9flats, The European Airbnb Competitor, Now Accepting Bitcoin Payments

When Bitcoin made headlines last month for reaching the billion-dollar mark, it became a lot harder to scoff at the crypto-currency. What may have started off as an uber-geeky experiment, backed by anarchists and crazy digital libertarians alone, is garnering more and more legitimacy by the day. And as Rip Empson recently wrote, much of that legitimacy comes from a growing number of startups who have began to support Bitcoin payments.

Today, 9flats, which operates a short rentals marketplace similar to and competing with Airbnb, has flicked the switch on its own Bitcoin support. The Berlin-headquartered startup now accepts Bitcoin payment, alongside various credits cards and PayPal. There’s one caveat, however. Bitcoin payment will only be accepted for instant bookings, which make up roughly 50% of 9flats bookings. That’s because the nature of Bitcoins and, presumably, its volatility, means that 9flats is unable to pre-authorize payments and then charge later when the host accepts.

With_iPhoneSensibly, 9flats is shielding itself from future fluctuations in the crypto-currency by immediately exchanging Bitcoin payments to Euros, thus it isn’t storing any Bitcoins, protecting itself and its users (the 9flats hosts) from any exposure to the currency. Or, to put it another way, there is no risk if the bubble bursts in between a user booking accommodation on 9flats and the host getting paid.

In addition, via third-party provider BitPay.com, Bitcoin prices on 9flats are calculated and converted in real-time.

(Update: 9flats hosts are now able to accept Bitcoin as a method of payment.)

But, besides generating easy PR, why go to the trouble of adding Bitcoin support at all? 9flats CEO Stephan Uhrenbacher says that “interest in Bitcoin is soaring like crazy” and that the company had a number of requests from customers in parts of the world where online payment is a hassle. He also says the company was surprised by the ease of integration. “When you pay online with Bitcoin on 9flats, you can see the transaction live, it is even faster and more seamless than other forms of online payments.”

Candidly, however, Uhrenbacher adds: “Nobody knows if Bitcoin is the new future currency or just a gigantic bubble. Nevertheless it is amazing how well the concept works in practice.”

One thing that did occur to me, however, is given the perceived anonymous nature of Bitcoin compared to other payment methods, might that not increase the risk for hosts accepting guests into their home, over say those using a credit card. But then again, arguably, Bitcoin isn’t all that anonymous after all. Meanwhile, credit card or PayPal identity isn’t impenetrable, either.