3. April 2013–
A way to see the world on the cheap, house swaps are believed to have been around since the early 1950s. Yet, even with the onset of the digital age, this "free holiday" experience hasn't been widely monetised online. While popular services like Airbnb and Couchsurfing have opened up new ways of holidaying, Spanish entrepreneur Juanjo Rodriguez is looking to revive the house swapping industry with Knok.
Based in Barcelona, and having bootstrapped for over a year and half, Rodriquez and his co-founding team last month secured €500,000 from private investors in Spain.
We caught up with Rodriquez to find out more about Knok, and why handing your keys over to other would-be travellers isn't such a bad idea...
Hello Juanjo, tell us a bit about yourself and Knok...
I am the co-founder of Knok, a home exchange community which launched in May 2011. Right now we have more than 20,000 members in 159 countries worldwide. This is my third company, I started two companies – one on the web and the other's a marketing agency. Our team of seven people includes someone from Brazil and someone from India.
How did the idea come up?
With my family. We had been using other systems on the web for quite some time, from Craigslist - where I did my first exchange, to other platforms. And after quite a few years of using them, we came to the conclusion that there was a better way to do it. It was a great idea, but poorly executed. We felt there was a space to create a better platform and a better community along with that.
Who are your cofounders and how did you find each other?
Laura Martinez Celada is my wife – so that was easy, she has been working in marketing for 15 years, and this is the second company we've started together. Our other cofounder is Marc Rollán, our CTO – someone I have worked with for the last seven to eight years.
Who uses Knok the most?
Our largest market is France, because French people – for whatever reason – are really into home swapping. And then it's all your usual suspects when you think of big tourism markets, like Spain, the US, UK, etc. English speaking countries like Canada and Australia are also very large markets along with continental Europe where traditional areas are big on home exchange. We're also trying to promote it in other places, like Latin America.
Many of the members are families. So there are families with kids who exchange homes with each other and they build relationships with each other. The kids play with each other's toys, and we think that this local touch where you live where the locals live and you go to the exchange family's home, you buy your croissants or bread in the same place that they do, you go to restaurants in the same places.
What makes you different from your competitors?
Promoting home exchange can be difficult, but only a few have a nice tool and a nice community. There's HomeExchange which has been around for like 20 years, and then there are many who are very, very small and hard to use. What we do is provide a tool where the usability is very different – searching and contacting people, and messaging is much easier, and you really have control over what you're doing – which isn't the case on other platforms.
We use a lot of location information, with maps so that you can search in any language in any location and get the same results, and this is something no one else in the industry has which we've been able to solve.
Tell us about the business model
It's very simple because we work like a club – it's a subscription model. You pay a fee for a certain period of time and then you can use the system as much as you want with as many exchanges for as long as you want. We offer three month, one year, and two year subscriptions.
Who's financing Knok at the moment?
Up to now, for the last year-and-a-half, us co-founders funded it, since we already had other sources of income. And last month (in March), we got a new investment from a group of Spanish private investors; we raised half a million euros to allow us to keep building on the technology and the community.
Do you use the platform yourself?
Yes, I was counting the other day and I think I'll be going on exchange number 21 next month. I've been to many places. I've been to France quite a few times because I really like the country – in Bordeaux, and in Province. Italy also – Tuscany, Lake Como, Venice – and I've been quite a few times in the US – in Boston, New York and Washington – and I will soon do an exchange in San Francisco.
Are home exchange users wary of handing over their keys to strangers?
Some people have a culture of fear with letting people stay at their place. But what we've found is that once you've tried it, you're hooked. The first time is harder because you don't know what to expect and not a lot of people have done it before. But it's a lot easier than you think. For example, people think "how do you exchange your keys?" or "are people going to take care of my place?", we make it very easy. Insurance is also included in the membership fee, so you don't have to worry about damages to your house, but in any case – it's never happened. We find that people try to take very good care of another person's place. There's trust and respect involved. If you can't build trust with your exchange partner, it doesn't make sense to actually do a home exchange.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
There are many, many opportunities to start up. And I would say that the main thing is that it always takes a longer time for either the venture to succeed or to fail then you'd think. You have to be prepared to really keep the focus. Keep putting in the effort and success will eventually come.