Casey Fenton’s CouchSurfing Conference

29 September of 2011 by

With CouchSurfing’s new status
there has been much confusion, misinformation and concern about the
future of the community. With this in mind, Casey Fenton, one of the
founders of CouchSurfing has decided to visit the 5 biggest
CouchSurfing communities (Montreal, Istanbul, London, Paris and
Berlin) to meet local members and talk to them.

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This is a surprisingly positive move for various reasons. Firstly, it
would have been convenient for them to communicate from their San
Francisco HQ, without having to deal with criticism face-to-face.
Secondly, they very democratically chose to visit the top 5 member
cities rather than the top 5 countries, which would have included USA
rather than Turkey. Personally I would have chosen the top 10 cities
simply because that would have included a (awesome) trip to Argentina and
Australia. And thirdly, this is surprisingly communicative for an
organization long-criticized for poor communication.

By pure chance, I happened to be in Istanbul on the very day of the conference. I was keen to attend because I was both curious and concerned about CouchSurfing accepting external investors.

The Conference

Casey started the conference with the history and evolution of
CouchSurfing, which I thought was useful especially for newer members.
Basically, it started out as a site designed for 1-to-1 hosting and
surfing but was largely undefined because no one was sure what
CouchSurfing actually represented. For some it was unconditional
hospitality, for others it was a paradigm shift from capitalism, some
felt it was a social movement and some were just cheap bastards
looking for free accommodation.

Casey next spoke of CouchSurfing’s efforts to get non-profit status
over the years. This was a very important section as there had
previously been a lack of clarity into how involved the process was.
Basically, CouchSurfing achieved non-profit status on a state level
but was repeatedly denied on a federal level. Hence the change in
direction.

After this Casey spoke about becoming an Ashoka fellow
and connecting to the socially responsible Omidyar
Ventures
. Ultimately,
CouchSurfing accepted a US$7.8 million investment from Omidyar
Ventures and venture capitalists Benchmark Capital, for “much less
than 50% equity”. (Apparently, this investment could not have been
raised from members as a company is not allowed to have more than 400
owners, if they are not public.)

they want to hear from members on what ideas they had where CouchSurfing could generate revenue

Finally he talked about the future of CouchSurfing, which by the
sounds of it, is to add lots more functionality and additional services
to expand the reach and potential of the community. With regards to
that, they are looking to hire over 15 PHP developers as soon as
possible. Another interesting point is they want to hear from members
on what ideas they had, where CouchSurfing could generate revenue.
Casey said that he didn’t like the idea of advertising or a premium
option, and thought the community could come up with better ideas.
What do you think? Post your ideas in the comments and I will write an
article on this in the future.

Questions

There were lots of questions. Some were thought-provoking eg. “Why not
move to another country” (answer: too complicated), others showed
concern eg. “Will CouchSurfing ever adopt an AirBnB model” (answer:
never) while others just showed how clearly mis-informed some people
were eg. “Why even register CouchSurfing as an organization?” or “Why
not ask Hospitality Club for help in setting up a non-profit” or the
perception that CouchSurfing had been sold off to eBay.

Further to this, it was also possible to book time to attend one of
the smaller discussion groups the next day and arrange 1-on-1 meetings
with Casey for the day after.

Thoughts

While CouchSurfing started off as a chaotic hippy do-ocracy, it looks
like there is a genuine intention to bring better order and
professionalism to the organization. For example, when CouchSurfing
was smaller, it was easier to ignore local laws with regards to the
working at Collectives but it now needs to make sure everything is
legal. The irony of it is that the people in the infamous Brainstorm
group
who had been demanding
more “regulation” for years, have now in some ways got
exactly what they have asked for.

I sense that CouchSurfing’s attempt to be largely undefined is both
its strength and its weakness. The potential of the community is huge
but you simply can’t be everything to everyone.

I think it’s time to forgive past transgressions and move forward.

Having been a member of CouchSurfing for over 6 years, I have been
close enough to witness many of the missteps within the organization.
However, I get the impression that Casey is authentic and has a
genuine belief that he is taking CouchSurfing in the right direction.
I think it’s time to forgive past transgressions and move forward. I’m
excited about the future of CouchSurfing. Hell, I want to work for
CouchSurfing!

