Casey Fenton’s CouchSurfing Conference
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.
- Soundtrack of the report
- The Empire Strikes Back
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.
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
After this Casey spoke about becoming an Ashoka fellow
and connecting to the socially responsible Omidyar
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.