Guitarists sent videos of themselves playing, photographers sent links to their portfolios, somebody who’s good at Indonesian cooking applied, and so did standup comedians. An Indian #startup’s pilot to let people barter their skills – anything from yoga to coding – in exchange for free stay in Indian homes has got people applying from all over the world.
“There is a Spanish lady who does workshops for theater enthusiasts. She sent us videos of her plays. The diversity of skills of the applicants amazed us,” says Arjun Tuli, co-founder of Stay on Skill, another variation on the Airbnb model.
There is a Spanish lady who does workshops for theater enthusiasts. The diversity of skills of the applicants amazed us.
Here’s how it works. Guests provide some proof of their skills – like a video or a certificate – to apply for free stay in destinations of their choice. They are matched with hosts in those destinations who offer accommodation to travelers for free, in exchange for learning a skill.
Not only does this make traveling the world affordable for people with skills they can teach, it also connects them with like-minded people locally. Tuli started with the idea of providing the service for techies, “to help folks in the tech community travel and be hosted by startups.” He thought there would be many takers for hosting coders and designers, founders and investors, but the response was lukewarm.
Then he shifted focus to India as a destination instead of a specific community, and the idea caught on. “We had to close out the applications at 300 as we wanted just 30 people for the first tour,” says Tuli. Based on this experience, the platform will be opened up and made global.
He also shared an interesting number from the applicants’ list: 48.2 percent of the applicants were solo women travelers – “which I think is pretty big when it comes to India,” Tuli says.
Different from other volunteering models
This is Tuli’s second startup. The earlier one was Knowledge Maps, which was selected for Startup Chile. The idea was to build a community to share and curate the best learning resources for any topic on the internet.
But it failed to find a product-market fit in time. “We were able to get some funding for it, and had some good mentors. We worked for a year and a half on it but ran out of money before we could see the product getting traction,” says Tuli. “The biggest mistake I could spot was that we didn’t follow a lean methodology to build the product.”
He doesn’t want to repeat that mistake with Stay on Skill. So he’s starting with a pilot project, with a limited number of tourists and hosts in India, to validate the concept and finetune operational details.
The idea of trading skills for free travel accommodation is not new. But mostly it involves doing some work in exchange for free food and stay, such as on Workaway and HelpX. Italy has a barter week promotion of tourism in which participating bed-and-breakfast lodges accept services or even goods, like artworks or gadgets, in exchange for the B&B. WWOOF has a mission to promote organic living – it lets travelers volunteer to work on organic farms and stay there for free.
Tuli figures that most people traveling for vacations in exotic places don’t want to spend four to six hours a day on menial work. “There is a Happy Panda hostel in Goa, whose founder takes in people from Workaway. He told me that it’s a good substitute for regular labor, and that the only people he now needs to hire for the hostel are janitors. The rest of the hostel is managed by travelers. Which is good in one way. But where do you get time to explore the place you have travelled to?”
So Tuli decided to focus on homestays rather than hostels or farms, and on refined skills and knowledge like music and yoga, coding and finance – which guests could teach in their spare time while enjoying their vacation. And he’s building in a process of curation which will filter out freeloaders with no real skills of that kind to offer.
Early believers and challengers
Tuli discussed the idea with Rajshree Bothra, who was a mentor for his earlier startup. She had gained experience in consumer-facing businesses as general manager for marketing, of Whirlpool India and growth strategy executive for niche ecommerce site Zivame.
Rajshree loved the idea of Stay on Skill and joined up with Tuli as a co-founder. That she had a stint in Paris after her MBA, learning to bake pastries at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, probably influenced how fast she related to the concept.
Another early believer is Abhishek Garg. He and Tuli are both part of a community of entrepreneurs called Morpheus Gang. Garg, who is an avid traveler, came up with the idea of the India tour to kick off Stay on Skill and get the word out. The tour began on July 1.
But it will take a lot more than guerilla marketing to scale this up. So far, Stay on Skill has onboarded 35 hosts out of about 150 who applied. Apart from suitable amenities, the curation here has the added layer of finding hosts who have the time and inclination to engage with a guest and learn a skill.
This curation at the host-end was important to make the idea of Stay on Skill work. One hack Tuli tried is to target users of sites like Coursera and Udacity who might be interested in hosting somebody with a specific skill they want to learn. Another way is to reach out to parents who send their kids to summer camps for learning various skills. Kids learning foreign languages could also benefit from hosting a native speaker.
What works for Airbnb and others is also the underlying tech, which tries to make applying, curation, verification, onboarding, payments, feedback, and troubleshooting as seamless as possible. Tuli’s computer engineering education and experience with his previous startup will be handy. He hopes to put together a crack engineering team with help from his Morpheus Gang entrepreneur network.
He’s also trying to hire interns for each of the tourist destinations where Stay on Skill has hosts. They can help with initiation, orientation, and handling problems that may arise. But it’s a challenge to do this at scale. And the more it deviates from a marketplace model to go hands-on, the harder it gets to keep a lid on costs while scaling up.
It’s early days yet for the startup. What he’s banking on is not only a desire to learn new things, but also an eagerness among highly skilled people to connect with new communities and teach.
“One of the people who wants to travel to India is a veteran Silicon Valley investor of Indian origin,” says Tuli. So many people like that applied for the India tour and showed us that it wasn’t just the free stay bit that was attracting travelers, but also the cultural exchange. People want to give it back to society in fun ways.”