The Failure of For-Profit Couchsurfing

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.

Excerpted from Nithin Coca:

“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.

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.

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 generic cialis cheap 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

1 Comment The Failure of For-Profit Couchsurfing

  1. AvatarAndreas Moser

    I really don’t know why nobody would want to couchsurf with you in San Francisco.

    Even in the last years, when I lived in Vienna, I had requests all the time.
    And before that, the same when I lived in Vilnius.
    Since then, I’ve had far fewer, but I now live in a small village in Bavaria that doesn’t even have a train station, so I am not surprised.

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