How Smartbnb Navigated Through Covid-19

navigating through covid

By Pierre-Camille Hamana

CEO and Founder of Smartbnb

Starting 2020 when we first heard about Covid-19, Smartbnb was a company serving around 3,000 short-term rental businesses, with a distributed team of 14.

January-February: Covid Is a Big Flu.

January 30th, we started talking internally about “the coronavirus”. Nobody took it seriously, and it was all memes and jokes then.

coronavirus jokes

But, February 2nd, Airbnb started sharing their extenuating circumstances policy that gave guests and hosts the option to cancel without charges if they were impacted by things like illness, travel restrictions, and other unforeseen events. Millions of Chinese employees started working from home.

There’s a lot of uncertainty whether or not Covid-19 will impact hosting business and our company.

February 12th, first customer from China reached out to our support team to ask for their subscription to be paused, directly mentioning the impact of the pandemic.

March-April: This Is Serious Now

March 4th, we learned Italy is starting to lock down.

March 6th, the first customer from Italy reached us out asking to pause their subscription and mentioned Covid-19.

We also received news that the VRMA European Conference in Lisbon was getting cancelled. Anthony read that email while boarding his plane from the US to Europe. He did actually travel to Europe anyway.

Anthony Monaco

March 10th, we read that article that put things into perspective. It was clear – everything was serious, and the crisis couldn’t be eliminated. We just could so something to reduce its impact.

March 11th, to nobody’s surprise, WHO called Covid-19 a pandemic.

March 12th, rumors started spreading on news tickers that the US would close borders with European countries where the pandemic was gaining momentum. Anthony was then in Lisbon for an event that had been cancelled. We got a call at 11pm on how to get back to the US as quickly as possible. Anthony was able to take the first plane back to the US, and borders were closed a few hours after he landed in SFO. This was so stressful, and I was genuinely relieved to hear his voice when he came back.

March 13th, Europe woke up under lockdown, with banned travel. Coronavirus was top of mind, there was nothing else.

Like every Friday, we shared updates on the business situation. I had run a few numbers and came up with a plan. As usual, we were very transparent with our usual numbers although I have redacted the presentation to facilitate the public sharing. But in reality, the financial situation was pretty transparent anyway.

This was the case I wanted to make clear to my team.

Things are changing, but we are going to navigate them. We need to focus on the things that really matter long-term:

  • Our Net Promoter Score first: customers that are fans of a product will reactivate it the moment they can;
  • Only then we should think about our Runway and Monthly Recurring Revenue. Sure, we are going to be working in survival mode for some time, but our business is in a very good situation anyway. In fact, February was our best month of record, with a considerable profit behind.

We also decided to issue coupons to customers that wanted to cancel the subscription, with the hope that their revenue would be reactivating faster. That was incredibly powerful decision, and it serves our customers well.

Naturally, the team was concerned about the business health, but I wanted to make it clear that we needed to care about our own health first and foremost. Social isolation would be hard to swallow, we needed to rely on each other, and be open, and flexible. It was not the right time to make up deadlines. To make sure that all team members would not feel isolated, we set up “donut calls.” The system randomly picks two employees and helps to schedule a one-on-one call twice a week.

It was tricky to communicate about plans regarding the compensation. I always feel that hiding the elephant in the room is stressful for everyone. Plans can be readjusted, but coming up with no plan at all would have been confusing, and that’s not my style. I would not want to let go of anyone then for strictly economic reasons. I actually maintained a hiring position.

And I got the chance to introduce some Battlestar Galactica references. I don’t think it was inappropriate; the world seemed to collapse around us, and we were all concerned about what comes next.

March 16th, we were holding a webinar with industry experts and discussed the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the market. We shared tips for hosts (especially for those in the US) to give them a chance to prepare for what was coming next.

We Launch Footshake

March 18th, after this webinar, we came up with an idea for a new alternative product.

At that time, there was a large inventory of properties being vacant, while everyone was working from home, with their partners, kids, and often without the appropriate equipment.

We were well-placed to know that it was hard, especially if the situation was expected to last for a long time. We were also well-placed to work on this, since we had access to the inventory of 150,000 properties around the world.

The idea was to support our customers during that difficult time when their reservations were dropping to zero and critical employees during the largest work from home experiment. I presented it during a meeting with the team.

March 23rd, footshake.com was launched. It’s a platform that connects employees and hosts. It allows hosts to manage bookings and helps employees pick their home office near their home. We completed this project in a record time … and, surprisingly, the most time-consuming task was actually development of the marketing website.

What’s Next?

We later went back to working on Smartbnb with a renewed energy… But then something daunted on us.

We started realizing that Covid-19 was here to stay, and even if a vaccine is developed, it’s a complex process, and it will take a lot of time to produce it in the quantities necessary for a significant part of the population. So we have to be ready for a pessimistic scenario and redesign our business totally to survive during this tough time.

We can’t ignore the actual reduction of capacity that will happen for travel & hospitality. It will take years to rebuild everything to reach the same level. Travel has changed forever, and although we are confident our business will recover in time, it no longer seems to be the best usage of our resources to invest them all in Smartbnb, with a total exposure to a first, second, or third wave of the pandemic.

Footshake was not a great fit for us. The business model was very ops-driven, which mean no one knew how to do it really well. It was hard for us because the team at Smartbnb is focused on product & engineering, and shipping software.

And now, we have a survival plan that helps us remain optimistic.  We believe we can emerge with a business that is stronger than the business we had before the Covid-19 crisis.

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