Creating homes for internationals, one city at a time

Niels van Deuren from Rotterdam started HousingAnywhere: a platform through which you can safely arrange housing for your next international adventure. The platform is thriving in over 60 countries, but getting it to launch in Hamburg was no easy feat. In fact, it took about 5 years! I managed to track down my fellow Dutchie to talk about the difficulties of finding housing abroad and how he accidentally upset all of Hamburg universities by not following the rules … Classic!

By Irene Broer

Tell us, why did you found HousingAnywhere?

In 2009, when I was still at university, I was going to Singapore for a semester abroad. I needed a room for these 6 months and quickly discovered that there was no easy way to arrange this. At the same time, I wanted to sublet my room in Rotterdam, but that was also not easy. So I thought, I’ll build a platform myself on which I can at least sublet my own room to someone who’s going to live in Rotterdam for half a year.

What so difficult about finding accommodation abroad?

It’s mostly a network and language issue. Most locals will find accommodation by word of mouth. Someone will say ‘Oh, my friend is just moving out, you can take over their room’ or something like that. Internationals miss out on that. Plus, many internationals don’t speak the language yet. So you probably won’t understand the ads on a local accommodation website, and if you reply in English, you might scare people off.

I also know lots of stories of people who got scammed trying to arrange accommodation from abroad.

Getting scammed is actually a very big problem. The typical case it that the supposed landlord requests that you transfer a certain amount of rent or deposit up front, after which they disappear into thin air.

Is there a way to avoid that from happening?

On HousingAnywhere, the people who will rent the room pay rent through our platform first. We then tell the landlords that the money has arrived, but we only transfer it to them two days after the tenant arrives at the place and has verified that everything is in order.

That’s super clever!

Yep, so if a landlord has put up a sham, they’ll obviously never receive the money and the tenant gets their money back.

Last time I checked, the platform covers over 60 countries. You also closely cooperate with universities the world over. Why do you need this cooperation?  Can’t you just launch wherever you want?

We could launch wherever – we’re an internet business. But international students make up the majority of people who need mid term accommodation abroad, let’s say from a month up to one or two years. And we’ve found it’s much more effective to reach them through universities. Getting universities on board creates trust for us, and it helps them with their international student housing problem.

So what’s the story on HousingAnywhere in Hamburg?

We actually launched the platform in Hamburg about 5 years ago, then dialed it down, and now we’re back again.

Sounds like something interesting went down, tell me more!

Haha, yes. It started out great. One of my friends was from Hamburg and he arranged a  meeting with the five most prominent universities. We pitched our platform and explained how their students could put their rooms on it and how their incoming international students could use it to find housing. They all liked the idea, so we launched in Hamburg.

Wait, wait, wait. The directors of Hamburg’s major universities were that easy to convince of an international digital solution?

Okay, maybe I’m glossing over some parts. First of all, it was quite a feat to arrange this meeting in the first place. They were pretty difficult to convince, saying that they already had websites for student accommodation. But those websites were in German …

Of course …

… So we said, we have something for internationals, who don’t speak German. Then they would say, “No need, the internationals can just learn German.”

Uggghhh!

Yep. Anyway, after a lot of phone calls and emails, they agreed to this meeting. After hearing our pitch they were convinced, thankfully, so we could launch the platform in Hamburg, which was cool.

Excellent work!

Yeah. But after that, unfortunately our good relations with the Hamburg universities started to turn sour a little bit. Partly because of organisational changes on our side, but also because of my Dutch approach, I think.

Oh no, fellow Dutchie. What did you do?

Normally when we’d launch in a city, we’d go all out: handing out flyers, attaching posters and stickers all over the university campus. In the Netherlands, just like in Germany, you’re not allowed to do that everywhere. There’s rules for that. But I would always tell my promotional team to do it anyway: if they’re sent away, go stand somewhere else, it’s fine. Turns out in Germany, they actually really don’t like that.

You broke the rules!

Little bit, yeah. I received some very, very angry emails from one university, and of course they immediately but all four other universities in the CC, saying “This is unacceptable, we heard that you are deliberately giving your promotional team instructions to undermine our rules…” Which was true, but I thought, well, it’s just flyers…

They don’t like that at all …

In the Netherlands, we have rules too, but there’s always some flexibility. If a policeman stops you for biking without a headlight, you can always argue for your case. You’re almost home, it’s cold, whatever. Sometimes it works! But in Germany, rules are rules. It’s black and white, no gray area whatsoever.

Did you make any other cultural faux pas in Hamburg?

Let me think – this was 5 years ago. Yes, for instance, failing to make an official appointment if you want to talk to someone. That was actually one of my strategies for promoting HousingAnywhere …

Classic.

In the Netherlands, I would always tell my promotional team to just knock on people’s door and walk in. Just to ask a simple question, for instance if they could put a link to our platform on their website, or if they could mention us to their new international students. The questions and answers together would take no more than three minutes. In Germany, my promotional team tried to convince me that they really needed to book appointments to do this. But I said no, in the Netherlands we learned it’s much quicker and easier to just walk in, so just do that – it’ll be fine.

It was not fine, was it?

Nope. The universities were pretty upset about all the promoters simply walking into people’s offices without having made appointments … So, yeah.

How did it end?

Well, all these small things simply added up to such an extent that the universities pulled out. “We like your idea,” they said, “but we don’t like your working methods.” So unfortunately, that was it for our partnerships with universities in Hamburg.

But … Now you’re back!

Yes, we are! Since a few months, we’ve been in touch with those universities again. A couple years have gone by, we’ve learned from our mistakes. HousingAnywhere is doing really well in Berlin, so we’ve got that to show. And arranging housing for international students is still an issue in Hamburg. We let the universities know that many Hamburg landlords have already joined our platform, so if they wanted in, we’d be very happy. So now we’re online again!

Fantastic! Any cultural issues so far?

No, not really. We found out Germans find it quite important to know what happens to their data, more so than other places. So we had to change our server location from the US to Ireland.

Alright. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you, Niels! Thanks for making our international lives easier. Take care!

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