Lost Roots: The Failure of For-Profit Couchsurfing

As a long-time Couchsurfer, I felt that once management put the values of venture capital funders over the organic, self-organized traveler base, and reorganized with a top-down, “start-up” mentality, the fall was inevitable.

When I logged onto Couchsurfing a few months ago in San Francisco, California, and put my hosting status as “available,” I expected, within days, to be bombarded. After all, that was how it was four years ago, when there were only a fraction of the members on the site as today. 7 million members, and, me, hosting in one of the most popular travel destinations in the world? I braced myself.

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What happened shocked me. Days passed. Then a week. Not a single request, Despite 179 positive references and 42 vouches, no one wanted to stay with me. I asked my long-time Couchsurfing friends in the city and found it was the same for them. Sparse requests, and those that came, poorly-written, often from empty profiles. For others, guests who never showed up, messages that were never responded to. The site had changed. People were still attending meetups, but focused more on partying than sharing culture. The San Francisco group page was filled with travelers posting their plans, meeting to go sightseeing, but unlike before, nearly no locals.

I knew the situation was bad, but this was unexpected.  The heart of Couchsurfing – hosting and surfing – was disappearing, and in the very same city where the site has its headquarters.

Then a few weeks later, total disarray. The savior of Couchsurfing, CEO Tony Espinoza, announced he was leaving after just 18 months. News came out about high turnover at CSHQ, with several staff leaving, followed by reports that cash is dwindling. To me, the surprise was not what happened, but how fast it came.

An idea that could change the world

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing didn’t invent hospitality exchange. That began in ancient times, when the first traveler knocked on a stranger’s door and was welcomed with open arms. What Couchsurfing did was utilize the power of a new tool – the internet – to enable and expand the natural human spirit of warmth and openness.

All of sudden, people with similar worldviews could connect over vast distances. Knocking on a stranger’s door turned into sending a couch request. Seeking friendly locals on the streets turned into travelers coming to weekly potlucks or cafe gatherings. The positivity was incredible – in the first few years as an active Couchsurfer, I never heard a single negative experience.

Couchsurfing was globalization done right – sharing culture and ideas with no or little financial transaction. Sure, access to the internet was a limitation in many countries, but that was only a temporary barrier that could be overcome.

Couchsurfing was globalization done right – sharing culture and ideas with no or little financial transaction.

Uniting over commonalities across cultures – that itself could change the world. That’s why I organized my first event in 2008, as a potluck in a San Francisco park – so that everyone could attend. That was why, then, I accepted every single request, regardless of profile, gender, or age. Because it was the right thing to do, the ethos of true globalism.

We built Couchsurfing, not management, who in those days did little more than provide a basic, buggy, but functional website. We who believed in the idea – the Couchsurfing spirit of sharing and openness – set up local groups, potlucks, events, and told our friends about this new, radical, and powerful social network. It wasn’t perfect; Couchsurfing had its turf battles, conflicts, and, unfortunately, an elitism exhibited by long-time members, but despite that, it was revolutionizing travel. The sky seemed the limit.

Warning signs

Warning

After my yearlong trip around the world – I used Couchsurfing extensively, as a host and surfer in Spain, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan. It truly made my trip what it was, and I donated $50 to the site becoming a verified member, and I promised to donate more once I had a steady income.

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Five months later, I was working for a non-profit in San Francisco, and, soon thereafter, Couchsurfing announced that it was opening a “basecamp” in the Bay Area, a place for volunteers to gather to help develop the site. The local community buzzed – this was a city had some of the brightest people in both technology and non-profit management. There was so much potential to work and build a stronger, better Couchsurfing that could, finally, meet its true potential.

They almost never came to San Francisco events, rarely had the community over, and gave little inkling of what was happening inside.

That hope quickly faded, as basecamp became a metaphor for the disconnect between management and members. Tucked away in a house in posh Berkeley, basecamp showed little interest in either the local community, or San Francisco’s vast knowledge network. Techie friends of mine tried to contact basecamp, eager to help fix some glaring holes in code or database structure, but were rebuffed. Basecamp members turned out to be Casey Fenton’s (Couchsurfing founder) inner clique, and they were unaccountable, and often invisible. They almost never came to San Francisco events, rarely had the community over, and gave little inkling of what was happening inside. Even more shocking – they were getting free rent, a generous per-diem, and even had an in-house chef with a generous budget. My donation was going to fund their vacations in comfortable California digs.

