It’s largely thanks to Airbnb’s pioneering efforts that sub-letting spare room space with total strangers is now considered the norm in many parts of the world.
And like most aspects of the sharing economy, this particular form of collaborative consumption is driven by need.
That was the case for Dutch student-turned-entrepreneur Niels van Deuren, who turned his experience of struggling to find accommodation for an overseas study exchange into a global enterprise.
His company, Housing Anywhere is an online platform that helps university students find safe, affordable short-term accommodation overseas.
Students going abroad for exchange semesters or internships can sublet their rooms via the platform to incoming exchange students during their absence, whilse simultaneously finding suitable safe accommodation in the country they’re visiting.
It was while studying for a degree in International Business Administration at the Rotterdam School of Management in 2009 that van Deuren spotted the business opportunity.
Housing Anywhere founder Niels van Deuren
“The programme included a semester exchange to the National University of Singapore,” he says. “It was the combination of struggling to secure housing there and trying to sublet my own apartment while I was away that gave me the idea for Housing Anywhere.”
The business model works by selling memberships to universities, who pay a subscription fee to join, and then leave van Deuren’s team to promote the service to students through the university’s own communication channels.
Students with accommodation to offer advertise it on the Housing Anywhere site, and those with an interest respond with details about themselves and their requirements. The service can only be accessed via a verified student email account from a registered client university, ensuring that the accommodation offered is genuine and of high quality.
Having signed up a number of Netherlands-based universities, van Deuren used his next programme of study, a Masters in International Management (MiM) offered by the CEMS, a 29-school global alliance, to take his fledgling business beyond Dutch borders.
The CEMS programme requires students to study terms abroad at any of its member schools and become fluent in at least two languages, the aim being to develop their international business expertise.
A semester at the Universidade de NOVA de Lisboa in Portugal, followed by an internship with Heineken in Ethiopia, provided van Deuren with an international network of classmates who helped to spread the word of his venture in their home countries. And what began as a student project went on to establish business operations in more than 21 countries.
In 2009, van Deuren had financed his start-up organically, using the revenue from the handful of memberships he had sold before the company was officially launched. Within a year he had 11 members on board.
In 2012, after his graduation from the CEMS programme, rapid growth of Housing Anywhere and the need for extra staff presented van Deuren with his first cash flow issues. By this time, with the sharing economy pervading the investment community consciousness, he raised $190,000 from a business angel and is currently working on a second funding round with a group of investors including a Venture Capital firm.
Today Housing Anywhere works with more than 100 universities worldwide, mainly in Europe, but also in Asia and the Americas, and employs 16 members of staff. To date it has offered over 5,000 rooms to students.
van Deuren says: “We’ve expanding into these markets with the help of local students who’ve heard about Housing Anywhere via the website or through my Facebook postings, and were willing to help to promote the platform in their region. In fact, that’s how the first international universities on the platform were secured.
“However, the most interesting market for us is ‘anywhere’; anywhere where that has universities with lots of incoming and outgoing exchange students provides a good market for us, whether that’s is in Tokyo or Amsterdam.”
Like other start-ups in this particular shared economy space, they naturally attract comparisons with Airbnb, but van Deuren does not see them as a threat.
He says: “We are both in the housing industry, but in two completely different segments. In fact, we have students who stayed in an Airbnb room for their first days in a city, and then move on into a HousingAnywhere.com room for the rest of their stay during the semester. It is perfectly possible for Airbnb, which is focused on very short-term stays, and Housing Anywhere which focuses solely on exchange and internship students and medium-long term stays, to coexist side-by-side peacefully.”
As well as capitalising on growth the sharing economy, Housing Anywhere is riding the wave of academic globalization, as more and more students spend at least a semester of their studies abroad, sponsored in part by initiatives such as the AIESEC and ESN.
van Deuren, who continues to run the company from its Rotterdam HQ, adds: “As borders evaporate and students kindle increasingly international ambitions, we see great opportunities for Housing Anywhere and universities across the globe to support these ambitions and dreams.”
Follow Alison on Twitter @alisonbcoleman
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