2009 has been the year of accommodation networks. These are the sites that enable you to bypass hotels and rent a room or house directly from the owners. What started off as the idea of a small fee for a place to crash or throw an airbed down (in a style of couchsurfing) has moved on. Now you can find yourself a room in a NYC loft ($50), a garden cottage in Cape Town (37 euros per room) and one-bed Barcelona penthouse all to yourself (US$98).
The concept may not yet be mainstream, but it is quickly gathering momentum. Many new sites have cropped up this year, some more successfully than others. I’m convinced it’s going to keep moving forward and we’ll get a few more newbie sites on the scene too.
This post isn’t actually a step-by-step guide to starting a network (if only it was that simple), instead it’s a look at what goes into making one work. I’ve interviewed three of the scene’s biggest players as well as one start-up.
If you’ve used any of these sites, feel free to share your experiences. And if you’re feeling inspired maybe you could put in an offer for this accomodation site for artists (ArtStudioExchanges.com) which was recently put on the market.
Now over to my interviewees:
Joe @ AirBnB.com
Stephen @ Crashpadder.com
Jaime @ iStopover.com
Peter @ yet-to-launch MyFriendsHotel
How much time did it take from conception to going live. Was this longer than you expected?
AirBnB: After we hosted travellers in late 2007 in our San Francisco apartment, it sparked the idea for what is today Airbnb. Building the site took place over a period of months and we met our deadline of August 2008, which was in time for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO. The shortage of housing provided a great opportunity for Airbnb to gain exposure through national and international press outlets like CNN, The Guardian, and others.
Crashpadder: It took roughly two months to get the first version live, but the site is under constant development and improvement as we learn – as such a new concept we are learning as we go. We fully redesigned and relaunched the site about three months ago and that was a three-month project!
iStopover: It took us about 5-6 months from idea to going live. Yes it was longer than we expected even with our vast amount of experience in developing software and internet products for many years. We wanted to make sure that the site was simple to use, scalable and flexible – so we went through a few iterations.
MyFriendsHotel: So far 19 months. 14 months more than expected.
How much did your plans change during the development stage?
AirBnB: We began as a site to provide housing for events, like conferences. After a few experiments, our small but dedicated user base requested the ability to travel regardless of events. We listened to them, and our next iteration was a travel site; we haven’t looked back since.
AirBnB: There are three co-founders; Myself (Joe), Brian, and Nathan. We’ve known each other for quite some time, and have complimentary skills.
What do you wish you’d known when you started?
Crashpadder: Nothing which we did not. The process to this point has been fun, and learning as I go is what gives me the biggest buzz.
iStopover: We initially charged a fee to the hosts. Later we changed it to charging the guest and life became simpler!
Crashpadder: There are a number of smaller sites but only a few of us have achieved strong traction. That said there is a lot of space here and the market is far from saturated. We’re collectively competing with the hotel industry, not one another!
What’s the next step for your site?
AirBnB: Our next steps involve expanding into more countries around the world, and consistently updating pieces of the user experience on Airbnb. Our community is passionate about the site, providing daily feedback on ways to improve, and we’re always listening to what they suggest.
Crashpadder: You’ll have to wait and see – we’ve got some exciting developments planned for the end of the year!
iStopover: We will keep listening to customers and improving the usability. We will market in more and more locations.
What would your advice be to someone who wanted to set up an accommodation network or a travel-networking site?
AirBnB: It’s a rewarding adventure – make sure you’re having fun, otherwise why pursue it?
Crashpadder: Know your market, deeply understand online businesses and crucially, don’t do it to get rich. Do it because you love the product or service. It’s
more fun in the short term, and more likely to be successful in the long term!
MyFriendsHotel: Unless you have an original vision to change / add value the market place then you will be competing against established companies with no competitive advantage. So, think twice before you leap as it could take over your life!
*Photo credit: an AirBnB property in Costa Rica