Just seven months ago the People Like Us home exchange network was still in beta release. It had less than 100 members and Drew Seitam, the founder (and only person working on the project), was looking for ways to differentiate his new network. He built a system allowing people to create circles of friends who they trusted and with whom they would swap homes. Frankly, it was a project I thought wouldn’t last more than a year or two given the many home exchange network already in existence.
Then a few months later, right about the time when Drew had solidified the basic functionality on People Like Us, the integration between HomeExchange.com and GuesttoGuest happened (the new network is called HomeExchange). And lots of former HomeExchange.com members were very unhappy. Some were so unhappy they started looking around for new networks to join. Enter Drew and his strong presence on Facebook with a People Like Us group for both members and others interested in home exchange. A few disgruntled HomeExchange.com members found out about PLU and joined. And they told others. And in a few weeks Drew went from 100 members to 1000 members.
I think a lot of what attracts people to the PLU network is Drew himself. He spends a lot of time talking to people. Asking them what they want, getting their input on new features and ideas. He’s not afraid to express an opinion, but he really respects the input of others. And as a small network with only basic functionality built so far, he can be nimble and take in all the input and adjust quickly. It’s been a tremendously successful formula. Disgruntled but experienced home swappers offering their input to help create a network that represents exactly what they want.
A few days ago I talked with Drew about the past few weeks and future of People Like Us.
People Like Us fills a gap
ShareTraveler: Initially you were building a home exchange network based on the model that people could have private circles of friends with whom they swap. Is this still a key feature of PLU?
Drew: We only spoke a month ago and so many things have changed. I was looking for something new that was a particularly big differentiator. You know, you have these ideas as a start up, but that, frankly, was a failure. Of my first hundred members, I think two actually created private networks, and neither of those actually used them. I created one private network called everyone and everybody joined that. Everybody was happy. Nobody wanted what I thought they wanted. I had a minor pivot to stop offering private circles because it was making things confusing.
Going into this [HomeExchange merger] there was no gap in the market, no place for someone new to do something different. If everybody else is doing things quite well it can be difficult. When I looked at GuesttoGuest and HomeExchange, they had the market covered quite well between them. The French company was operating in a very businesslike fashion. Quite corporate. And you had the American corporation [HomeExchange.com] operating more on the left leaning sharing format. In the merger they kept the name of the left one and everything else has gone to the business and corporate side. To me that has left a gap where there is an opportunity fill it.
ST: Why are you successfully stepping in to the gap now instead of the many other house swap networks?
Drew: There are a lot of networks out there but I barely hear about them. It may just be the groups that I’m in and the discussion that I hear.
In terms of what I’ve done, I don’t think I’m doing a lot different, its just that maybe now there’s more of an audience there to hear what I’m saying. It’s quite a simple sort of thing: listen to your members or customers and try to do what they want. You have to balance that with what’s the best thing to do for the whole community because you could have very loud members who speak above everybody else. It’s quite a democratic thing. There’s no rocket science, just ask people and talk to them and try to be the best you can be.
We don’t need to be the biggest home exchange network to be successful. But I want us to be the best. The platform is important but it’s way less important than the community that we have. I have lots of work to do on the platform, but we will live and die on the strength of our community and the members and the feeling we have in the group.
ST: How would you differentiate PLU from other home exchange networks?
Drew: In terms of something different in the platform, that is something that I will still need to search for. I need to do a lot of work on the user experience and will continue to do so as I get time and funds to engage people other than just me. But I still don’t see success coming from there. I see success from being a democratic agile, generous, trusting group.
I read your interview with Emmanuel, he’s a smart guy and I agree with him on a lot of what he says about home exchange in general (obviously I disagree on some things.) It’s difficult to convince people to try home exchange if they’ve never done it. I think with advertising it is next to impossible to convince people to try home exchange. The thing that works is word of mouth; our members telling people you really must do this because it’s good, it’s the best way to travel, it’s not just about saving money. That’s why I think it’s so important to invest the time in the members. It can only come from planting the seed.
Lots of member input
ST: You solicit a lot of input from your Facebook members. Have you learned anything surprising from the input people are offering?
Drew: I wasn’t surprised at all by the passion that people have for home exchange. What surprised me was the willingness to help me. When I’ve asked for help people have come out of the woodwork to offer all sorts of help. Help in promotions, UX, writing for magazines, I was given a spot in a print magazine in the U.S. I’ve had people offer to run the blogging side of the business. I’ve got a person who had called a dozen different organizations in Europe to work on a structure for the organization that would be appealing to the members. Since I met her only two weeks ago it seems like she’s been working as long hours as I have.
