|Type of business||C Corporation|
2 April 2003 (New Hampshire non-profit)|
January 2004 (website launch)
3 May 2011 (Delaware for-profit corporation)
Matt Cohler, investor|
Casey Fenton, Co-Founder
Dan Hoffer, Co-Founder
|Industry||Hospitality service, Hospitality exchange, networking|
|Slogan(s)||Stay with Locals and Meet Travelers|
|Alexa rank||2,424 (1 August 2016)|
Couchsurfing International Inc. operates Couchsurfing.com, a hospitality service and social networking website. The website provides a platform for members to "surf" on couches by staying as a guest at a host's home, host travelers, meet other members, or join an event.
Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend's house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house. The term pre-existed the website in vernacular usage; for example, "Couch Surfer" was the title of a song by Bran Van 3000 released in 1997.
The company, its website, and the general culture of hospitality exchange it is meant to support are all commonly referred to as "couchsurfing". The name is often stylized as "CouchSurfing", with the "c" and "s" are capitalized. Participants frequently refer to themselves as "couchsurfers" or "surfers". "CS" and "CSer" are used as abbreviations.
How it works
Initial registration is free of charge, but payment must be made to use the service, either for each use, or upon payment of an annual fee. In 2014, former CEO Jen Billock suggested that the company may implement additional features that would only be available to paying members; however, no such features were ever implemented.
Members complete a profile page that includes information suchs as their philosophy and mission, the skills they can teach others, their favorite music, movies, and books, and photos of themselves and of the accommodation they offer, if any. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters such as age, location, languages spoken, and gender and then send messages to the hosts with whom they want to stay. Members can also post their travel plans publicly and receive homestay offers from potential hosts.
Members can also use the mobile app to "hangout" with other nearby travelers.
Homestays are consensual between the host and guest, and the duration, nature, and terms of the guest's stay are generally worked out in advance.
Unlike Airbnb, homestays arranged on Couchsurfing do not involve payment for lodging.
Members have the option of leaving comments on their experiences with other members on such members' profiles. Those comments can not be modified or deleted afterwards, but they will disappear if the corresponding account is deleted.
Use as a dating site
Membership statistics and growth
According to the website, Couchsurfing is "a global community of 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities". According to a blog article quoting an unnamed spokesperson for the company, "1 million members log in 'at least once a month' – meaning another 9 million don’t."
Within one year of the public launch of the website, only 6,000 members had registered. At the time of the database loss in June 2006, the site had 90,000 members. In March 2009, the website reached the 1 million member milestone. An article in The Guardian in January 2011 stated that the site had 2.5 million members at the time. In March 2013, a freelance writer stated that the site had 5 million members at the time. In 2015, a book stated that the site had 7 million members. In February 2016, an article by CNBC stated that the site had 11 million members.
Couchsurfing was conceived by computer programmer Casey Fenton in 1999, when he was 25 years old. The idea arose after Fenton found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have a place to stay and did not want to stay in a "boring" hotel. Fenton hacked into a university database and randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay with them. He ultimately received 50-100 offers of accommodation. On the return flight to Boston, he came up with the idea to create the website. He registered the couchsurfing.com domain name on 13 June 1999.
Couchsurfing collectives (2006-2011)
From 2006 through 2011, development of the website occurred mostly at Couchsurfing Collectives: events which lasted days or weeks and brought groups of Couchsurfers together to develop and improve the website. Collectives took place in Montreal, Vienna, New Zealand, and Canada. After the corporate reorganization in 2011, the collectives no longer took place. The use of volunteer labor is forbidden in commercial enterprises by the US federal government.
Database loss and relaunch (2006)
In June 2006, problems with the website database resulted in much of it being irrevocably lost. Founder Casey Fenton posted online asking for help. A Couchsurfing Collective was underway in Montreal at the time and those in attendance committed to fully recreating the original website. The collective raised $8,000 in donations to address the issues.
Venture capital funding and IPO plans (2011-2012)
In August 2012, Couchsurfing received an additional $15 million in funding from lead investor General Catalyst Partners, with participation by Menlo Ventures, as well as existing investors Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network. The additional funding brought the company’s total funding raised to $22.6 million.
Cash burn rate
Change to a for-profit corporation (2011)
The company applied for 501(c)(3) non-profit status in November 2007 but was rejected by the Internal Revenue Service in early 2011. Hoffler came to believe that non-profit status was an obstacle to innovation due to the audit and regulatory requirements and that a for-profit entity was then the best structure for the company.
The New Hampshire entity Couchsurfing International Inc. was dissolved on 4 November 2011. Its assets were sold to a for-profit Delaware corporation, also called Couchsurfing International, Inc., which was formed on 3 May 2011.
The company was originally a certified B Corporation in 2011 after it went for-profit but it was no longer listed as such on the B-Corp website as of mid 2016.
Members' objection to for-profit conversion
The company spent more than $10,000 on a public relations firm to educate its directors on how to respond to the press about the conversion to a for-profit entity. A 3-page letter was sent to over 1,000 volunteers.
Even though the founders did not receive any cash from the financing, members were opposed to the founders having a valuable ownership interest in an organization that was financed by donations and built using volunteer work. On 14 September 2011, a posting was made on the couchsurfing blog that tried to assail members' fears of additional fees and the sale of membership data.
There is currently no CEO; however, co-founder Dan Hoffer served as CEO from 2011 to 2012, Tony Espinoza served as CEO from 2012 to 2013, and Jennifer Billock served as CEO from 2014 to 2015.
The board of directors of the company includes founder and Chairman Casey Fenton as well as venture capital investors Matt Cohler of Benchmark, Todor Tashev of Omidyar Technology Ventures, and Jonathan Teo of Binary Capital.
Site redesigns (2012-2014)
Over the years, numerous changes to the site were made. A redesign in 2012 was made without gathering feedback from the members, thus infuriating users. Another redesign was implemented in November 2014.
Resulting claims of censorship (2013)
August 2014 security breach and resulting spam emails
According to the Couchsurfing Community Support Team, on 15 August 2014 "the part of Couchsurfing’s system that sends email to members was breached and an email was sent to approximately 1 million members." The email advertised rival site Airbnb. The email contained malicious code, an XSRF attack (a Cross-site request forgery), including "embedded on-site action calls loaded as an image", which would have erased reader’s membership data and deleted member profiles. According to posts on Reddit, Couchsurfing censored some posts on the site referring to the incident and generally refused to explain how the breach was made.
Crimes committed using Couchsurfing
Crimes committed using Couchsurfing as a way to meet victims include:
- The rape of a 29-year-old woman from Hong Kong by a 34-year old Moroccan in Leeds, United Kingdom in 2009
- Guests filmed in the shower by their 37-year old host in Marseille, France in 2012
- The drugging and rape of a 16-year old Australian girl by an Italian police officer in Padua, Italy in 2013
- The brutal murder of a 25-year old American woman in Pokhara, Nepal in August 2015
Other hospitality exchange networks
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- Reddit: MISSING PERSON! My friend Dahlia was couchsurfing in Pokhara, Nepal, on 6 August, and has not been heard from since.
- Hammer, Joshua (5 July 2016). "The Disappearance of Dahlia Yehia". Foreign Policy.
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