Should you go?

I was surprised on how few people were in attendance. The Istanbul
conference was perhaps half-full. I heard the Montreal conference was
poorly attended as well. Have we become so apathetic that our idea of activism is changing our profile pic and writing snarky Facebook status updates?

Do you want your voice heard?

So are you concerned about the future of CouchSurfing? Are you upset
about CouchSurfing turning for-profit? Do you want your voice heard?
Do you live in a nearby city? Then I think you should go. Even if you
feel that these conferences are a PR stunt, you owe it to yourself to
go witness it for yourself. Be an active participant, not another couch potato activist.

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? You may attend and decide
that CouchSurfing is a lost cause. At least then, you can take
positive action on an alternative which better represents your vision
for hospitality exchange. If there’s one thing we can learn about the
success of CouchSurfing is there are plenty people in the world who
support hospitality exchange. There are probably plenty of people who
support different ideologies of hospitality exchange as well. Be the
change you want to see in the world.

Upcoming conferences:

London: October 1st-2nd
Paris: October 8th-9th
Berlin: October 14th-16th

Roy

Roy is a perpetual traveler. He’s lived in 7 countries, traveled to 50+ more and currently works on a cruise ship. You can follow his travels on roymarvelous.com.

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  1. Hi Roy

    Nice to hear some positive thoughts on the move to a B-Corp for once. I think if Casey ever wanted to profit from CS, it would be selling things on CS (like t-shirts, mugs, keychains whatever) or turning CS into a brand rather than making money from members. After all, if you start charging your members, they’ll go to other free CS-like sites! What kind of business model is that?!

    Nish

  2. Roy, Did he answer why he sold out? Couchsurfing isn’t perfect technically, I can think of alot of improvements, but I never heard anything about CS needing money to continue operating. I’m more than happy he wants to make changes, but why are we jumping the gun to make it faster and bigger and better now, personally i think the rate of growth of the website and membership base has been excellent. Isn’t this just a way for Casey to cashin?

  3. Tratham, by the sounds of it, CS lost it’s status as a non-profit on a state level and needed to pay $1 million if it wanted to re-incorporate.

  4. I believe that Casey wants to do the best for CouchSurfing. However, I don’t believe that it is “too complicated” to move the base of the organization to another country. There are millions of corporations in “tax havens”, there could be a holding, etc. But then again I didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of these conferences. I’m currently in Austria where Casey is scheduled to hold a similar event on the 12th, but by that day I’ll be in Canada. :-)

    PS: This comment section doesn’t make me happy. If you don’t put in your e-mail address, it reminds you to do so (OK) and deletes everything you have written (not OK).

  5. First of all, I can’t believe I missed the Paris conference! I would’ve totally attended, if I had known. So first question: why didn’t they advertise it more?

    Second, ideas to make profit: why not start hosting (affordable) paid events that could be of use to the CouchSurfing community? As in travel conferences and such. If they organized affordable events like Travel Bloggers Unite or Travel Blog Exchange do, I would definitely attend.

  6. I am a CS for the last three years. And If it wasn’t for my local community I would have moved to alternative some time ago.

    The worst thing about this is as the author say – it is just a PR stunt. Like, NOW he is asking what do we want? Guys in Brainstorm group were not really about rules and regulations but mostly about functionality of the website and nothing of that has changed yet. secondly the “other country” solution was not taken into consideration from the very start, ambasadors didn’t know about all those things. If Wikipedia could gather money I bet if only Casey shouted for help people would have donated. But we all know that they were not very careful with the cash thus they couldn’t possibly imagine that people would have trusted them in the financial department. Last thought is of course my guess but it all makes sense.

    As for the shifts in CS: some ambasadors learnt from other members taht they are not country ambasadors anymore – how communicative is that!

    You have to be very naive to believe that all this was not a scheme. I guess guys decided that time for fun is over and now is time to profit.

    @Nish: As Couchsurfing was non-profit which kind of assumed that not much money was involved, using the brand to make money would not really work. They used to have T-shirts and other gadgets maybe a year ago, and it didn’t take off.

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