invests in startups.
Startup investing is his way of getting back to his entrepreneurial roots. At one time considering launching his own startup, Andrew found that making seed investments in innovative startups has allowed him to grow with Airbnb while staying connected to the startup community and ecosystem. Andrew’s primary motivation is to help founders beyond capital, not just to provide financial assistance.
In this capacity, Andrew seeks to provide mentorship, advice, or connections to companies he invests in, in areas that the startup founders find helpful.
Coinbase CEO, Brian Armstrong, recalls, "Andrew helped us get our first mobile app out the door…”
Now helming the leading international bitcoin company, Brian reflects that Andrew, “was a great resource in the early days of the company.” Andrew first backed the bitcoin wallet startup in 2012 when Coinbase first raised seed funding on the FundersClub platform (FundersClub invested in Coinbase again in 2013 when it raised its Series A round led by Union Square Ventures).
Choosing what to invest in
When it comes to choosing which companies and funds to invest in, Andrew shares ”Invest in the people, not the idea” a motto he acknowledges has become a cliche in the VC space.
A sweet spot he’s discovered is looking for companies and founders who are first movers on new platforms, who latch onto them in the early days. Were they one of the firsts to make an app for the Apple Watch? How about the Apple TV?
As well, Andrew considers companies building marketplaces to be strong candidates for investment.
When speaking of examples within his own portfolio that highlight Andrew’s investment philosophy, he turns to Coinbase, one of the earliest companies to champion bitcoin usage. “If anyone’s going to do a good job executing [bitcoin], Coinbase will. It’s been around longest, and continues to lead the way.”
Andrew enjoys the high level of curation of the FundersClub platform, reducing the noise of other online startup investing platforms that may feature thousands of startups for investment. In addition, he credits the lower minimum investment sizes for enabling him to more easily make small financial commitments and better diversify.
As a FundersClub Panel member, part of the team that helps to vet companies being considered for FundersClub investment, Andrew also gets to review a large range of companies beyond the top 2% that ultimately make their way onto the platform for investment. He appreciates this ability to gain a wide view on the latest happenings in the startup world, and its ever-emerging companies.
Business aside, we took the opportunity to learn more about Andrew outside of his work and startup investments.
It started with a sketchbook
At four years old, Andrew began sketching out game designs in a notebook, with dreams of one day designing computer games. It wasn’t till 10 years later that he was able to learn how to use a computer and begin on the path of his career as a software engineer. Reflecting back, he hasn’t strayed too far from his childhood dreams.
To the tip of Africa
Asked about favorite travel destinations, Andrew cites Cape Town, South Africa, a city he admires for the newness and energy he senses in the air when visiting. With the number of cafes and new neighborhoods popping up, incredible art, and passionate, creative citizens striving to make the city great, he feels it’s in an early transition, similar to where San Francisco was years ago.
Andrew highlights Bill Gates’ tenacity and vision, crediting Microsoft’s founder for leading widespread technology change and adoption. This was the original inspiration and motivator for Andrew’s interest in computer engineering, driving him to get where he is today.
About the FundersClub Spotlight Series
The FundersClub community is comprised of highly-accomplished technology and business leaders from across the spectrum of industries and geographies. We periodically highlight selected investor and entrepreneur members of our community to share their stories and learnings and foster broader discussion and engagement around startup investing. If you have a tip on who to profile next for the FundersClub Spotlight Series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.