Summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in Austin, Texas, so I'm often looking for places to swim. Thankfully, this city delivers. West of downtown, for example, you'll find the oldest swimming pool in the state, a city-owned spot called Deep Eddy. Venture farther from the city, and you'll land on Lake Travis, a large body of water frequented by folks fishing and double-decker barges with slides partygoers can shoot down into the water.
But one swimming option I'd never thought about, much less tried? My neighbors' backyard pool, offered up for rent through a mobile app.
That's the gist of Swimply, an service for swimming pools founded in the summer of 2018. After hearing about it, I had to schedule a swim. Flash forward to a Sunday afternoon in July, and me carefully stepping into a stranger's shallow pool shaded by tall pecan trees. An oversized, rainbow-maned unicorn floatie awaited me.
Swimply is the brainchild of co-founders Asher Weinberger, 35, and Bunim Laskin, 24, who met at a networking event Weinberger hosted for entrepreneurs in New York City. Laskin, then a college student, pitched Weinberger on the idea of monetizing home swimming pools.
The pair pursued the idea by looking on Google Earth for houses with pools and knocking on doors to see if people would be willing to rent them out. After creating a simple website and watching thousands of people visit strangers' pools in just a few weeks, they decided to build a business.
Today, Swimply is in all 50 US states, Canada and Australia, hosting half a million users and about 13,000 pools. Weinberger says he views the service as an experiential "extension of the sharing economy," offering things people want, rather than things people need. This contrasts with, say, transportation from Uber or hospitality from Airbnb.
Themarked a big moment for Swimply, Weinberger says. The app had just experienced a winter season with little activity, and the pandemic brought about a huge wave of financial uncertainty. "Term sheets were pulled. We were out of money. Didn't know what it was going to be," Weinberger says.
As it turned out, people were all in for renting private pools, and Swimply experienced close to 5,000% growth year over year from 2019 to 2020, according to Weinberger.
"We turned profitable [and] that attracted venture capital," Weinberger says. "We raised a Series A a few months back for $10 million. The team has gone from two people to close to 70 people."
Weinberger says Swimply was able to fill a need on both sides of the marketplace. Not only did the service help those renting out pools pay for their expenses during the pandemic, but it provided an outlet for people stuck at home, he says.
Taking the plunge
My rented backyard oasis happened to be in a leafy east Austin neighborhood lined with quirky houses of all sizes. It was listed on Swimply as a "plunge pool," which is a smaller pool meant for wading and lounging, and measured 8 feet by 15 feet with a maximum depth of 6 feet (1.83 meters). At $20 an hour, it was less expensive than full-sized pools in the area, which can cost more than $100 an hour to rent. The average rental cost for a Swimply pool in the US is about $40 to $45 an hour, Weinberger says.
When I clicked on the listing, I was able to swipe through a series of photos of the pool, including fancy aerial shots. There was a place for reviews, and the spot I booked, with nearly 50, had averaged five stars. "Clean, private, and easy to access," one swimmer wrote. Said another, "It was seriously JUST what the doctor ordered." Another nearby pool didn't fare quite as well, with some customers citing an inhospitable host and a "not ideal, but ... doable" request to limit toilet usage in the house.
There were also amenities. With Airbnb, I might see a hair dryer, TV or washer, but this listing featured pool toys.
Sean Ables and Bronwyn Towart, my hosts, started renting out their pool with Swimply last summer. Since then, they've seen guests book the pool for picnics, birthday parties and swimming lessons. One person even shot a rap music video, Ables says, laughing when asked if he made a cameo. It's given the couple the chance to meet some of their pool-less neighbors who are eager to escape the Texas heat.
"One of the neighbors came and used the pool, and I guess they told everyone in their block, because we started getting all these people and they're like, 'Oh, we live in [house number] 1908 or we live in 1903,'" Ables said.
Ables said the pair pretty much only use the pool themselves to cool off after exercising. When they listed their spot last summer, in the thick of the pandemic, he said they received a "crazy" number of bookings. People appreciated having something safe to do outside of the house.
"They would bring their kids and let them just run off all their energy because they'd been at home all day," Towart says.
Weinberger, who hosts his own swimming pool on the platform, says connections are a big part of Swimply.
"The bottom line is we're building bridges between communities, people are building friendships in their own local areas, and that is extremely important," he says.
My listing allowed for a full refund up to 24 hours before the start time of the reservation and had a couple of house rules (no pets, no smoking, limit music during working hours). It also included access to a restroom, a feature most pools offer, Weinberger notes.
I was instructed through the app to enter through a gate on the right side of the house, which was left open. Ables was in the backyard and briefly greeted me before leaving me and my boyfriend to the small saltwater pool. The first thing I did was make my way to a large brown storage chest and grab pool noodles, water guns and a beach ball. (Yeah, I was gonna get my money's worth.)
The pool, shrouded by trees, was a bit chilly in the late afternoon. So after some water gun blasting, wading and a few unsuccessful attempts to sit comfortably on the giant floatie, we sank down in some chairs on the deck to dry off.
There were a few moments during my stay when my mind wandered to the people in the house I didn't know. I thought about who they were, and what it was like for them to have strangers regularly take over their backyard. Were they worried about me knocking over one of the deck's potted plants? Taking off with the mythical-looking floatie? But for the most part, my attention was tuned to swimming, and I soaked up what felt like an ordinary pool day.
When I talked to Ables afterward, he told me Swimply added insurance to the app this year, making it safer for them to rent out their space. Weinberger said Swimply has a $1 million insurance policy for hosts and offers up to $10,000 in property damage coverage.
After this summer, Weinberger has big plans. The Swimply team is going beyond pools, and has a waiting list called Joyspace, where thousands of people are signed up to offer their home gyms, home theaters, private tennis courts and home music studios.
In the meantime, as August starts ticking by and the heat picks up in Austin, it's nice to know a legion of pools await me on my phone, offering more places than I ever expected to escape hot summer afternoons.