This lack of transparency, sadly, continues to this day. I never donated to Couchsurfing again, and I know few others who did.

The coup – Stealing Couchsurfing from its members

CS Meetup

Despite the limited improvements to the site, members around the world kept organizing events, hosting surfers, and building the community. Then, out of nowhere, everything changed.

Couchsurfing announced they had failed to receive non-profit charity status and were going to reorganize as a B Corporation. In fact, they already had $7.6 million in funding from venture capitalists, and without any consultation with members, a new CEO, Tony Espinoza, had been hired.

It was a coup. The site we as members had built, the network we had organized, was suddenly under the control of a CEO who had never before used Couchsurfing, and investors who were interested more in the site’s monetary potential than its power to open minds and break barriers between cultures.

Millions of new members created empty profiles, while thousands of older ones stopped logging in at all. The site no longer represented what it once did.

Immediately, with money flowing in, member input became irrelevant. The wiki was removed, group pages were transformed, statistics about the site became “private information,” and the Ambassador program was revamped. The site transformed from a network of like-minded travelers to a start-up focused solely on growth. Millions of new members created empty profiles, while thousands of older ones stopped logging in at all. The site no longer represented what it once did.

Couchsurfing was now a “service” and experimented charging customers. The problem was that we, the members, were what management was trying to sell – the connections, networks, and communities we had built. They couldn’t profit off of our work, all around the world, because money was never a motivation. In 1 ½ years, Couchsurfing failed to monetize the site, leading to Espinoza’s resignation and the uncertainty the site finds itself in today.

The future of a nine-year old “start-up”

couch

That Couchsurfing  was having problems was no secret. My article on Couchsurfing’s downfall last May struck a cord – getting nearly 7,000 Facebook likes and hundreds of comments. Couchsurfing responded as a corporation would – with boilerplate PR talking points, copied and pasted to forums all around the web. One staffer, however, sent me a personal message, expressing surprise at my opinions and wondering if we would talk more about my concerns. Was this Couchsurfing finally listening? Was there hope?

It was, like basecamp four years ago, a facade. We met at a cafe, and for nearly 45 minutes, I was subject to being talked at about all the great things going on at CSHQ, why my article was wrong, and how all the Couchsurfers she knew (later I saw her profile only had 14 references, almost all from fellow staffers) were happy about the changes. It wasn’t a meeting to understand the frustrations and anger of members, but to convince me that HQ was right, and that we should trust in their opaque vision.

It wasn’t a meeting to understand the frustrations and anger of members, but to convince me that HQ was right, and that we should trust in their opaque vision.

I knew that anything I said wouldn’t be taken seriously. Couchsurfing didn’t have to go private. Members, like me, would have been willing to donate to the site if they could show, with full transparency, how money was being spent, and allow for greater participation in development. Instead, they rebuffed our attempts to help, ignored our concerns, and kept spending money in secret. So we never donated, and Couchsurfing was forced to seek unrestricted growth, and, eventually, private money.

Couchsurfing made a deal with the devil – venture capital money – and lost its base. It’s a lesson to any social network that aims to connect people in meaningful ways.

Empower your members, don’t disparage them. Be transparent and collaborative. As my experience in non-profit social activism has shown me, people want to be part of something big, to have ownership. Couchsurfing was built on that collaboration, and once that was taken away, everything we had built came crumbling down.

As any civil engineer knows, a building needs its foundation to stand strong. Likewise Couchsurfing needed its foundation – members – to survive. Let this be a lesson to all social networks built on trust and compassion.

To read more from and about author Nithin Coca, check out his author bio.

