Sitting Down with Swimply Founder and CEO, Bunim Laskin
I was fortunate enough to sit down (over Zoom) with Bunim Laskin, founder and CEO of Swimply, an online marketplace for swimming pool rentals. What started out as Bunim using Google Earth to find houses with pools, and then knocking on their doors to ask if they could rent them out, has turned into a booming startup that has raised a $11.2MM Series A in a round led by Norwest Venture Partners. Swimply is mutually beneficial for hosts and guests alike; swimming pool owners can capitalize on their backyard’s underutilized yet in-demand amenity, while locals have the opportunity to rent them out. Over 20,000 pools are available on the platform across the United States, Canada and Australia. Similar to other business models within the sharing economy, Swimply profits through a 15% booking fee from hosts and another 10% from guests.
Max Ash: What were some obstacles that you faced with Swimply at the onset, and what iterations did you make to the product as you grew?
Bunim Laskin: There were iterations that we had to make throughout the process. A lot of it was just learning what users wanted and what questions users would have. Like, people are booking a pool, what do they care about? Turns out, lounge chairs are really crucial for booking a pool; we never thought they would be. Then, we found out a lot of swimmers don’t even get into the pool, so the area around the pool became important. So, we started incentivizing hosts to put more effort into that area and put in furniture around the pool; a lot of that had to do with the space as opposed to the water.
A big element was also pricing. There was A) What were people looking for in the listing? So, we made that transparent and are constantly learning what users are looking for… so that transactions were more fluid. In terms of pricing, we were faced with the question of how much were people willing to pay for this, because it’s a new brand. How do we compare it? Do we compare it to what people are willing to pay for public pools, beaches and willing to pay for Miami? Where do we fit into these local experiences? And so, we had no clue and had users do what they wanted; we monitored who was successful and who wasn’t. Who was getting the repeat rates, and who wasn’t? Who was getting the one and dones, and who was getting the return customers? We saw there was no universal answer for that, because depending where the pool was, people would pay more. In New York, it is like a Ferrari — people are willing to pay a ton of money. In L.A., Miami, Texas, Arizona, it’s more like a Toyota — people were paying different things, so we realized that since people were paying different amounts, we can’t just come up with one generic price across the board. What people were willing to pay [was] based on cold markets, warm markets [and] how much competition there was. Then, we started gathering data and educating hosts; there was a big difference. A smart host priced well is going to earn 20 times more than a host that charges $10 more. When people see a Swimply, they’re seeing something that’s going to be a part of their life. It’s not a one-time experience. If they see something that’s $100 an hour, they see something that’s going to be a fun one-time experience, but it's not going to be something that I’m going to be doing regularly.
We’re still in the learning phases of what users want, what they’re willing to pay and how to make it dynamic. Like families are willing to pay so-and-so dollars an hour, but parties are willing to pay much, much more. But if you price it for parties, then it’s going to be too expensive for families; but if you price it for families, then parties are going to book it for that [lower] price. So, how do we find ways to make it dynamically priced for parties, families, photoshoots?
What we noticed was that everyone was negotiating like crazy and we wanted to get rid of that; we wanted to make it intelligent.
It’s been product mostly until now. What should we show? What should we price for? The other thing was, we initially built Swimply with the plan that people would have one or two bookings a week, maximum. The whole concept was that pools would pay for themselves, and we found out that owners were earning a ton — they were earning over a hundred grand. They’re having thousands of people in their backyard, and are renting out their pool from 7 a.m. until midnight — it was starting to affect neighborhoods dramatically. People felt like they were living next to Hurricane Harbor in their suburban area. We had to figure out, how do we make sure owners are not just thinking about the money but the neighborhood itself? We implemented a neighborhood-friendly policy where you had to agree to a bunch of things about having communications with your neighbors, and we gave the neighbors tools — we gave them a product where they can report their host. Swimply is a community-driven platform and we wanted to keep it that way. We had to figure out, how do we maintain the integrity of the neighborhood? That was probably the other big element we had to focus on.
What do you look for in a co-founder or a potential employee? How do you factor in the concept of homophily?
So, I’ll tell you what I’ve done and what I’ve regretted. In the beginning, I looked for friends. I figured, this is going to be hard and lonely, so you better do it with someone you want to be lonely with. The allure of starting with a friend is so attractive. It’s you two against the world, but it won’t be. Give it time, and it will be you and the world versus your friend. The best thing to do is keep your friends as supporting figures in your life. People you can talk to and vent to the way you won’t vent to employees or co-founders or investors; that’s what friends should always be. I completely disagree with the idea of partnering up with friends — almost every CEO I know has lost friendships trying to build businesses with them. In the beginning, I looked for friends; now, I will passionately stay far away from them. I have friends that don’t love me because they want to be at Swimply. I’m like, I know how this starts and I know where this goes. I’m here to be your friend, and I’m not here to be your boss. That may not be the case for everybody — some people are really agreeable, but if both of you are passionate enough to be good entrepreneurs, then you’re probably going to collide. The one time I’m going to say it’s an exception is if your skill sets are so grossly different; when there’s no overlap whatsoever. It’s almost industry standard that it’s going to be 50/50. Industry standard is that CEO and CTO, for example, are both equally respected in the industry. He’ll be able to have his respect and his dominance, and you’ll be able to have yours. That is the one time where I’ll say it’s okay.
