Are private pool rentals a way to 'democratize luxury'?

Pool rental app dives into deep end of sharing economy

22-year-old US Orthodox Jew Bunim Laskin founded Swimply to rent out neighborhood pools — and let his 11 siblings have a splashing good time

  • Young girls playing in the pool near Kibbutz Beit Govrin near Jerusalem on October 10, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
    Young girls playing in the pool near Kibbutz Beit Govrin near Jerusalem on October 10, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
  • Bunim Laskin, founder of the Swimply app, in San Francisco on September 10, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
    Bunim Laskin, founder of the Swimply app, in San Francisco on September 10, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
  • Swimming in a private pool in San Jose, California rented on the Swimply app on September 10, 2019. (Robert Ungar/Times of Israel)
    Swimming in a private pool in San Jose, California rented on the Swimply app on September 10, 2019. (Robert Ungar/Times of Israel)

It was the perfect private pool: remote-controlled Jacuzzi, underwater lights, a giant swan float, turquoise water glinting in the California sunshine. We rolled up to a stranger’s house in San Jose, let ourselves in through the side gate, and dove into the pool. But we weren’t trespassing; we were renting.

A new app for renting private pools called Swimply functions like an Airbnb for pools. It matches people who want to use a pool with neighbors who have an underutilized pool.

Bunim Laskin, an Orthodox Jew who grew up until the age of 15 in Israel, is the founder and CEO of Swimply. Bunim dropped out of yeshiva to start the company with a core team of five other Orthodox Jews.

The company started when Bunim, the oldest of 12 siblings, was home on summer break from his Jerusalem yeshiva and feeling pent up at his parents’ suburban house in Lakewood, New Jersey.

“In Jerusalem, it’s very outdoorsy, your kids are out of the house a lot, so the issue wasn’t as noticeable,” Bunim said on a recent sunny Tuesday morning in San Francisco, where he is meeting with venture capitalists to raise more funding. “When we moved to America, things aren’t so close, the parks are miles away, and my family found itself restricted to the home a lot. Transportation [for 14] is difficult, and even things that were $10 per head, activity-wise, added up when you are 14 people.”

Next door, a neighbor had just finished building a pool for her grandchildren, and Laskin noted that it was empty most of the time, except when the grandchildren visited.

“I asked her if my family could use the pool,” Bunim said. “She said sure, but she realized it’s going to cost her a lot of money [in maintenance], so she made a deal with my family that we’d pay 25% of her expenses at the end of the month. Within two weeks, she’d made the same deal with six other families on my block. Everyone was paying her 25%, so she was making 150% on her pool. She was not just covering her expenses, she was making a profit.”

Bunim Laskin, founder of the Swimply app, in San Francisco on September 10, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“The entire atmosphere on my block changed,” Bunim recalled of the 2017 summer. “Everyone was now out of the house, everyone was swimming.” He said the feeling of claustrophobia from feeling trapped in the house morphed into an informal neighborhood block party.

Laskin wondered if he could replicate this experience on a regional or national level, and a pool sharing website, then called PoolForU, was born.

Every good startup has its founding legend, and Laskin’s is no exception. Armed with this idea and his bar mitzvah money, Laskin scoured Google Earth and identified 80 people in his area who had private pools. He went door to door, asking residents if they would be interested in joining his pool-sharing website. As he tells it, 76 prospectives slammed the door in his face, but four signed on to test it out. Within two weeks, 30 people had signed up their pools and 150 people signed up to rent them by the hour. A week later PoolForU was featured on MSNBC, overflowed with traffic, and crashed.

Laskin returned to Jerusalem and the yeshiva in 2017, but dropped out a few months later. He came back to America and decided to throw himself into the company. Swimply — a combination of “simply” and “swimming” — launched in the New York tri-state area on July 4, 2018. A streamlined, more user-friendly app launched on July 15 of this year and has allowed the company to expand nationally.