To learn more about Couchsurfing, check out the following articles:

manifesto - value interactions

Photo credits: phauly, eeliuth, lamoixMasterMarte

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Leave a Comment

  • Cameron Madill said at 2013-11-13T15:59:14+0000: Great article, Nithin. Hosting you was one of the highlights of my CS experience...I learned more from you about what the community was about than anything else I did. Sadly, I have also stopped using CS. I had far less specific knowledge, but just the general sense that the website and organization had lost their focus.Let's keep the original ideas alive! Even if the platform changes, those values are special and important in this world.
  • Aude Marie Victoire Michel said at 2014-02-28T00:18:29+0000: The safety and support team had been given to Concentrix based in Belfast and in India, etc. Now CS says that the safety team being given to Concentrix was just a trial period. If you are a woman and you had problems with the safety team contact me. And Nithin please contact me on FB. For me a collective case run by women in United States is just a matter of time, it could cost them 20 millions for moral damage to women.
  • Sean E Keener said at 2013-11-13T15:06:07+0000: I've been thinking about CS via your articles Nithin, and also just because so many BootsnAll members over the years have used and loved it. I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again, BootsnAll had a members database to crash on each other's couches in our 1st few years (1999-2001).I decided to close it down, as I didn't think it was a good "business". I felt there were other ways to add value and be sustainable versus the couch model.After we did close our version, Casey (Co-Founder of CS) emailed me a few times asking to promote CS to BootsnAll. It was a few years after that, when CS really took off.Everything, every person, every website, including me, BootsnAll has it's growth, a lifespan and ultimately death. Even our Google overlords will not be around someday. (Could be a while with how they are going!) I don't blame CS for trying to take it farther via financing and for profit.There are so many choices and roads to take in life and business, it's hard to know before we make decisions, how it will all play out. That's what makes it exciting!What a cool "movement" Couchsurfing is/was. (depends on your perspective) The competitive landscape is so exciting, that starting over again with BeWelcome - or 100 other ideas is possible and probably.What a completely awesome time to be alive and embrace the change in ourselves and in the world.
  • Ann Foo said at 2013-11-15T01:53:34+0000: Somehow this posted to facebook instead...Good article Nithin. You are correct in saying that CS simply utilised the modern tool of internet to engage in old activities like hospitality. Worth highlighting is the implications this had on the KINDS of people the internet allowed to engage. Historically, many men would not bat an eyelid at knocking on a stranger's door and asking for a corner to sleep in. But how many women, children or disabled people felt comfortable doing this? The internet allowed a whole host of different kinds of people to partake in freewheeling activities that were previously the sole domain of physically abled men.I wasn't aware that CSHQ were getting free rent, per diems and a chef. That is disgusting. I'm glad I never donated money, and frankly that is why I was very sceptical. Not to say that I think people should work for free - I'd have no problem paying someone's wage, if they were doing a good job and improving the site. Sadly, they were not. If people were to be paid, they should have been hired on the grounds of their qualifications in IT, marketing, advertising, whatever. That is how a real business is run, and when CS made the decision to move to this business model, they should have done EVERYTHING in line with professional practice. But you can't have it both ways - you can't take the money for a business model and then run the business like a community of friends.At ground level, I've noticed the same as you. I started hosting again after 2 years of inactivity. The requests were slow to come in, and then mostly from newbies who had not filled in their profile. After 3 months of hosting, I'm starting to get better quality requests. What I'm noticing in terms of finding a couch, is it's a lot harder. I used to send out about 10 requests in every city, and I'd usually get 3-5 accepted. Now, I'm searching for my upcomming tour around south america, and for every 10 requests I'm only getting one accepted. Also, I find CS is no longer a useful tool for finding trustworthy safety information. I want to do ayahuasca in Peru, so I posted on a CS forum asking for recomendations for a safe, trustworthy retreat. I got no replies! CS used to be full of people offering local safety advice, what happened?? Then I realised that I also, no longer offer safety advice in my hometown either - because previously, if someone had a safety concern, they would publish it in the weekly mailout and I would respond... but now that the weekly mailout is just full of social events, I no longer bother to read it and it goes straight in the trash. But there are still great experiences to be had. What has always been special to me about CS is the way it puts you in touch with different kinds of people. Modern life is so compartmentalised, you have a certain work industry, a certain social group, a certain group of school friends. Where else would I meet a beauty therapist? Or an IT geek? Or an american writer in Spain? That, at least, has not changed, and that's worth holding on to.
