MorningCroissant: Airbnb for the French countryside

Aug 21, 2012
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Walking over to the office of French startup MorningCroissant, I thought to myself, why would anybody want to do an AirBnB clone? Little did I know that I was about to learn a valuable lesson – that slapping the label ‘clone’ onto a startup can make you look very silly if you’re not careful..

Alix Taffle and co-founder Laurent used to travel a TON for work, and got very sick of chain hotels in the process. They decided that small scale hotels, BnB’s (or the French equivalent Chambres d’Hotes) are much more fun! The problem was, how to find them easily. Five years ago, they decided that a web based solution was called for, and they were the ones to build it! A lofty goal, long since realized by many players on the market.

To tackle the AirBnB comparison right away: Alix says, AirBnB basically took Craigslist, that previously was the leading marketplace for lots of things (in some markets, substitute for LeBonCoin if you’re thinking of France), and applied it to short term rentals. Of course they cleaned up the interface (Craigslist’s interface is famously bare) and they ‘own the transaction’, which Craigslist doesn’t do, but it’s the same principle, and indeed, before AirBnB, if you looked for a short term rental, Craigslist (again, in some markets) was the only game in town as it had the most offers on it, and as such, offered the best selection.

We don’t think about it very much, but the French short-term rental market is huge, worth some €4bn per year (if the socialists don’t kill it). From American tourists with their apartments in the Marais to French people vacationing in the countryside, it’s a huge market that’s growing at a fast clip, some 15% per year. Of that market, a whopping 95% of the transactions are done on small websites, LeBonCoin, paper magazine ads, and other fragmented channels. The only ‘large’ player in town, Abritel, is thoroughly stuck in the 80’s – you still have to send a cheque in the mail to the owner of the property.

So considering that this huge market is mostly untapped, they started in April 2011 with MorningCroissant, and launched the first version of their site in August 2011. Their focus is on the smaller towns in France, down to the very small villages, differentiating themselves very effectively that way from AirBnB, who focus on urbanites in large French cities. This makes sense – of the 1.5 billion short-term nights paid for in France, 95% take place outside of Paris, and 2/3rds are French people.

This makes them utterly unlike AirBnB.

What’s a clone?

At this point during the interview, I had this sinking feeling that my smug label of ‘AirBnB clone’ was completely wrong, and I felt silly. But let’s look into this a bit – why do we call a clone a clone?

On the surface, MorningCrossaint and AirBnB are similar – you go to the websites, and both list private residences that you can rent like a hotel, and you pay for them online using your credit card. So far, so similar. But their strategies are completely different. In fact, they barely compete at all, because they operate in such completely different markets, using such different acquisition strategies.

So wait – their PRODUCTS look similar, but their STRATEGIES are completely different? I think we’re onto something here. There’s no cloning going on here – the products are the same because, well, it’s pretty obvious, this type of website is basically eBay plus Expedia, both children of the dot com era. So the takeaway here should be that we (or at least I!) should be careful when labeling something a clone. Rocket Internet is different in this regard, as they also copy execution strategies, but apply them to different markets. Now we’re copying both product (sometimes even design, I’m told!), and execution, and sometimes even in the same market (think Glossybox). But there are tons of startups out there that unjustly get labeled ‘clone’, so I, for one, will be a lot more careful with that term from now on.

Their other point of strength is their obsessive focus on high-quality customer service, something they learned working at GumTree (a UK version of Craiglist/LeBonCoin). Because of the market that they are going after is people that are new to using the Internet for this sort of thing, that sounds like a great way to support their growth.

Then the conversation turns to insurance. After the incident in San Francisco, where someone’s apartment that was rented out through AirBnB got trashed, and the owners ended up paying for the damage out of their pocket, insurance became a pretty important subject. MorningCroissant has one of the best in the business that will cover up to €1.5m.

Finally, let’s talk about money. Their funding situation – 400ke raised from a mix of angels – so they clearly have the ability to convince some of the experts about their business model. What is that business model? They take 15% of the transaction, 12% of which the guest pays, and 3% from the host. This covers the insurance also.

Their future plan include expanding the development team, expanding their coverage of the French regions. Their marketing includes AdWords, and advertising in paper magazines. Competitors include Rocket Internet powered Wimdu, and AirBnB (sort of, as we learned).