Who’s afraid of Airbnb? 9flats founder Stephan Uhrenbacher talks clones and North America

Stephan Uhrenbacher
Stephan Uhrenbacher

Stephan Uhrenbacher

The take-off success of peer-to-peer online rental service Airbnb, valued at over US$1 billion, is, unsurprisingly, prompting a suite of similar services around the world. One, 9flats, is based in Germany, and yesterday announced the acquisition of Toronto’s iStopOver, a move that takes it straight into Airbnb’s home territory.

We asked 9flats founder Stephan Uhrenbacher (above) what the move means for the Berlin-based company, which is also competing with Rocket Internet’s Wimdu in Germany – and whether it’s time for journalists to let go of the “Airbnb clone” tag.

The peer-to-peer rental rumble – Airbnb vs 9flats vs Wimdu

It’s a significant deal for 9flats – acquiring iStopOver will add around 50,000 listed beds, mostly in English-speaking cities such as Toronto and New York, bringing 9flats’ total inventory to about 100,000 listings. This compares to Airbnb’s 200,000 listings and Rocket Internet’s Wimdu’s 50,000. All are active worldwide, with 9flats in over 100 countries, Airbnb in over 180 countries and Wimdu – which in March expected revenue of €100 million for 2012 – also active in both Europe and Asia.

Airbnb also has a clear lead in investment backing – a total $120 million raised so far, most recently in a $112 million round led by Andreessen Horowitz. Wimdu reportedly raised $90 million from Rocket Internet and Kinnevik last year; 9flats is backed by $10m from Redpoint, eVenture and Deutsche Telekom.

The terms of the iStopOver acquisition weren’t disclosed, but iStopOver is no wallflower – it closed a deal for up to $3m venture capital funding in 2010.

Time to put the clone comparison aside?

Uhrenbacher is also the founder of successful user-generated review site Qype and eco-friendly online marketplace Avocadostore. He was offended when commentators called Qype a clone of Yelp, which he says developed at about the same time. “Qype wasn’t influenced at all by Yelp in its early stages.”

He doesn’t mind so much with Airbnb, which he’s quick to credit for combining online transactions with private peer-to-peer rental listings. “Of course they deserve credit for having changed the landscape for short stays, and they were probably the first guys to figure out the hugeness of that market.”

He’s just as quick to argue 9flats has its own personality, pricing model and search algorithms (Wimdu is arguably more of a straight imitation) and that there’s room for further differentiation. “Some people want to stay in very social environments, others want to have a very professional service – just have a key but don’t care about staying with a Berlin hipster… Some want to stay in very family-friendly environments…”

For now, 9flats is pitching to the general public – opting for a glossy billboard campaign in Berlin rather than viral online marketing, for example.

Who is best-known in Germany?

Google Trends - p2p rental in Germany

In Germany, Google Trends shows Airbnb in the lead in terms of what internet users are searching for in Germany, followed by Wimdu then 9flats (the letters refer to appearances in Google News). But Uhrenbacher says internal research gives 9flats a “massive” lead in brand recognition among the general public in Germany compared to competitors.

“I think the only place we’re considered the underdog in Germany is in the Berlin tech scene,” he says. “I’m pretty happy.”

Taking on North America – “Airbnb’s not a natural monopoly”

In this industry, anyway, reach seems to be much more important than depth. It’s common sense that travellers are more likely to search, wherever they are, on platforms they know rather than do that extra bit of research to find what might be the leading platform in a single country.

Uhrenbacher confirms he’s most interesting in acquiring inventory in places where 9flats is not, or is less, active – and that’s mainly North America at this point, even if it’s only for a small slice of market share compared to Airbnb.

“This whole market is just too good not to pursue,” he says. “It is something that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people and I don’t think it’s a natural monopoly. Maybe it will be, but I don’t see evidence of that.”


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