The Interview: Brian Sharples of HomeAway
EPTR’s David McKay Wilson recently stopped by HomeAway’s international headquarters in Austin, TX. to speak with Brian Sharples, 53, the CEO and co-founder of the company with listings for 890,000 vacation rentals in 191 countries. Sharples, just back from a ski vacation in Aspen, talked about the company’s growth since it was launched in 2005, and the future of HomeAway’s thriving online vacation marketplace.
HomeAway’s online sites around the world include VRBO.com and VacationRentals.com in the United States; HomeAway.co.uk and OwnersDirect.co.uk in the United Kingdom; HomeAway.de in Germany; Abritel.fr and Homelidays.com in France; HomeAway.es and Toprural.es in Spain; AlugueTemporada.com.br in Brazil; HomeAway.com.au and Stayz.com.au in Australia; and Bookabach.co.nz in New Zealand.
How did you come up with the idea for HomeAway?
I’d finished a 10-year run with a company I’d brought public, and sold. I’d made some money in the deal, and decided to take some time off to figure out my next move. My family had rented houses on long weekend trips and, in the process of finding those places, it hit me that it was a frustrating process. You had to find a local company, but you never knew if it was comparable to the last one.
How did you come up with HomeAway’s model, which is essentially an online classified listing for vacation home owners around the world?
At first we wanted to create a vacation club, where the thought was that we would acquire a bunch of houses, and allow people to buy into it. But then we learned you didn’t have to own the houses. You didn’t need a club. There are millions of houses available around the world.
Why did you settle on the classified-ad model?
When co-founder Carl Shepard and I were looking into the business, we found others had failed when they tried to apply what works in the hotel industry, with online booking. We adopted a simpler model. Vacation homes are personal possessions and we found the owners wanted to talk to the people who would be staying in their house. So we took the low-tech approach, and just created a classified ad.
How does it work?
Owners subscribe at a cost of about $400 a year. And people who find their online listings have paid the owners directly.
Did you think your company would grow so quickly when you launched it in 2005?
Today we have 890,000 listings – far in excess of the business plan we put together. I’ve been in the start-up world, and rarely do you have a situation where your rosy expectations were exceeded. The market ended up being bigger than we expected. There was value in consolidating websites from around the world. Some travelers were switching from saying in hotels. We made it easier, and people got hooked on this stuff. And they realized they could come to us and find a place anywhere.
So creating a global company was crucial.
When we launched, we did so with a big vision. If you are going to an Expedia of a different category, you have to go at it aggressively. When we launched, we acquired five businesses simultaneously, in Europe and the US.
Why did you decide to develop your own pay platform in late 2013, giving owners the option of paying Homeaway 10 percent of the rent they charge?
Now the market has changed, and consumers were demanding secure online payment, with credit cards. Our average customer receives about $18,000 a year in rental income. At 10 percent, they’ll be paying us $1,800 instead of $400. Once it becomes a better deal for them to switch to $400, we’ll let them know. It’s a way for lowering their risk of getting into the marketplace.
Where was your last vacation?
We were just in Aspen. With my kids, we ski Snowmass. If I’m by myself, I’ll ski the bowls at Aspen Highlands. If friends are in town, I’ll ski Ajax. It’s more convenient.
Visit HomeAway for more information
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.