Destination Unknown - The Story of Couchsurfing
How a young traveller made a business out of other people's hospitality.
On your way to see the world? Chosen a location rich in culture, history, food or activities ? booked travel and hotel and looking forward to something new? If you are someone who enjoys broadening their horizons, imagine this. The person sitting next to you might well be doing the same, but hosted at their destination by someone they have never met. Making those connections is the mission of The CouchSurfing Project, a hospitality exchange network which matches adventurous travelers with adventurous hosts at destinations from the exotic to the mundane.
The idea is not a new one. Most of us have enjoyed a friend's couch (or sofa, if staying in the UK) for the odd overnight. Expanding the concept to include a broader community was the brainchild of Casey Fenton, founder of the project. In 1999, Fenton purchased inexpensive tickets from Boston to Iceland. Needing a place to stay, short on cash, and not knowing anyone with a couch in Reykjavik, Fenton emailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland asking if anyone might put him up. More than 50 people responded offering him accommodations. Encouraged by the warm response, Fenton went home thinking about how to share his idea more broadly.
Idea in Motion
In practice, Couchsurfing is a community website (www.couchsurfing.org in case you don't have a place to stay at your destination). Prospective travelers and hosts post their interests, personal information and logistic details, and then use a search feature to find other members in the cities they want to visit. The site enables initial communication between hosts and travelers, community rating of individuals so that Couchsurfers can vouch for one another, and even an optional credit card verification system. Entering credit card information makes members more trustworthy because it makes them traceable. It also provides CouchSurfing a small revenue stream by requiring a fee for verification. And after that, the system runs on its own, as described by Artti in Estonia in the testimonials area of the site:
"Couchsurfing is like (an) accelerated method for vagabonds, nomads and other type of travellers to meet different, crazy, funny and passionate people. It makes me smile. It makes you smile. It makes us smile. And it's good." Artti Sammalpí_rg (Estonia) Sep 16, 2010.
For all those entrepreneurs waiting for $10 million in venture capital to start their dream company, spend a night on Fenton's couch. With nothing more than other people's living rooms, other people's passion for social travel and his own computer programming skills, Fenton has built a network of over 2.2 million members in 237 countries. Couchsurfing averages around 60 million daily page views. And though the firm is a non-profit, Expedia ought to pay attention. Craigslist, a community site similar to Couchsurfing but offering free person-to-person classified postings, has captured more than half of the advertising traffic that used to go to newspapers in the US.
Fenton has one more entrepreneurship lesson for us. As much as Couchsurfing is about providing cost-efficient travel, it is about community. Sleeping in someone else's living room (or having someone sleep in yours) is a level of personal interaction largely lost in the world of mega-malls and Marriotts. But through Couchsurfing, Fenton enables a kind of social interaction he wants to see in the world. Interaction that is impossible to legislate, impossible to buy but enabled by the entrepreneur, as described by KittiKet:
"The paradox: when we do something for nothing, what we often obtain is something far greater... do not waste time for people that do not want to spend it with u... in life, you don't get the people you want. you get the people you need." KittiKet (Russia) Sep 14, 2010
Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing, IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland and Robert Wiltbank, associate professor of strategic management, Willamette University, Oregon and also available at Business Life. Art is credited to pausimausi, through stock.exchng.
Publication: British Airways Business Life
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