June 23, 2008

Couchsurfing: A Better Budget Travel

Daniel Hoffer ’07, cofounder of CouchSurfing.com, talks about the challenges of running a nonprofit in more than 220 countries and his plan to develop a program that connects displaced refugees with temporary accommodations.


If you’re familiar with the expression “couchsurfing,” it’s probably in large part due to CouchSurfing.com, the global hospitality Web site cofounded by Daniel Hoffer ’07 a year before he started business school. Since it launched in 2004, the site — a free worldwide network that connects travelers with hosts offering no-cost accommodations — has taken off, with more than 600,000 members in over 220 countries and extensive press coverage by the New York Times, USA Today, the BBC, CNN and National Public Radio.

A senior manager at Symantec Corporation, Hoffer has been working with online communities and the Internet since 1990, when he ran an online bulletin board system and created a statewide educational program in Massachusetts to connect online physically disabled patients with elementary and high school students. He first worked closely with CouchSurfing cofounders Casey Fenton and Sebastien Letuan in 1999 at Fuxito Worldwide, a venture-backed international soccer Web site he cofounded.

A recent T-Mobile commercial features a 20-something traveler who says: “I’m a couchsurfer. I’ve got lots of friends—but no itinerary. Without my phone, I’d be out of luck.” Were you expecting couchsurfing to become so popular so soon?

The term couchsurfing had been in use before we launched the site, but I’d like to think that we have helped to popularize it and make it synonymous with a certain type of travel. From a brand perspective, we’re trying to be the primary association with the entire category, like a Coca-Cola or Kleenex. Third-party publicity like the T-Mobile commercial helps reinforce our efforts, since the man in that commercial is doing exactly the sort of activity facilitated by our Web site.

Casey [Casey Fenton] and I had a sense that the site would be popular but its growth has been really exciting. It just hasn’t stopped — we get over 1,000 new members every day. If you look at our stats page, which is updated every few hours, you can see how our membership has expanded worldwide. We have couches from Africa to Antarctica, with nearly 43,000 cities represented. One of our members is even planting a Couchsurfing flag on the top of Mount Everest for us — he sent us a photo from base camp last week. It’s very gratifying to build a business and watch it grow. I also really believe in CouchSurfing’s mission to spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding. I believe that being exposed to other cultures at a young age had a powerful impact on my perspective. Travel made me realize how large the world is and how many value systems and ways of living there are.

CouchSurfing is a registered nonprofit primarily run by more than 1,000 volunteers around the world. Although members can pay a small fee to become “verified,” the site will always be free to join and free to use. From a management perspective, what’s most challenging about this model?

One of the challenges we face is how to optimize our organizational model while still embracing and maximizing community participation. Traditional hierarchical corporate structures don’t always create a culture of collaboration, especially with a geographically diverse, part-time staff consisting largely of volunteers. We work very hard to engage and empower our volunteer leaders while accommodating the realities of their outside commitments, and without creating conflicts with our small full-time paid staff. Working with volunteers represents an exciting opportunity for development of management skills, since if you don’t manage well, it is very easy for volunteers to walk away.

One of our unique approaches to engaging our community of members and volunteers is that we host “collectives” worldwide throughout the year — gatherings of dedicated members who get together for a few weeks or months to work full-time for free on the site. So far we’ve organized collectives in Canada, New Zealand, Austria, Netherlands, Thailand and the United States. They’ve been invaluable for motivating our membership and helping us uncover the best strategies for working with volunteers.

Another challenge that we, and many organizations, face — and that Columbia helped prepare me to manage — is issues around financial management. Classes in finance and strategy have helped me optimize our internal financial-accounting systems and processes. We have even faced issues around currency strategies — since we accept multiple currencies, we have to devote some thought to how many bank accounts we need and other logistics.

Are you a couchsurfer?

I’ve couchsurfed around the world — on a cycling trip from New Orleans to Atlanta, in a village in Indonesia, at a remote cattle ranch in Texas. Once, when I was couchsurfing with my girlfriend in Sicily, we had no place to go for New Year’s. Our host provided us with tickets to an all-night New Year’s Eve cruise. We never would have known about the cruise — or even met our host or visited the small town where he lives — had we not been connected by the site.

Couchsurfing can really expand your perspective. It enables you to learn about different people and cultures and, in the process, about yourself. You receive the same benefits by hosting as you do by surfing: you develop fulfilling relationships with people who you would most likely never meet otherwise.

What’s next for CouchSurfing?

I’m working on launching a new division of the company called CouchSurfing Cares, which will leverage our existing member base to connect displaced refugees from natural disasters with temporary accommodations. We’ll probably roll this out by the end of 2008.

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