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Will $7.6 Million in Venture Capital Ruin Couchsurfing?

by Leigh Shulman Aug 26, 2011
Longtime couchsurfer and former couchsurfing “ambassador” Leigh Shulman reflects on her relationship with CS since 2006, and how those worried about the company going mainstream might be missing the point.

TECHCRUNCH reported yesterday that Couchsurfing just received 7.6 million in venture capital funding, and before the hippie has even had a chance to put on a pair of penny loafers, there’s talk of how this grassroots, community-based program has sold out. How it’s going to leave a void in the travel community. That money will ruin them.

As someone who has been an active part of the Couchsurfing community since 2006, I have to say, calm the fuck down. This has potential to be a wonderful thing.

The Core of Couchsurfing Has Already Changed.

You’re worried the core group of people who use the site will change? It had been changing anyway. Five years ago, leaving your life to travel wasn’t the hip thing it is today. There weren’t as many people willing to stay with a complete stranger just to save money. Couchsurfing belonged to the few, the dreadlocked, unshaven, dirty backpacking types who no one in the straight world would allow into their homes.

Couchsurfers not only let down their guard enough to let the unshaven into their homes, we also give them a key to the front door, a map of the city and let them know dinner will be at 7pm if they want to join. We do it because we realize that dreadlocks say nothing about your character and are willing to look below to see what we can see.

What Couchsurfing Gave Me

I’ve couchsurfed through Europe, Central America, all over the US and Argentina as well. Since settling in Salta, we’ve hosted hundreds of people for dinners, nights, or just a coffee. Every time, I met someone who inspired me. Their experiences opened my eyes to the possibility of new adventures, often things I’d never dreamed about. Because of the people I met through Couchsurfing, I heard about Burning Man for the first time. I found other children for Lila to play with as we traveled through Europe, a trip I’m not sure we would be able to afford without Couchsurfing. I attended a tango and language exchange in Rosario. I climbed a mountain in Asheville. I have made life long friends who are the most creative and interesting people I’ve ever known. And I am grateful for all this in a way I cannot express.

Now, though, there are too many people on the site who, quite frankly, are just looking for a place to stay. Their profiles are barely filled out. They just don’t have the same experience, life view or the same energy as five years ago. Now, a lot of travel bloggers are on the site. And while I love the travel blogging set (some of my best friends are travel bloggers), they tend not to have the same view as Couchsurfers, many of whom barely communicate via internet except to check their CS profiles.

Couchsurfing simply has gone more mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with mainstream. It’s just not the same flow as was there five years ago.

The End of the Cult of Casey

When the news came out yesterday about Daniel Hoffer, CEO of Couchsurfing, announcing this money infusion, my first thought was, “Who the hell is Daniel Hoffer?”

He has never been the face of Couchsurfing. It has always been Casey Fenton. Every e-mail I’ve received from a founder. Every discussion about where Couchsurfing began and who runs it. Everything is all about Casey Fenton. People LOVE Casey Fenton. He’s the coolest guy ever. Or they hope one day to meet him. Casey is the one who began it all. Casey. Casey. Casey. Me? Don’t know a thing about him beyond what people tell me.

The only reason I knew the name Daniel Hoffer was because I happened to meet him. It was in NYC, January 2007, my second Couchsurfing meeting ever. We chatted, discussed website interface design. He asked me to e-mail him through the site so we could talk more.

That the public face of Couchsurfing has changed from Casey to Daniel is a massive sea change. There is no doubt in my mind that Couchsurfing will not continue as it had before. But while others bemoan what used to be, I say this is an excellent opportunity for Couchsurfing to address and fix things that badly need attention.

A Brief and Muddled History of What Needs to Change

After gaining enough experience, I applied to become a Couchsurfing Ambassador. If you don’t know what this, I admit, douchey title means, it’s when you apply and then after consideration by the Powers That Be are chosen to represent Couchsurfing in the community. This means different things to different people, but generally involves being someone who others in the community can turn to for advice or help.

When I became an ambassador, a new tab of options appeared on my CS profile and I suddenly had access to some private Ambassador-only chat boards. When I went behind the golden curtain to see what ambassadors were saying, I was horrified. It was all infighting and accusations. The basic gist of the argument at the time was one group within the ambassadors accused the Couchsurfing leadership of fraud and stealing. They claimed Couchsurfing was completely opaque in regard to its spending, and suggested the leadership was actually using the money received via optional member donations to fuel their drinking and partying.