The company has focused its efforts in the tri-state area as well as Miami Beach, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston. In those areas, Swimply contracts a pool maintenance firm to carry out a health inspection of the pools and also makes sure to visit the site or have a video call with the owners of the pools to verify that the pools exist and are as the photos show. Eventually, all pools will be vetted and inspected, though the company is still expanding its customer care team and doesn’t yet have the resources to vet all the pools.

Laskin and the six core members of his team currently have their sights set on expanding to Australia, where summer will begin next month.

All six of the core members of the team are Orthodox Jews, and some are Laskin’s friends from high school. Co-founder Asher Weinberger, a bit older than the 22-year-olds that make up most of the core Swimply team, also advises the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs in Israel in order to encourage more ultra-Orthodox to enter the high-tech field.

Laskin said wearing a kippah and tzitzit as he walks into meetings with investors in Silicon Valley can sometimes be a social barrier, though he’s found that his outward religious appearance makes people more likely to trust him quickly.

Too cool for pool

Since the re-launch this summer, Swimply now has almost 2,000 host pools with over 17,000 users who have downloaded the app. The highest grossing pool, located in the heart of Brooklyn, has taken in about $12,000 this summer, with other pools in popular areas taking in $4,000 to $7,000, Laskin said. Most pools take in much less. Swimply takes a booking fee from the swimmers and 15 percent of the rental from the pool owners.

Swimming in a pool in San Jose, California rented on the Swimply app on September 10, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Depending on the amenities, pools rent for $40 per hour for a small family pool to over $300 an hour for a pool with breathtaking views, a hot tub, or grilling facilities.

Many of the reservations are families or small groups of friends, usually under eight people, who book a pool for the same day or the next day for around two hours. Others are large parties that book the pool for the entire day.

Some turn to the app due to religious practices, as many Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims may feel less comfortable in public pools with mixed gender swimming. The Swimply rental allows them to enjoy the pool privately with only their family.

Young Palestinian women from the West Bank town of Bethlehem play on the beach in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

However, a growing group of Swimply users is something that Laskin and his co-founders were surprised to find: swimming instructors who offer private lessons. In the future, Laskin said the app may offer services to help customers find both a pool and an instructor.

The average age of pool hosts is 35, and just 20% of the hosts are over 50 years old. Laskin said many of the hosts use the app to make the pool pay for itself, even if they are wealthy.

“It’s more of a pain point,” said Laskin. “The pool owners build the pool, and on day one it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, it’s magnificent. The stats about usability year after year go down dramatically. Hosts find themselves using their pools rarely, and it becomes a money pit. So it constantly reminds them, on a weekly basis, what the pool costs.

“Swimply is a way for them to recoup the losses. Most of our hosts sign up on Swimply to make their pool free [for them], saying ‘we’re just going to rent it out until it covers the expenses,’” he said.

Unlike other sharing economy apps like Airbnb or Uber, where there’s a fair amount of interaction between customers and hosts, Swimply tries to minimize the contact between the pool owners and the pool-goers. Only about 60% of hosts offer bathrooms or access to the house. For the rest of the pools, it’s assumed that swimmers will come, hang out for a bit, and leave, without ever talking to the pool owner.

I booked my pool using the app’s instant booking feature, meaning after I paid I was immediately given the host’s address and instructions for entering the pool. I tried to reach out to the host via the app’s messaging service, but never heard back. She only messaged me when we were running almost an hour late for a two-hour window (thanks, Bay Area traffic). She gave us the WiFi code, showed us the door to the bathroom (through her bedroom), and went inside to watch TV.

Swimming in a private pool in San Jose, California, rented on the Swimply app on September 10, 2019. (Robert Ungar/Times of Israel)

The fact that we had any interaction with Mary, the pool owner, was out of the ordinary for the Swimply experience: 80% of the pool hosts never meet the swimmers, according to Laskin.

Laskin said the purpose of this is twofold: it streamlines the process for hosts, meaning they don’t need to spend time answering messages and coordinating details, which can be time-consuming, as many Airbnb hosts will attest. It also helps foster the impression among customers that they are enjoying their own private pool, rather than being a guest at someone’s house.

