Q&A: Look After Me founder Julia Charity
What is Look After Me?
I call Look After Me 'homestay for grownups'. Essentially it's an online marketplace where guests book accommodation with homeowners who have unused space. And guests can book accommodation with hosts who have shared interests, like cycling, walking, golf and so on.
Where did the idea for the business come from?
The idea hit me like a bolt out of the blue in 2009 after travelling so much, getting bored of hotels and coming home with a fistful of receipts. I liked the idea of meeting really great people, getting local knowledge and paying fair prices for a home-cooked meal or a decent coffee.
The idea wouldn't go away, so in 2010 I put a business plan together, and in 2011 I pitched the idea to WebFund - a company that helps technology startups. I just about died when they said 'you're launching in three weeks'!
What have been the particular challenges of starting your business in the sharing economy?
Ultimately an online marketplace is only as good as the platform you build it on. My first challenge was to completely rebuild the site from scratch, when I found out pretty cruelly that there are some real pirates in this industry. That experience nearly cost me my business.
It was also pretty challenging starting an internet business at the bottom end of a recession, into one of the most conservative markets in the world. As a plant molecular biologist, I also didn't know much about business, tourism or e-commerce.
Being a pioneer in the sharing economy in New Zealand, I've also found that finding investors has been difficult. I've knocked on the door of nearly every investment shop in New Zealand but investors - typically men in their 60s and 70s - couldn't foresee how much of an opportunity the sharing economy represents. But now that homestay networks in Europe, the US, France and more recently China have received some substantial investments I'm hoping there'll be a surge of interest from investors here.
In particular, developing and establishing trust seems to be a key factor for success in this space. What's been your experience of that with your business?
Developing trust is key and it's been our founding principle from day one. We've built systems for establishing trust in all levels of our business. There's a lot at stake here - we need to protect and uphold New Zealand's number-one position for being the most hospitable nation in the world - so we screen our hosts carefully to make sure they'll genuinely look after their guests.
In terms of trust, Trade Me has set a precedent for New Zealanders to develop online transactional and personal relationships. That level of comfort has swung the door wide open for sharing personal property - like spare rooms - via the internet.
What changes have you seen in the sharing economy during the time you've been running Look After Me?
The thing that's staggered me the most is how quickly sharing communities have given rise to what I think is an economic revolution that's having a significant impact. There's no doubt that peer-to-peer accommodation networks will revolutionise tourism in New Zealand the same way they've done in Europe, the US and China. It's an exciting time for us and I think we're poised to ride the wave of the sharing economy as it rolls into New Zealand.
I think there's a warning here for New Zealand though too, because the term 'sharing economy' has been used to describe some quite different things; Airbnb and Uber, for example, are traditionally capitalist business models. I think New Zealand needs to get smart and disrupt things with our own local versions of peer-to-peer platforms - ones that really share with the local economies. That's the real opportunity.
The other major trend I see within our industry is the increasing number of tourists coming here from China who have an appetite for kiwi homestays, local food and soft-adventure tourism. Indicators are the number of Chinese tourists will continue to rise and I think their appetite to get to know kiwis and participate in sharing communities will strengthen.
What's next for your business?
We're about to leverage off some major New Zealand partners, like recruitment and rental car companies, to encourage guests to try our accommodation network. We're also looking for more hosts to solidify our presence on New Zealand's cycle trails and support major events like Fieldays, WOW, Art Deco Weekend and big sporting events.
We'd also like to attract investors either for equity or for rewards when we launch a crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMe in July. We're hoping to use those funds to better promote this style of accommodation and develop new functions on our website to make it easier for owners to add their property and for guests to book.