HomeExchange Turns 25: Ed Kushins Looks Back… and Forward
In 2017, HomeExchange celebrates its 25th birthday! Here are some reflections from HomeExchange founder Ed Kushins on the quarter-century journey from modest origins to today.
“Hey Ed, our end-of-January newsletter is scheduled to include a piece tentatively titled What We’ve Learned in 25 Years. Can you put some thoughts into an article?”
I usually jump right into tasks like this, especially one that celebrates 25 Years of HomeExchange. But I found myself uncharacteristically procrastinating. Introspection made me realize how much the past 25 years have meant to me, and how I accept the future. I also felt uncomfortable that “What We’ve Learned” sounded a little “preachy.”
So I’m just going to share a few stories and personal thoughts. You can decide if there is anything to be learned.
Modest, Almost Accidental, Origins
HomeExchange didn’t start as a business. In 1992, recently divorced, I wanted to take my kids (then 14 and 11) to Washington D.C. on vacation. I knew it would be a rough trip with sightseeing all day and then returning to a cramped hotel room with two beds, one chair, one TV and no refrigerator. I get up early but my kids slept late, so I’d have to wait two hours for breakfast.
This was in the days before the internet or Google, but through word-of-mouth I had heard about “home swapping” and tracked down some people willing to trade their home in Washington for our place in Hermosa Beach. It was great! My kids and I each had our own bedrooms, and there was a swimming pool, pool table, pinball machines and three TVs. Best of all, we had a kitchen with a refrigerator that I could stock with cereal, milk, fruit and other stuff to satisfy a hunger at any time of day.
I learned first-hand how much more comfortable home swapping is than staying in a hotel, besides not having to pay anything. An unexpected benefit: we didn’t have to check in after 3PM or check out by 11AM.
Finding Structure and Going Online
Following that, I still had no idea of starting a business; instead, I just wanted to share the home-swapping concept with other people. So I started a little club for people who wanted to exchange their homes during vacations, using a mail-ordered, printed directory.
By 1995, what had started as an avocation turned into a shared passion with over 1,000 other club members. But spreading the word was challenging and the cost of producing and distributing the printed directory made it a very expensive hobby. I was the chief cook and bottle washer, except for my friend Judy, who would come to my house to answer the phone and stuff envelopes.
Then, thank goodness some guys invented the internet! I was lucky to recognize its potential as a tool for expanding reach and lower costs, so I shifted to an online community. Not only was HomeExchange.com one of the first internet-based businesses, it was one of the first social communities within the travel industry. We now have more than 70,000 active members around the world in more than 150 countries.
Keeping Things “Small”
Having worked at big companies, I made it a point to keep the feel of the company “small,” even as we were getting bigger. A visit to a Chevy plant many years ago had a surprising influence on how we grew HomeExchange. I don’t remember much about the tour except my surprise that the parking lot was filled with Fords and Toyotas. I couldn’t understand why anyone at a Chevy plant wouldn’t be driving Chevys.
Years later, as we slowly added capacity to HomeExchange, we did so almost entirely by recruiting from within the community. Today almost every Team member is an active HomeExchanger. I like to think that this translates into better products, better service and a better experience for all our members. I even met William and Jim, my two partners, who are now my best friends, when and because they were doing home exchanges in Hermosa Beach. Karma?
Tapping Trust, Optimism and Curiosity
I’ve been exceptionally lucky to spend 25 years working with a team and members who appreciate what HomeExchange offers. We very rarely get calls from people who start off angry or unhappy, and I ask that those be sent to me. I try to make them my new best friends, or at least happy, and am generally successful.
But there’s a reason why we see very few cases like that. I believe that most HomeExchangers are genetically predisposed to be trusting, optimistic and curious. They start out like that, and their HomeExchange experience only intensifies those traits. And those who are adventurous enough to dip their toes in the water and try it, find it changes them. Many or most join HomeExchange thinking it’s going to be a great way to save some money when they travel, and it is. But they find out and remember how comfortable it is, and how the experience of meeting neighbors, getting personal recommendations and “living like a local” makes it such a memorable experience.
HomeExchange makes the world a smaller, more personal, better place. People open themselves to new opportunities and experiences, and travel longer and more often. If there is one thing I hear in different variations over and over, it’s “HomeExchange has changed my life.” My own wife, Terry, started out as a sceptic, uncomfortable about having “strangers” in her house, but now she is as enthusiastic as I am.
We still do at least 3-4 exchanges per year, and now with our Passport program we make our guesthouse available all the time and will be traveling even more. Our own recent exchanges include weeks in New York City and Paris; three amazing weeks in Queenstown, New Zealand; a return visit to exchange partners (and now great friends) in Berkeley, California; and we are looking forward to a world-class scuba cruise on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef next November.
HomeExchange has been and is more than just a company. I consider our team and our members as family. I like to think we were instrumental in making home swapping a mainstream vacation alternative.
I love being able to click on “Live Chat” and know who is on the other end, often someone I’ve seen many times over the years, had meals with, skyped with. It could be Tessa (who has gotten into stand-up-paddling), Kristina (who, surprise, wasn’t blond the last time I saw her) or John or Nick or Marina or Tom or Nina or Stephan.
Sometimes I log in just to say “Hi.” But time flies and things change. Four years ago, I realized I needed to bring in someone with additional skills who would let me and Terry take more time off. Now I know every single person on the team and their families by sight, but we’re poised for a new chapter that I’m confident will be positive and maintain the “HomeExchange” spirit. Bring it on!