Share your car, share your bike, share your pool

Laskin said Swimply’s private pool rentals are “democratizing luxury,” by allowing more people to take advantage of a perk that only a select few generally can access. Although pools can be expensive by the hour, if the cost is split among friends the price per person plummets. Laskin, a fresh-faced 22-year-old, sees Swimply as the natural progression of society getting smarter about ownership.

Swimply is one app among a sea of sharing economy applications, ranging from the useful to the strange, trying to maximize use of a needed commodity, most of them located in the United States. With Turo or Getaround, people can rent your car while it’s not being used, such as while you’re sitting at work or on the weekend. With JustPark, people rent out parking spaces in front of their homes. DogVacay offers pet boarding in private homes. On Spinlister, you can rent out your skis, surfboards, or bikes when you’re not using them.

The list goes on, from EatWith (dining in someone’s home instead of a restaurant), LeftoverSwap (made too much food? Share with your hungry neighbors who have smartphones), Boatsetter (rent out your boat when you’re not using it), or SharedEarth (give out your land or lawn to some gardeners and take a share in the harvest).

Wrapping up an evening swim at a private pool in San Jose, California, rented with the Swimply app on September 10, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“Millennials are realizing why ownership was overrated for the first 2,000 years of human existence,” said Laskin. “People would only buy one ax, and then share the ax. There was no reason for everyone to buy their own ax. Then we had the economy of America rise and ownership became really important to people. Now, we’re seeing that ownership was never really that important.”

“People are more into getting value from the things they have when they need it,” said Laskin. “I think the sharing economy is the result of us getting smarter, of gaining that trust that we had a long time ago. I think people have built walls around themselves, now we’re starting to tear these walls down.”

Part of that trust is dependent on transparency, such as two-sided reviews (hosts review the guests and guests review the hosts, flagging any issues, and thus protecting the property from misuse). When creating the account and completing a booking, guests and hosts are given a cursory background check meant to weed out people with criminal backgrounds, though Laskin said no users have currently been identified as having criminal backgrounds. Pool users are also expected to leave the area as clean as they found it.

The app is still working out insurance issues, though all hosts and swimmers sign a waiver when creating their account that absolves the hosts and the company of any responsibility for injuries sustained during the reservation. While reservations are covered under Swimply’s general insurance, Laskin recommends pool owners check with their individual insurance, because pool sharing is such a new field. There are no life guards needed at private pools, thus renters are responsible for their own safety. Swimply hopes to offer more comprehensive, blanket insurance for all of their users starting next year.

Are we really supposed to be here?

It was a strange feeling, parking on someone’s street and then strolling into their yard to use their pool. The app seems kind of superfluous at first, but after an evening of splashing around, feeling a bit like I was in my own private pool, I toweled off understanding the appeal. It’s a simple, fun way to play around in the pool with friends, and I left feeling satisfied for successfully using resources that wouldn’t otherwise be consumed.

But my friend who joined us, Robert Ungar, an Israeli architect currently living in the Bay Area, was a little concerned about what would happen if the app becomes more widely used.

“I’m wondering what this says about public pools, because there’s already a network of public pools that are really meeting places for the community,” said Ungar. “So if people are going to pay a little bit more to go to private pools, does it mean that we’re depopulating the public service? Maybe it’s just separating us more and more, so that we’re always in our own digital spaces and only with our friends and people like us,” he said.

Young girls playing in the pool at Kibbutz Beit Govrin near Jerusalem on October 10, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Still, Ungar said he enjoyed the novelty of rolling up to a stranger’s house and discovering surprises within the pool, like the colored lights in the Jacuzzi or the giant floaty devices. That novelty is something Swimply hopes to capitalize upon, encouraging people to get together with friends and rent a different pool whenever they feel like it.

Founder Laskin’s family in Lakewood, New Jersey, still enjoys the neighbor’s pool — but only sometimes. Many times they’re forced to go farther away if they want to rent a pool. Their neighbor signed up for Swimply, too, and much of the time her pool is rented out.

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