Make way for another social travel startup, one with ambitions to disrupt the whole of the travel industry. A team of executives that helped build and develop the growth phenomenon that is the Huffington Post, and then left, is now launching its next venture, CasaHop.
The service will start out as a house-swapping platform, but, in the words of Paul Berry, the ex-CTO of HuffPost and now partner in developer SoHo Tech Labs, the plan is for much more:
“We see this as a concrete entry into a much larger social travel play,” he says, and perhaps more: the code he and his developers are writing for CasaHop will also be used for future ventures coming out of SoHo Tech Labs, including another social startup, still in stealth, called RebelMouse.
Berry says the idea for CasaHop came out of his own house-sawpping experience. He says his family has done about 15 of them over the last few years, and they work “incredibly well.” But his use of homeexchange.com to find swaps was severely lacking: “The site is very basic. It doesn’t use a social layer at all,” he said. “They also charge quite a lot to list your house.”
House swapping on CasaHop will be free when the service goes live in the next few weeks. (For now it is open for people to start adding their home and personal profiles. To encourage sign-ups the site is giving away the chance to win free plane tickets. So far, he says, of all the people that visited and signed up for the site, 60 percent have uploaded home profiles.)
“Free” might be the thing to entice punters, but to keep them there, Berry and Co. are looking to create ways of matching up users and swaps in a way that has not been done before, using algorithms to mine social data to match up users in ways that haven’t been explored before in travel.
So it won’t be around offering your home to friends, or even friends of friends, but more nuanced ideas of finding commonalities around, say, where you attended university, what kind of job you have now, or perhaps even what music you like.
“It’s about using things like the open social graph and machine learning to find commonalities between people that are not immediately obvious,” he says. “There are a ton of clues out there that let you figure out who you can trust and why.”
Berry says that his team is drawing on experience gained at HuffPost, where they worked with the likes of Twitter and Google to figure out how to use their data to make HuffPost content go viral.
The same will go for CasaHop, with the added data gleaned from Facebook, which is currently what people need to use to register for the site — although the ability to sign in using Twitter or LinkedIn is also coming soon. That LinkedIn connection is especially interesting as a sign of how a social network largely designed around business use can be leveraged for sites that straddle consumer and business interests.
The team behind Soho Tech Labs — Ken Lerer, Eric Hippeau, Jonah Peretti, Eric Ashman, Paul Berry and Greg Coleman — are also joined by another ex-HuffPost employee, Ben Regenspan, who is the CTO of CasaHop; and a team of developers, about 15 in all, dotted around Ukraine, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Chile and India — “people in love with the business idea,” Berry says, and committed to launching as quickly as possible. “The speed with which we developed at HuffPost was an enormous part of our growth,” he said. “It’s about being clever and fast.”
So what will come after house swapping? A credit network based on indirect trades, which Berry describes as a user being able to trade with a house in Utah and earn points for a modest chateau in the South of France. (The chateau is my addition.) And, of course, travel advice. Berry’s experience of house swapping has been littered with dog-eared printouts of nice things to see in each location, and this will be about centralizing that and making it useful for all.
To make money, there will be affiliate deals for car rentals and airfare purchases, but also something around micropayments. He says he’s been inspired by OMPOP’s Draw Something, and the idea of paying incremental amounts to improve your position. (In layman’s terms it sounds like users paying a bit to help promote their homes on the site.) A service like this, he says, will only come when the site is at scale and attracting lots of traffic.
There are also some potential investors talking to the company, “big names” in the world of travel and beyond, says Berry. “It’s a great validation of what we are trying to do,” he says, all optimism at this early stage in the game. “It’s amazing how something can be totally disrupted in five years. We’ve done it with news, and now we want to do it with travel.”