Recently I had the opportunity to chat with one of the founders of Knok, a Home Exchange site uniquely focused on families. I talked with Laura Martinez Celada about the inspiration behind this business she founded with her husband in 2011, why people get involved in house swapping, and what more can be done to expand this service. This entrepreneurial team, who also happen to have two young children, recently moved to San Francisco from Barcelona to experience living in a different place for a while.
Unlike most smaller home exchange businesses, the Knok team has played around with various models of pricing and tools to determine what best fits their market and serves their users. Currently new members to Knok pay just $29 for their first year of membership. This is a relatively low cost for a home exchange site, but Knok is profitable, in large part due to the efficiency of the business model set up by the Martinez team.
ShareTraveler: Why did you and your husband decide to enter the home exchange business?
Laura Martinez Celada: We are entrepreneurs. We had a team of people working already in digital projects, both designers and developers, and we wanted to start a new project. We saw home exchange as a great opportunity, with a lot of room for improvement, and we knew it closely because we had been doing it for years.
ST: What was the inspiration behind creating a home exchange site specifically for families? Why can’t families find what they need on more general home swap sites?
Laura: We wanted to highlight the benefits of home exchange for families, as families are the ones that take the biggest advantage of home swapping. Parents can enjoy a glass of wine in the living-room while the kids are already sleeping, whereas in a hotel everyone would need to go to sleep at the same time, or the kids will not have toys, or a kitchen fully equipped.
Focusing on one segment has produced very positive results as the message has become clearer and members know what to expect from Knok.com. Different types of families are joining Knok, from 4-5 family members to couples to even single people who sometime travel with their daughters or sons. Some families have different needs in different moments and everyone that considers themselves a family is family for us.
ST: What proportion of your membership has children?
Laura: Around 83%.
ST: How many home exchange listings do you have?
Laura: We have more than 30,000 listings all around the world. We see home exchanges in all the continents and among many different countries. We see last minute swaps and well-prepared (4-6 months in advance) agreed home exchanges.
The magic of home exchanging is that you need many members to find your home exchange and at the same time you just need 1 family to agree with you on dates to make that home exchange happen.
ST: Do you have a goal for expansion of home exchange listings and services in 2016?
Laura: Our goal focuses on families using the service and traveling more. New members join every day and our mission is to take them step by step to complete their profile, upload photos and activate their account to start messaging other families and agree on trips, so their objective of getting their first home exchange done has been fulfilled.
We will also continue working on our Family Travel Guide that offers tips for families for many cities around the world with things to see, eat, do and shop. Members can also complete the guide themselves to offer extra information to other families they home exchange with.
The guide also includes a “Kid Rank” that indicates how much the place was enjoyed by a kid, giving a different perspective to traditional rankings. It offers reviews from our member as well as from other external sources.
ST: How did you originally source information for the Family Friendly Guide?
Laura: We started with Barcelona because the team knew that place. Then we have people from other cities so we started with them adding their tips, finding interesting businesses that they knew. Then we crowdsourced it and integrated resources from other sites like Four Square and Yelp, and used that to figure out what is really interesting from each city.
ST: Do members add a lot of content to your Family Friendly Guides?
Laura: We started inviting members to help, and members started posting from the cities they live in and where they travel. Mostly people do this when they join.
ST: You added “family friendly” apartment rentals to your website recently. Why did you decide to expand beyond home exchange?
Laura: We decided that some families in some cases would prefer to rent an apartment when the trip dates and/or destination was very fixed and tight, and a home exchange was not possible. It has opened the options for the families and the rentals have a discount that gives our members a nice return in case they decide to use it.
ST: Where do you source the apartment listings from? Are people who use your site for home exchanges also booking apartments?
Laura: They come from third companies that rent those apartments permanently; they do not come from our members or from individuals renting their apartments individually.
ST: Where do you see home swapping going in the next five years? Will it catch on and become a popular alternative to hotels or will it remain a niche option that only a small percentage of travelers use?
Laura: Home swapping is a way of traveling that will continue growing. We as society are evolving and understand every day more and deeper the benefits of the sharing economy, of “using” versus “owning”.
Individuals that start taking Uber or Lyft, renting car with Zipcar, renting sports equipment, or getting second hand clothes, start discovering the benefits of a new way of sharing things and start evolving to enjoy a new perspective in life, in which you don’t need to own everything, just use it when you need it. This way of thinking will grow the amount of people interested in swapping their home.
We have personally seen an enormous shift in the past 5 years, with many new initiatives emerging in the sharing economy space, plus many new members joining Knok. We think that the change will continue happening, however we don’t think home exchanging will catch up with hotels in just 5 years.
In the next 5 years hotels will continue being the main option for many travelers, and home exchange will continue growing and being the first option for many families. We think home swapping is not a niche option anymore and many mechanisms will continue helping it to become bigger.
ST: What is the biggest problem we need to tackle to expand the use of home exchange?
Laura: We need to address how to get people to really jump in doing and starting home exchange. I have some friends who I tell about home exchange, but still they don’t do it, they can’t think of having somebody sleeping at their place. They are missing so much. How can we convince them to start doing it the first time?