How to set up an online accommodation network
comment 7 Written by on November 26, 2009 – 6:55 am

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 (  which was recently put on the market.

Now over to my interviewees:

Joe @

Stephen @

Jaime @

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.

Crashpadder: The plan (to change the way people travel, and undermine exorbitant, impersonal hotels) has stayed the same. The way we hope to achieve it shifts as we get more user feedback and site data.
iStopover: We went through a few changes. Especially in regards to “mapping” and showing properties on a map. Also we wanted the process of posting a listing to be simple. We even we redesigned the front page and layout a few times. As well as even changing the name from istayover to istopover!
MyFriendsHotel: Plans did change.  The idea started as a Facebook application and then grew into a website.  The first version of the site was built with ‘every’ possible option.  The subsequent site builds have been stripped down with the plan to add additional features once the site is up and running.
How many people were involved in the start-up?

AirBnB: There are three co-founders; Myself (Joe), Brian, and Nathan. We’ve known each other for quite some time, and have complimentary skills.

Crashpadder: Just two – myself (Stephen) and Dan, my Technical Ninja.
iStopver: Because of our organisation, we were able to have people on and off the project as we worked through it. But in general we had a designer, a product owner, two developers, graphics.
MyFriendsHotel: Me (Peter), plus hired developers.
What do you wish you’d known when you started?
AirBnB: One thing that didn’t occur to me before the site launched is how much it would change people’s lives, both from an experience and financial view. The income made by our hosts has enabled some of them to keep their homes, pay off student loans, or spend more time working for non-profits.

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!

MyFriendsHotel: To plan more in advance – nail down the vision of the site in finite detail, only release in phase 1 what is vital to the site, only start work once you’ve found the right team of people who share your vision and will make it happen. I had no idea how hard it would be to get a ‘quality’ website built.
There are lots of sites on the market offering home exchanges, is the market oversaturated? Are there room for more sites?
AIrBnB: We’ve heard reports of a number of sites popping up offering something similar to Airbnb. There will always be room for more choice for consumers. The services offering a better user experience will get used more often though.

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!

iStopover: Yes, as long as there is differentiation. We fit in above couchsurfing and below home exchanges. There is plenty of room for new ideas like ours.
MyFriendsHotel: The market is saturated in theory, but until there are 5-7 market leaders (household names) then I believe the market remains open.  Without brands consumer loyalty is weak and opportunities remain. In addition there are 15+ millions of homes and rooms in the US and Europe and no one player has close to a million properties on their books.

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.

MyFriendsHotel: To build on the core offering with exciting new features.

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


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7 Responses to “How to set up an online accommodation network”

  1. Thanks Vicky for the chance to contribute to an interesting discussion. It’s interesting to hear directly form the ‘competition’ and surprising how similar our thought are. Well done to everyone for getting a site up and running – I know how hard it can be!

  2. These accommodation networking sites are just great! Its really helped me meet many people and make some money. I’ve had my house up on iStopOver since June and it has been a wonderful experience.

    I cannot begin to tell you how many fun and interesting people I’ve met and stayed in touch with!

    It also paid for my new flat screen TV 😉

    By Jim on Nov 26, 2009 | Reply
  3. Great article, thanks for including us. It’s great to hear from other sites in this space. As I said above, I really don’t think we are competing with one another – the real competition are the soulless, carbon-copy hotels. The fact that so many other great companies are offering this service (and doing so successfully) indicative of the sea-change of public opinion which I hope we are able to affect.

    Yesterday a friend of mine used a great analogy to describe what offers. Choosing us over a budget hotel is like choosing to cook from scratch rather than buy a microwave meal. Sure, it requires a little more time and thought. But the results are better, you save money and the experience is always unique!

  4. Actually – one thing that’s missing from the above is the question of funding. A fundamental issue for any start-up.

    AirBnB – received $20k in Seed funding. (1/1/09)
    CrashPadder – has a number of different ‘sleeping partners’ (excuse the pun!).
    iStopOver – is part of Brightspark 3.0 Inc, Canada’s leading startup experts.
    MyFriendsHotel – is self-funded.

    Funding is clearly a big issue to consider when starting an online accommodation network. I’m not sure what real difference ‘ownership’ has on the end consumer but I think in any online community, where trust is a central tenet, transparency of ownership is important.

  5. ‘Jim’ it is clear you work for iStopOver. People wised up to this kind of SPAM a loooong time ago.

    By Gemma on Nov 27, 2009 | Reply

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