**UPDATE: This article was originally written on 17 Jun 2014 as a resource of which start-ups are focusing on this 'pitch' and my take on how they can win. Over a year later, I'd like to explain why in a clearer manner. Enjoy**
It seems to be that everyone is building an 'Airbnb for student accommodation'.
But all of them miss the important aspects that allowed Airbnb to grow:
1. Trust - the ratings system makes booking an Airbnb OK. You trust it'll be fine.
2. Supply value proposition - 'Hosts' as Airbnb calls people supplying rooms/homes, make money they would never have otherwise made.
On the first point, Ben Thompson explains clearly how Airbnb 'commoditised' trust:
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m actually writing this post while sitting in an apartment rented through Airbnb. The pictures were ok, but the plethora of reviews were effusive in their praise of this surprisingly large one-bedroom apartment with easy access to the train, so I took the plunge. Indeed, the reviews were spot-on: the apartment is beautiful, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice. One more thing — my family and I are working really hard to keep the place as pristine as it was when we moved in. After all, while I trusted the ratings over the pictures, future Airbnb sublessors will surely care greatly about my rating as well.
That last line is fascinating. Can you imagine a student wanting to leave their rented accommodation in a way that pleases the landlord? Of course not; a big cost for landlords is the void period between academic years where they spend a lot of money putting the place right again.
The second point on value is where student accommodation websites really fall down. Unlike Airbnb, landlords were already operating a business. Why would they bother with an aggregation website that charges high fees?
Furthermore, they aren't 'relying' on that website. They're still operating independently to let their property.
Universities = Winning
Saying all of the above, student accommodation is a problem. It's a nightmare for so many, every single year. Universities just don't do a good job of protecting their students; especially international students who hope to secure accommodation remotely.
The current status quo for students:
1. Apply to University, receive info about Housing, and apply for a dorm room
2. University takes all the applications, usually on paper, and scores eligibility against stock and allocates people to available dorm rooms.
3. Everybody else gets handed a sheet of paper with potential private agents and landlords who may or may not have any stock.
Notice how the University housing departments have a serious admin problem here? Surely this should be screaming: OPPORTUNITY!!!
The interesting thing about this market is the power Universities hold - they are the first point of call for students looking for accommodation - yet Universities don't/cannot exploit their position of power for outsize profits and a better student experience.
It seems everyone builds the consumer facing side, but nobody thinks of giving the University tools that will ensure that stock gets into the system.
This, I believe, will be the stone that hits off two birds: universities save money, and landlords can pass-on the letting of student accommodation to the (trusted) University-backed service.
University housing departments even get together to share best practice:
ACUHO (it sounds either like a sneeze or a vulgar insult, but is in actual fact an acronym for Association of College and University Housing Officers)
ASRA (Association for Student Rental Accommodation - how drole...)
AACUHO (Australisian Association... you get the picture)
And they literally get together too:
ACUHO-I will be held in Seattle next year July (2016). All you wannabe Airbnb for Students companies should definitely crash this party: http://www.acuho-i.org/events/ace/schedule
Every April in the UK ASRA's conference is the place to be, but never fear, they have more regular regional meetings: http://www.asra.ac.uk/events
What you'll notice is the US is just not represented amongst these companies. It's just the US learning institutions go above and beyond to take care of their student experience. Shame on everyone else.
Nestpick - http://www.nestpick.com/s/rotterdam/?s=01072014&e=01072015&t=1
Uniplaces - http://www.uniplaces.com/london/
BedCount.com (yay), which just makes it all easy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfQ2FOYi8dE
Flat Club - http://flat-club.com/Flat/Details/6596
StudentPad - http://www.studentpad.co.uk/Company
Accommodation for Students - http://www.accommodationforstudents.com/
And some that have fallen by the wayside:
Cherrybird - https://www.cherrybird.com/
The only one of these PropTech companies that has any traction is StudentPad, who seem to have many UK Universities sewn up. But then again, they're just providing white-labelled, dated listings sites.
With all innovation, there comes a dark period of research that seems to never end and not progress. We're there now. Websites just don't cut the mustard any more. There needs to be real innovation that changes the paradigm for University housing officers and makes it a no-brainer for them to fix their 20th Century work flows.