  • Roymarvelous.com said at 2013-11-13T23:51:18+0000: I wrote a similar post here: https://medium.com/pop-of-culture/d31466650b5aI agree with much of what you say Nithin but you do realize that you're following the classic pattern where old members complain about the "good old days". Well, I joined in 2005 and by mid-2007 people were already complaining about how the "CS spirit was dead". In a way, that's true - that was the first major drama where CS management alienated many of it's IT volunteers because it believed in centralized control & didn't want to go open source.CS is somewhat a victim of it's own success. Yes, hosting/surfing is what makes CS beautiful. But Activities/Events (which was an after-thought feature) is what really made CS popular and in effect, deviated everyone from the primary focus of the site. Meet-ups where random strangers from around world get drunk is not hospitality. It's fun but party hostels do the exact same thing. True shared hospitality involves having an dedicated community of members who all open their homes to each other for free. (sorry Airbnb)CS would be much smaller but far more effective if the functionality was focused on hosting & surfing. It would make it more obvious if someone was a freeloader or predator. But I don't consider Couchsurfing a failure - it's just become a different thing to what many of us had expected.I hope BeWelcome learns from the many mistakes Couchsurfing & Hospitality Club have made.
  • Ian Williams said at 2013-11-12T19:28:01+0000: I think the article is a pretty fair reflection of what has gone on at Couchsurfing. However, I am still finding the surfing'hosting side is still a busy as ever and there are signs that the team running the CS site have become more responsive since Tony Espinosa left - the dashboard has been restored and there have been a few other beneficial changes. There is no other hospitality site with anywhere near the number of members that CS has. I have joined BeWelcome, which is not for profit and is democratically run, and would encourage others to do so in case CS does go under. However I would think CS has funds for a while yet. The issue of for profilt or not for profit is less of an issue than getting those who run the site more responsive to the users and getting them to fix the technical problems with the site. With the size of the membership a small annual fee would cover the site's cost and still turn a profit. I would rather see that introduced than some of the ways that have been floated for funding the site. Meanwhile I continue to enjoy the community and try to ignore the politics.
  • Shuang van Reizen said at 2013-11-13T18:40:25+0000: I was a huge user of Couchsurfing when I was traveling around Europe but after a couple of experiences where I met up with guys who were obviously just trying to use CS as a way to get laid. I basically became more careful and started to us Airbnb instead. It's safer for a lone female traveler.
  • Shawn Saleme said at 2013-12-19T08:52:33+0000: Very good article, and solid. Lets crowd fund and buy back CS, turn it non profit again (maybe in a new country) and get this flame going again. I don't think it's too late.
  • Melissa Adams said at 2013-11-13T18:10:21+0000: I'm a popular CS host in Amsterdam (https://www.couchsurfing.org/people/wordgeisha/) and don't understand what you're talking about. Over the past 2 years, I've enjoyed hosting 200+ guests and now can get 10+ requests A DAY in high season. I've also couchsurfed with several hosts in Europe. Failure? That's news to me. The system seems to be working fine. You may enjoy these reflections on how to be a good couchsurfer: http://uncloggedblog.com/2013/02/01/six-habits-of-highly-effective-couchsurfers/
  • Ginger Kern said at 2013-11-17T09:43:41+0000: So, what will be the next replacement to CS? Might as well start over, as the non-profit-minded community obviously still exists.
  • Monet Tiran said at 2013-11-12T15:22:09+0000: I became a member 2004/2005... this was at the starting stages of Couchsurfing. Those days everyone used Hospitality Club....remember them? They turned out to have thousands of empty profiles, and everyone dreaded Couchsurfing would go the same route. Active founding members and ambassadors ensured that it wasn't going to happen... and now, years down the line, it's a dying community. Case and point, money ruins everything! I am all for the revival of this project, if this was going to happen... but admittedly, I am not that positive. Will CS management realize where they went wrong? Will it change? Will a new hospitality exchange concept/project be dawned? Time will tell... in the meanwhile, my couch is vacant....
  • Ruth Walden said at 2013-11-12T16:00:21+0000: How sad that such a wonderful idea has gone sour. I made many wonderful friends though the site and really enjoyed showing people my wonderful city. Had not noticed the changes on the site as for the last year my new partner and I have been nomads travelling mainly in Asia and using hotels as my partner prefers this. I do hope that somehow Couchsurfing manages to survive as im sure one day I will have a couch available again.
  • Pablo Martin Podhorzer said at 2013-11-12T22:09:17+0000: Yeah, because an American guy from an Ivy League school is going to create a website to "make a better world" without expecting lots of money and pu**y in return, sure. I can´t believe so many people were so ingenuous.
  • Roman Weiss said at 2013-11-18T01:56:43+0000: So sad to read, i had so many fantastic experiences with cs, and now it seams its gonna end :-/