I tried to find some kind of verification whether it was true or not. One woman messaged me privately asking for a non-Couchsurfing e-mail because she didn’t want to explain on the site itself. We chatted off-CS, and while she had some potentially valid points, she also seemed extremely paranoid.

In spite of being completely put off by all the bickering, I was still very much rainbows and wagging-puppy-dog tails over my general Couchsurfing experiences. Plus, I had no way of knowing what was true, thus I decided to focus my ambassadorial energies on my immediate community.

How to Handle Crime in the Couchsurfing Community

Couchsurfing, despite what the average person thinks, is a very safe community. In five years, I have had only one problem, and that was very recent. I’ve left surfers in my house alone. They’ve driven our car to the store. Some have even helped us out by babysitting Lila. But in a community of 3 million people, it’s impossible to entirely avoid problems.

When I was Couchsurfing’s Twitter feed organizer, as part of the CS Communications team, I received a tweet from a Couchsurfer accusing another Couchsurfer of a crime. The message included a link to an article he wrote about the event. I posted on the Ambassador board asking for advice on how to approach this. Soon after, I received a long e-mail from the head of the communications team, kicking me off the team. There was no discussion and no explanation beyond my being irresponsible for posting potentially damaging information on a public board. Keep in mind, the information I posted on a private ambassador board had already been tweeted as well as posted elsewhere on Couchsurfing in addition to being re-posted on some international websites. A wall came down from Couchsurfing and then no communication at all. I did notice, though, some extra activity on my CS profile page as the view counter jumped in number. It felt all very Big Brother.

Mostly, though, I found it disturbing that I had been hand-smacked for asking about how we ambassadors should address accusations of crime and assault in the community. I asked and was effectively shown that it is better not ask such questions. I’ve met other Couchsurfers who have felt similarly silenced. One surfer of mine, Max from Denmark, sent me the following e-mail regarding a problem he’d had with a very popular host in Peru.

“I am writing you because I received some messages about my thief and violator friend in Peru that raised my eyebrows. Actually, I have received so many messages about him that your eyes would get tired from reading all of them, so I bring you only two in the hope that you might be able to do something about it from your position as a CS ambassador.”

Max claimed he had been sexually assaulted by his host and then posted on his host’s city board to tell others of his experience. The e-mails he refers to are from others who had the same problem with the same host. Max wrote to Couchsurfing directly, but didn’t receive a response, which is why he wrote to me.

I myself had a problem with a surfer earlier this year. I wrote to Couchsurfing about it and still have not heard from them. I can understand that Couchsurfing doesn’t want to wrongly accuse anyone of a crime. I can understand needing hard proof, police reports and clear witness accounts. I also understand these things cannot be publicly shared for many reasons. But one would think it would make sense to acknowledge the complaints and follow up on them in some way, particularly when there is an accusation of a serious crime ranging from stealing to sexual assault to bribery and extortion.

This, for me, was the final straw, and as of a few months ago, I have indefinitely closed my Couchsurfing couch.

The Benefits of VC

From my view, yesterday’s announcement breathes a bit of life back into the organization. There’s the possibility that the core things I love about the group will remain while the things I find untenable will be swept out. Money doesn’t always mean selling out. It can mean having a real bank account to fund processes that need to be in place. When Couchsurfing was a small group, they didn’t need such funding to monitor the health and safety of members. It was effectively done by a small but extremely dedicated group of volunteers. Now they need something more robust. When it was small, they didn’t need a leadership and communications team who could respond to user complaints and concerns. Now they do.

And since Daniel Hoffer is indeed a founding member, he remembers probably better than anyone else what the core of Couchsurfing used to be. He can support programs that allow that core to exist, should he so choose. I don’t know him well enough to know what his choices will be, but I will say the woman who kicked me off the communications team who had also been accused as one of those using Couchsurfing money for drinking money is no longer part of the team. That seems significant to me.

When I look back at my conversation with Daniel Hoffer, one piece keeps repeating in my head. I told him I’d just sold all my stuff and was about to leave NY to travel with my family. He was surprised. I was the first he’d met who had plans to travel with a family. “Aren’t you worried about the lack of stability?” he asked me. “Won’t you be missing out on a lot of things by not having a home?” I thought about it and realized that no matter what choices you make in life, you gain some things and lose others. Nothing is one hundred percent.

And any traveler knows that remaining flexible is the most important part of the journey. Things will not always be as we expected, but the ability to sit back, observe and then make our choices is central to what it means to be a traveler. So that is what I will do.

And maybe, just maybe, I will open my couch again sooner than I thought.

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