Welcome to a new feature interview and this time we are with Mr. Niels van Deuren, Founder of HousingAnywhere.com. A former student of Erasmus University, Niels founded HousingAnywhere.com in the year of 2009, a platform which helps students (studying abroad) to rent places to stay. With current presence in 64 countries (& 403 cities to be specific), HousingAnywhere.com is growing exponentially through university collaborations and landlord partnerships. Recently HousingAnywhere.com raised an investment of 6 Million Euros to fuel the innovation in student accommodation and expand its services across the globe. We are glad to have Niels with us today and in this interview he shares his experiences, struggles and advice as an entrepreneur.
How the idea of starting your own business came into your mind? Please include if any personal experiences where you saw the need to build such a platform.
I got the idea preparing for my own foreign exchange study in Singapore. It was the combination of struggling to secure housing in Singapore and trying to sublet my own apartment in Rotterdam. I discovered that there was no platform where you can easily rent out your own room. So then I decided to create my own platform.
HousingAnywhere.com is in its 9th year of operation. How the initial days of starting the company and what were the basic hurdles you faced, personally and professionally? What changes do you see now?
Back in 2009, I started HousingAnywhere in my student room, to allow students to rent out their own rooms, to other students coming from abroad. We later invited landlords also to join the platform, to create more supply on the platform.
As for personal hurdles, at the time I was a fulltime student. My personal objective was also to graduate cum laude and thus it was a constant struggle between performing well at university & building a company. Professionally, what was challenging was that we didn’t have any funding. Especially for building the website without IT knowledge, the lack of funding was a problem because we couldn’t attract skilled IT personnel. Basically, we had to develop everything on a very low budget and rely on goodwill for a lot of things.
Back then HousingAnywhere was driven by a group of fellow students and was completely sales driven. Now we’re more technology driven. Earlier, we didn’t look at data and only trusted on our gut. Now we base our roadmap on data and improve on that data with our expertise.
One of the critical aspects of every company is its leadership team. Please share some details about your team.
At HousingAnywhere, we built our teams from the ground up and we currently have 5 teams. Initially we hired 2 people per team, so we got to experience what type of skills and people we needed; then we base the type of manager we should hire to lead that team. So we have an idea what a team should do, we get that confirmed/disconfirmed by the first people, and then we hire the manager who builds out their team.
We ended up with a diverse management team with great skills to run that specific part of the company very independently. At the same time each manager has one thing in common: they clearly see what information and data every team produces and how that data contributes to their team’s goals and also the company’s objectives. This common data focus makes that they have a great sense of what’s going on in different departments and allows them to collaborate on different levels.
What was the vision & mission you had when you started HousingAnywhere.com? How those have evolved throughout all these years? The reason to ask this question is that of different aspects such as customer experiences or preferences, network balance and to achieve success – the mission and vision tend to change. Did you feel anytime that, this is not why I have created this business for?
HousingAnywhere’s vision has actually stayed the same throughout the years, which is housing, ANYWHERE. Be the marketplace for international students for finding accommodation. Our mission has changed from working only with universities to also working with landlords. For me personally, it was a big adjustment when we started charging students a fee for our service. I founded HousingAnywhere.com for students and I wanted to make international accommodation as available as possible. However, I also realized that in order to grow the company to the level I wanted, we needed to have more cash and therefore charge students a service fee.
When you try to launch a product, market research is necessary to understand the demand. How much effective it is to follow the market trends and statistics found in web?
Market trends are always good to keep an eye on, but following trends for the sake of being trendy I don’t recommend. At the moment, AI and SaaS are topics we’re reading about every day. It’s important though to ask yourself whether every new technology adds value to your company’s core business. When looking at the latest trends, you must always consider ‘does this add value to my customers experience?’ Take for example fintech, another trendy topic at the moment. We’re the first in our market to offer peer-to-peer payments, which allows our users to easily complete transactions using whichever form of payment they prefer. However, we didn’t develop this because it’s trendy but because it makes our customers lives easier and adds value to our platform.
