An exclusive with… Arnaud Bertrand, Founder and CEO, HouseTrip

Tell us about HouseTrip?
HouseTrip is Europe’s largest booking website for holiday apartments. The concept is to allow you to book your very own apartment (instead of a boring hotel room) for a few nights in every popular destination in Europe.

How did HouseTrip develop from an idea to a business?
It developed well. I had the idea with my wife while studying hospitality management in Lausanne, Switzerland. Straight out of university, in the beginning of 2009, we drafted a business plan, got early funding from a few business angels, recruited a team and developed the website. We had lots of challenges of course but kept it moving and we launched the website in January 2010. Since then, we have been one of the fastest growing companies on the continent with an average monthly revenue growth of more than 40% for more than 20 consecutive months now.

HouseTrip is VC-funded. What is the main thing the funding enabled the business to do? Are there any downsides?
There are more upsides than downsides. The obvious upside is that pretty much only VCs are able to invest such large sums and follow up with further rounds of funding. Also, having VC funding from top-tier investors brings you credibility and that makes a lot of things easier, in particular recruitment.

You are originally from Switzerland and started the business there. What was the reason for establishing an office in London?
We still have the HQ in Switzerland but the reason behind opening the London office was mostly a question of reaching a specific online talent pool, which is basically much larger in London than in Lausanne.

What have you found are the main differences in running a business in Lausanne to London? Culture, expertise?
I must say that I am having an easier time managing UK employees. Switzerland is currently in a very favourable economical situation: less than 3% unemployment, extreme competition to hire any staff, etc. Working on the till of a supermarket earns you more than CHF60k a year (£46k)! This means that Swiss employees are used to awesome working conditions; and it is extremely difficult to grow a start-up in that environment. In Switzerland, we’ve twice had cases of employees threatening to sue us because of their working conditions – both times for ridiculous claims (one guy telling us he couldn’t bear anymore to work until 5.10pm every day when end-of-working-day was defined as 5pm in his contract). In the UK, the working culture is completely different and it’s infinitely easier to grow a start-up in that environment.

There seems to be a lot of activity in this space. What is the size of the holiday rentals market and what differentiates HouseTrip from its competitors?
The holiday rentals market is valued at about $100B so it’s absolutely massive. The way we differ is mostly because we go after a slightly more mature market (in terms of age of the people who make up that segment) than our competitors. AirBnB and its two German clones, Wimdu and 9Flats, go after backpackers with an offering composed mostly of spare rooms and properties which are main residences (as opposed to dedicated holiday rentals). We attract more families and couples with an inventory composed mostly of professionally managed, dedicated holiday rentals. We’re also much more efficient for our hosts: a few of our hosts are also listed with competitors and they all report to us that we simply bring them many more bookings. Always nice to hear.

You founded HouseTrip straight out of university, what has been the most interesting learning experience?
I’ve had to learn a fair bit indeed! The most interesting has probably been to learn how to think strategically and tactically as well as how to align your resources’ focus with your strategy.

What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Focus and say “no” a lot. You need to pick a handful of things and do them perfectly, otherwise you’ll end up being all things to all people. I tell every “newbie” entrepreneur I meet this, however a core (and important) characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they rarely follow advice so they all make the mistake of being unfocused at the beginning. Those who survive are those who change course and focus.

What is it like to work at HouseTrip? What type of company culture are you keen to foster?
We’ve actually just completed a human resources survey and 100% of HouseTrip’s employees would recommend it as a place to work. So I guess we’ve already developed a fairly nice working environment. I don’t think working in a start-up is for everyone: you need to expect lots of empowerment, responsibilities, an environment of uncertainty, constant change and a lot of work. So we only recruit people we think would fit the bill well. Our culture is articulated in a few values; A FEAST: Ambitious, Focussed, Experimental, Authentic, Simple, Team spirit.

HouseTrip has grown very quickly in 2011. What are the company’s aspirations for the future?
I can only say we’re very ambitious and would be happy to keep our growth rate going forward.

Outside of your own market, what do you think is the hottest emerging trend or technology right now?
I’ll focus on the Internet even though there are some fascinating things happening also in biotech and med-tech. The internet has enabled to make people’s lives easier in a lot of ways. If you make a lot of people’s lives easier and have a solid business model around it, you’ve unlocked a hot trend. What’s painful in people’s lives? Ordering/buying food is annoying; finding a great professional (builder, doctor, dentist, cleaner) is very difficult; I have no good resource to recommend cool activities during the weekend (not that I have any but we’re speaking hypothetical) in London, you name it.


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