It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. I cannot say thank you enough to these people. Quite apart from all the little things people have done contacting others to tell them about us and offering to be ambassadors for the site to promote it in their sphere of influence. That’s been kind of surprising and I’m tremendously grateful for it.
ST: You talked about adding in a points-based swap option to PLU (which you decided to call “Moons”) on your Facebook group. Is that still in the works?
Drew: All of this talk about points, that was a really interesting exercise. I still believe in the idea of points. One of our members said: don’t get distracted by this now, the most important things is to make sure that the search is good and members are happy and people can find what they need to find. I think this is right, so we’re going to put this aside for the time being and I’m going to concentrate on other things and make improvements that really need to be done right away rather that something that is optional.
While there were people who did not, the grand majority of people agreed with the idea of points. I canvased the idea of charging for points and that went down very poorly and I can see why. I’m thankful that I have the philosophy of asking people so I don’t do things like that. I heard what they said and I recognize why it was a bad idea. We will do our moons at some stage in the future.
The future of PLU
ST: How’s it going as a one-man show with a day job?
Drew: I’m not getting a lot of sleep. It’s been pretty crazy. I’m getting up very early in the morning and doing a lot of stuff. I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks but now I’ve come back to work. I work for another company during the day. I work on the train both ways. My wife and family is wonderful and very forgiving. I’ve been getting to bed about 2am and it’s pretty tough.
I need to get it to the point where it’s a sustainable operation and its sufficiently valuable to our members to pay something for it. We floated a fee in November; we got 4 people who paid it total. To be successful it has to charge a fee. And it has to charge something which is commensurate with the value that it brings to our members. We can’t charge a HomeExchange style fee when we’re so much smaller than them. I will probably re-introduce a fee for a verification service or something else that is optional but has value in itself. I may have a fee for positioning on the site. Things like that which people don’t have to pay for but they can if they want to and they don’t disrupt the spirit of the site.
ST: What are your immediate plans for developing new features?
Drew: It is much more on making the product more usable more than anything. Because of all the discussion I’m trying to segment my time into half talking to people and half working on stuff.
I released in the last week a number of things that people had asked for around being able to put themselves into certain groups. We did an LGBTQ+ group so people can find people who are friendly. One member had a story about arriving in a location with his husband and they were not permitted entry because he was gay and so he said we must have something like that. I absolutely agree with him. One little feature that took me less than a day to do makes a big difference to a part of the community and I love that.
I’m working on ways to categorize properties to help people find things they are looking for like accessibility and property types. I want to do a lot of privacy improvements. I’m going to completely partition what people show so that they will be able to hide photos or parts of their descriptions. This has the added positive that it makes people need to join the site and activate their listing to be able to see those things. There are a whole bunch of little things that I want to do. I’ll come back to moons at some stage in careful discussion with my members.
ST: Do you have any concerns about the rapid growth of the network?
Drew: Nothing concerns me about it per se, I’m just always very cautious of managing growth. We’ve all seen stories of companies who have grown too fast and not been able to manage it. I had enough foresight to set up my platform on an extremely good backend that will just scale. The only concern is keeping up with it. To do this properly it has to generate a revenue so that even I can do this full time, let alone pay for people who can help us promote it and continue the development at a good pace. The only concern I have there is getting to the stage where it’s valuable enough to be able to charge something for it.
The People Like Us values
ST: Tell me about the core values of PLU?
Drew: You can get a very good answer on that by looking at our Facebook group description. I asked that question on the group. I wanted to make a values statement about who we are and what we believe in, what distinguishes us from everybody else. Who we are as a community. It was wonderful. I was asking for words that describe us. I took in the discussion and wrote a paragraph that is the description of the Facebook group and most of that is on the about page on the site.
It’s all about trust, generosity, kindness, generosity and sharing. And fun things like adventure. It’s people who want to be nice to each other. In the name of travel of course. It’s core human values.
ST: Anything else you want to say?
Drew: I’m working day and night to do the best I can possibly do and to honor the trust and the hope that people are putting in PLU at the moment. It’s a big thing and I carry that very respectfully. They’ve looked for a place to go. I want to make sure that what I do for them is the very very best that I can do. And when they’re unhappy with something that I’ve done the platform is open and they can tell me about it.