Six years ago, before the sharing economy was as big as it is now, I was on the trip of a lifetime celebrating the sale of my publishing company when I got stranded at altitude in the Andes and nearly died.
For the best part of a year I was forced to rest and repair, which is a frustrating thing for any entrepreneur. But looking back, the timing could not have been better.
This was 2010, when the sharing economy was starting to take off, with early adopters beginning to get into Airbnb and Uber.
At the back of my mind I thought it would be great to come up with a sharing economy business idea that tapped into our willingness to share – then I met Dave.
Dave was a scruffy rescue dog with a huge heart and a love of adventure. He lived in Spain, where I happened to find myself on a house sit. The place I was staying in was great. Really beautiful, the perfect place to relax.
But it was the time I spent with Dave that made the trip one of the best experiences of my life. Dave gave me the idea to bring homeowners together with people like me, people who love animals and want to travel, but who can’t keep a pet – at least, not at this stage of our busy lives.
For pets like Dave, it meant no more kennels or catteries. Instead, they’d get a doting animal lover caring for them in their home through the sharing economy.
I had enough faith in the idea to invest everything I had in launching the business. I sold my car, and then I met Rachel – now my fiancée – who’d been a driving force behind the launches of eBay.co.uk and Tesco.com in the UK.
With our combined finances funding two round-the-world tickets to glean insights and sign up our first few hundred members, we knew we were onto a winner.
That first year, we experienced 70-per-cent growth, and we have maintained that level of growth every year since.
The sharing economy started as a rental proposition: you paid to use someone’s car, or stay in someone’s home. But our business model turns that on its head. The majority of our members housesit for free in return for accommodation all over the world – and when you see some of the properties, you can see why.
They include chateaux in France and Germany, penthouses in New York, manor houses in the British countryside and eco lodges in New Zealand with horses and alpacas.
As well as the super-sits, the fact we’re now the world’s biggest housesitting site – with a rapidly growing community of more than 300,000 in 140 countries – means there is an authentic adventure waiting for everyone, at any time, anywhere in the world.
Most importantly, home owners are finally able to travel without the stress and the cost of putting their pets in kennels.
Since 2011, we’ve saved our members more than £150m in travel accommodation and pet care costs, and the process of choosing a like-minded sitter who will sit for free has helped to build lasting friendships.
For people nervous about opening their home to someone they’ve only met on a Skype call or a previous face-to-face meeting, we have all sorts of ways to reassure them: a combination of free and paid for digital identity-verification badges including a criminal record check and reams of references from home owners.
The verification process is provided by our external partner, Onfido, one of the world’s leading digital identity verification businesses, with clients including major global banks, Handy, Uber and Deliveroo. References such as these are always requested prior to committing to a sit.
We’re proving that it works to use trust instead of currency, and that it’s a win-win for both parties. How else might a young couple, a digital nomad, or retired people later on in life, afford six weeks in Barbados, staying in a villa with an infinity pool while caring for a golden retriever?
I believe that 2017 will see a growing adoption of sharing through trust, not through finance. I predict that other businesses will follow our model, evolving it in many different ways.
And in years to come, consumers who are highly rated for their reliability, honesty and kindness could be favoured not only in the housesitting world, but in every aspect of living; when booking hotels, taxis, flights, festival tickets and restaurants.
This is the economy of the future: the trust economy.
Andy Peck, founder and CEO of TrustedHousesitters.com