When I hired Trevor, I had this grand idea of a cub reporter who would spend two weeks of every month in a different city, reporting on the entrepreneur ecosystem there. Because I wanted him to be really embedded in the community, I asked that he live and work among entrepreneurs, filing stories in coffee shops and coworking centers during the day and Couchsurfing — via Couchsurfing.org – among them at night.
We save money as a company; Trevor gets even richer stories and deeper sources. And this was a company recently funded by well-heeled Benchmark Capital. It would have to be reliable right? What could possibly go wrong?
A lot. After several trips full of hosts who bailed last minute, people that wanted to meet but didn’t want to host, and cramped and uncomfortable couches, Trevor begged me to let him stay at a hotel. Any hotel. Really, even the shittiest hotel in the world. As long as they’d actually promise him a place to sleep for the night. Trying to live just two weeks at a time on couches in pretty major cities turned out to take so much time out of his work day that it was untenable for us as a business, and I eventually had to relent.
I was surprised. I’d never tried Couchsurfing before, but had heard great things. And when I covered the company’s decision to go from wild and wooly non-profit to venture-backed startup, I expecting things to get more reliable, not less.
Two nights ago, I ran into Couchsurfing’s new CEO Tony Espinoza. I told him of Trevor’s experience — expecting him to say it was a total anomaly. After all, I know people adore this service.
Instead his response stunned me. “Ohhhhhhhhhh. I’m not surprised,” he said. “He’s totally using it the wrong way.”
“Using it the wrong way, what do you mean?”
“You can’t actually count on it for a place to stay.” He said this like I expected Couchsurfing to solve peace in the Middle East.
“Wait, so taking out business travelers, because I admit that may be an odd use case, you are saying, no one who goes to the site who gets a couch, should expect that couch to be there?”
“It’s not actually about the couches, it’s about the community.”
Wait. What? What about all those stories I hear about people traveling the world with just a backpack and Couchsurfing.org? Are you telling me someone stranded in a foreign land shouldn’t expect to have a place to sleep? Apparently.
When I told Trevor about the conversation, he had much the same impression from several weeks of trying it. “I think I get what he’s saying,” he said. “A lot of the people on the service seem to use it to meet people in new cities and have them show them the sights.”
Espinoza explained that while millions of nights had been booked via Couchsurfing.org, many, many more parties, meet ups, and other kinds of connections had been made via the site, and that’s where the true community of Couchsurfing lies. Put another way: If you go to the Couchsurfing.org actually expecting a reliable place to sleep, you don’t really get how to use the site.
Okay, I’m not going to pretend that made much sense to me either. But I’m told that’s because I’m not a couch-surfer. In fact, that’s the other point that was brought up about Trevor, that he wasn’t “part of the community.” It was unclear how one goes about changing that, if trying to live via couch surfing for weeks at a time wasn’t enough of an effort.
What became much more clear as I probed and probed was that not all of this made sense to anyone, the result of Couchsurfing being, until recently, more of a movement than a company. Big changes are coming for the site. Espinoza told me a bit about them off the record, but the rest of you will just have to stay tuned.
The big challenge will be the same as last time I talked to the company: Maintaining that free-wheeling spirit, while turning a movement into a company that its own users can actually rely on.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]