Now, I’ll look for people who don’t like to be comfortable. You see multiple values that people are willing to be uncomfortable in order to get stuff done because professionals love to be really comfortable and really accommodated, so I can’t stand that. I enterprise [someone who] gets what you need done and diversity. People who come from different cultures and different backgrounds. Different perspectives. At Swimply, we’re ridiculously diverse as far as women, people of color, people from around the world. That’s something we’ve kept in mind from day one. You never want to overlap on perspective.
The biggest challenge is that some people see startups as a game. Most people start startups in the phase of not-real-life yet. You don’t have much to lose, and that’s why people totally overlook the real life dynamics of it. Like, “Hey, we both drink together or go to class together. Let’s go into real life together.” And they both don’t realize that real life is not played by the same rules that school and sports and games and drinking were. It has an entirely different set of rules, and it’s not as fun doing with your friends. It’s a lot more fun doing it with people that bring new things to the table, and your friends can be there as friends.
What was your thought process in terms of brand partnerships, specifically the Swimply mansion?
Ultimately, I think TikTok is the future of marketing and we needed a way to get land grab there quickly. We thought about this two weeks before the summer started. How can we do this really fast and how can we do this really innovatively? It’s easy, or relatively easy, for influencers to become relevant on TikTok, but how will a brand gain traction? How will we be a company but also about content? We saw one brand called Wish that was doing this very corporate-style house. It was an e-commerce company, publicly traded, huge, they had this half-a-million-dollar a month property. But it was super corporate… nobody cared about the house; people came over for the gym, for the views, but they had no engagement. Then you had the content houses, people that stayed in tune for the next video. We wanted to merge the two and take the corporate side of Wish… but also the content house of these influencers so you get the fans and the followers and the engagement and the hype. So we did that. We got a house in the [Hollywood] Hills, and we invited a bunch of influencers to live there and we switched them out. In order for them to come to our events, they had to post… We got about 150 thousand followers over the summer, and got a hundred million views on our videos on TikTok. We have a pretty strong brand there.
What were other forms of marketing or other initiatives that you took beyond the natural word of mouth and your Shark Tank appearance?
We’re very hyper-local. Meaning, we’re marketing in L.A. for people to build pools in L.A.. We did a lot of offline stuff for Swimply that wouldn’t necessarily work for a company if they were publicly-traded. We did billboards in local towns. A lot of what we did was mobilize our hosts. What’s really unique about Swimply is that our pool owners can market to their guests; you can’t do that on Uber and you can’t do that on Airbnb. But our hosts are selling services to their community and their neighborhood. A lot of what we did was have a team that could train our hosts to mobilize and make Instagram accounts, for example. We don’t see Swimply as an Airbnb-type product; we see them as franchises, as businesses. Each one has their own group of guests. Every host that joins the platform is their own business essentially, and they’re incentivized to market to everyone within five miles. We have a pool team that will help you fund ideas to pitch your pool. We have all these franchises that are partners with us in how to grow their market. On a hyperlocal level, the two things we did were billboards/flyers and hyper-mobilization.
What advice would you give to new founders who are going out there with just an idea?
There’s no objective advice when you’re just getting started. Ignorance, for me, was incredibly bliss. If I knew all the work and challenges, and the mockery that would come with getting started, and the amount of failures and rejection, I would have never gotten started. I’m very into learning what you need to get to the next step, and, once you get to the next step, figure it out then. You want to make sure there’s a light somewhere. What’s your North Star, your light at the end of the tunnel? Once you’re okay with the vision and you know that it’s a destination, go and figure out, okay, that’s point 10, so I need to go from point 1, 2, 3. People think: that’s point 10, how do I get from 1 to 2, and then 3, and then 4, before they even get to point one. They’re just mapping out the entire road and they’ll never start. Even if you do start, you’ll get exhausted by the time you’re at point 2 and you’ll be like ‘Oh my G-d, I’m only at point 2.’ Just shut up and get it done. Think about 1 and get it done. Think about 2 and get it done… The more you learn the more you’ll think, which will just give you more reasons to not get started. Ignorance is bliss. Take that destination and find the first step needed to get to that destination.
So where’s that fine line between going with the idea/ignorance is bliss and doing enough due diligence to know that your idea is legitimate?
What I would focus on is, what is the vision? Does the vision make any sense? Do people care? If that [idea] was real, would that be awesome? And then, I would figure out steps on how to get there.
Photo Caption: Bunim Laskin, Founder of Swimply
Photo Credit: Swimply