How is the current competition and how do you tackle it?
Facebook is still the most popular way to look for a room, although it’s not very user friendly for booking a room. However, we smartly used Facebook Groups to grow our traffic in the last years. Nowadays, Facebook changed their policies so we cannot act on it anymore, but it is a nice example how you can work together with a competitor.
Have you adopted technologies like Big Data, IoT and AI (artificial intelligence) to improve your customer experience?
We use big data for almost everything. We use it so users get relevant listings, but also to match tenants to landlords.
Based on the big data we also do a lot of a/b testing, for instance on the marketing department for targeting new landlords and cities. We also use big data for fraud detection. Anomalies in listings are picked up by our system 24/7 so scammers can get taken offline before anyone can contact them.
One of the things that is unique to HousingAnywhere is that all of the data every team collect we combine in a data warehouse in order to be able to see connections and relations. This allows us to spot opportunities we otherwise would have missed. Something like seasonality reports we can now run. By taking out seasonality changes on the platform we can look at underlying trends.
We also use AI for image recognition: our platform recognizes if someone uploads a picture of a kitchen or a living room. This helps determine whether they have finished uploading pictures for all of the rooms so we can let the person who’s creating the listing know if they’ve finished uploading all of the pictures. This is highly relevant as having a listing with pictures on all of the rooms result in a better experience for tenants and more successful bookings.
A more basic but really helpful use of AI is a Google Translate integration on our website. Our platform can be used in eight different languages at the moment; English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Mandarin. If something is unclear, we want you to have the opportunity to read it in your own language. To have our platform in every language in the world would be impossible but with the help of Google Translate we can help accommodate almost every user regardless of language barriers.
Which route will you advise to our aspiring entrepreneurs to grow– funding or build organically? What are the upsides and downsides you see in both the cases?
My advice will be first grow organically and only go for funding when you’re ready to scale. Direct funding is really a nice thing to have, but in my experience it makes you lazy: I’ve seen companies that buy traffic instead of really researching what their users wanted and needed. Don’t consider funding too late though, as you’ll grow too slow and won’t be able to attract the talent you want. Eventually, when you have a break even model in a couple of cities or even a country, it would be the time to consider funding.
Staying organized makes your life simpler. How do you keep yourself organized? Any tools you want to refer to our readers.
I completely agree, good organization is key. As for tools, I use Dayboard – ToDo Listing App, a plugin on Chrome that shows me my to-do list for the day. I use Trello for my roadmap for the week as well as the roadmaps of my teams.
One of my favorite tools is Boomerang, which allows me to pause my inbox so I only receive emails twice a day. It’s a part of HousingAnywhere policy not to check your email too often as I believe that an obsession with your inbox will have a negative impact on the quality of your work. Less focus on emails has also has a positive effect on stress levels.
I’m also only active on social media like Facebook once a day on my way home. I take public transportation to get to work, which allows me to work during my commute.
HousingAnywhere.com is already huge with sustainable years. If you would have started or planning to start any other business what it would have been?
While studying at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam, my mind was on becoming an investment banker. It was the major trend a few years ago. Luckily, HousingAnywhere kept growing and took over my interest “Let’s do this for 1 year full time, and let’s see where I can bring it.” Hindsight, however, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stay long in the banking world: the entrepreneurial spirit would have come up. I would have probably developed an app that would have been relevant to investment bankers to ease their day. Investment bankers make long hours and are always looking for something to help them spend their time more efficiently.
Starting a venture is easy, but surviving is difficult. Will request an answer from you, for all those people who are planning to start something new – on “how to hang in there and make it a success?”
Keep very focused and a bit stubborn, and at the same time listen to your customers. What I mean with this is: when starting a company plenty of friends, customers, random people will give (unasked) advice. It’s important to really listen to them, it will help shape your mind, but look for how these opinions contribute to your goal you have in your own mind. By applying focus within your company, you will create speed.
Niels’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vandeuren/
HouseingAnywhere website: https://housinganywhere.com/