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The improbable rise and fall of Couchsurfing (dailydot.com)
174 points by uladzislau on May 31, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

According to a recent Mixergy interview with founder Casey Fenton, Couchsurfing tried for years and years to be approved as a 501(c)3 organization (basically, a charity) so they could receive grant money to support cultural exchanges. Eventually the IRS gave them a final, non-appealable determination of non-status. Apparently, the cultural exchange aspect was not a strong enough reason when most people probably couchsurf to save money. So their business model was broken, and they had to stop being a non-profit and become for profit, which, at that point, costs $1 million to convert. I presume this is because non-profits must give away their assets to another non-profit if they cease operations. So $1 million in VC dollars plus other investment converted them into a for profit. Alas, not with such great results. I think it is unfortunate the way the meme has spread that the founders were just making a money grab.


I wonder if in the case of an international-by-default internet organisation, there might be some international workaround. Maybe they could have registered the business elsewhere or even physically moved to another jurisdiction. Maybe they could have formally merged with an existing cultural exchange non profit like the various 'year abroad' exchange organisations.

If a for-profit company, quasi-nonprofit or organisation without a well defined status wants to operate as a non profit and they seem to be getting results... It seems a terrible waste not to help that exist, as a society or a legal system or whatnot.

If you have a million to spend on converting from non-profit to something else (or was that contingent on converting into a US for profit?), perhaps there are other options out there. What's the distinction between for profit and non profit in a "favourable" jurisdiction like Isle of Mann or The US Virgin Isles?

It sounds so needlessly wasteful.

Are all tHe employees and assets going to be physically located outside the U.S. too? Otherwise IRS still wants a piece. If it were that easy to avoid taxes everyone would do it.

Aren't non profits allowed to pay foreigners salaries, subject to local rules? Do US non profits pay local corporate taxes when they operate abroad?

They may or may not, depending on their domestic status with regards to the country of operation.

Foreign corporations, for- or non-profit can operate in the USA. But they need to register in their state of operation in the U.S. as a foreign corporation. And unless they get a determination of tax-exempt status from the IRS, they would be subject to U.S. corporate income tax with respect to their U.S. operations.

Even U.S. corporations have to register as foreign corporations to operate outside of their state of incorporation.

> and they had to stop being a non-profit and become for profit, which, at that point, costs $1 million to convert. I presume this is because non-profits must give away their assets to another non-profit if they cease operations.

I'm not sure I follow the logic here. If they weren't a non-profit, why would they have to give their assets to a non-profit in order to convert (and why would this cost them $1 million)?

Besides this, I don't see why they would need to convert their status. There are almost no restrictions on running a non-profit, beyond not having "owners" or paying dividend.

The restrictions only apply to non-profits that want to be tax-exempt by the IRS. If you aren't considered charitable enough, then you just pay taxes as usual, but nobody is going to force a shut down of the non-profit because of that.

There is some maximums in the law that make non-profit status problematic. I worked for a non-profit that had for-profit parts because they had exceeded some of the limits. I'm pretty sure (although its been almost 20 years) that the problem was number of employees and their salaries.

The mixergy site is bait and switch to give up your email address for the interview, only to find out you have to pay money for a membership to listen.

They make money and it can be a competitive space. Making them non-profit could be unfair competition for a lot of other companies!

Huh? Nonprofit status has nothing to do with whether you're making money. The NYSE became for-profit after 2005.

Should've declared themselves a couch religion. 501c3 granted no questions asked.

This saddens me.

I couchsurfed with two different people over one weekend. While strictly speaking I was aiming to save money, my actual experience was very much one of culture exchange.

It is indeed true that when a non-profit converts to a for-profit, they have to "give something back".

I've been going to CS meetings for years and they've always seemed the same to me. Half residents (foreign and local) and half travelers. Most are there because their life, or the times, don't allow for making easy friendships, thus they get several of the benefits w/o the commitment.

At this point, personally, I end up making a few 'friends' and then sitting at a table or in a small standing group with half friends and half travelers. The friends part means I don't have to ask those hostel-type questions to every single person I talk to (where are you from, how long are you here for, what are you doing here, when are you leaving).

After some time, no matter the city, I start to realize who has been hooking up with/is interested in whom, and often times, one realizes most are there for a combination of this and the easy social aspect.


As for the site, their new redesign messed up a lot of functionality and completely did away with crowdsourced data from the communities. The CS city groups have totally become a "let's go get drinks since I'm in your city for two days" type thing, not to mention travelers are constantly asking the same questions and since CS took out the search function, including the previously mentioned deletion of years of crowdsourced info/tips, the site & quality of content has just gone downhill.

What do you mean by 'crowdsourced data from the communities'?

After the redesign, links to groups were deleted (meaning they restructured the URL hierarchy and how one part of the site connects to the other). That's almost fine, as long as they implement a nice search functionality and allow access to hundreds of backpages of user-created posts for each city group, etc...only they didn't. They totally deleted all that crowdsourced data (the posts) and threw the search functionality in the trash (search is a horrible user experience now).

In summary, by crowdsourced data, I mean when someone asks where the best park is (for ex), they might get several viable answers from locals. After a few months, this post gets buried but with search it can easily be found again.

CS is great example of how the growth can kill community. Even five years ago CS was kind of underground community of travellers, hippies, hitchhikers and odd people like that.

Then the VCs come in and mainstream media started to write about the site, which brings new crowd of people. Now it feels like dating/hookup site and meetings are now mostly expat gatherings of weekly drinking party of local english teachers.

I used to be active member of community, surfing over 5 continents, attending meetings in many many cities and countries. I don't surf anymore, but I do visit some meeting from time to time and I can tell how the vibe is completely different, also the long time members are gone.

Do you have any idea where they went?

Thats a great question. I don't think there are (and going to be) community in the same style like CS.

Why do you think that (for the future)?

I hosted lots of couchsurfing type people, on I believe a pre-CS network in the same light, circa 2005. Can't remember the name. Later, I joined CS. There were some great characters that turned up in my house in Qingdao, China (right by the ferry-ride to Korea) .. global cycle-tourists, Japanese-American documenters of vanishing island dance traditions, and a schizophrenic East German woman. The latter was our last guest due to the difficulty of the experience. I never actually stayed with anyone else, only provided a room and sort of free tour guide services which is a big unmentioned portion of what these networks are/were.

I still get emails from CS though .. including one this morning from a Canadian who typically laments, in English: I have had a great trip so far but unfortunately have not got to meet and connect with many chinese people due to language barriers. Imagine that.

(Edit in reply to Michael below (out of posts): From the statistics at https://www.warmshowers.org/country_count it looks like Europe by far holds the most numerous number of members in the smallest geographical area, ie. it should be easiest to navigate solely by WarmShower hosts in this region.

Typical living costs for cycle touring Europe are 5 (stretch but possible) to 10 (feasible) to 15 (comfy) EUR/day for food. If you can budget 20 you can get drunk too. Add 5 for museums, I reckon you're good. 25EUR is about 28USD. The exchange rate is the best it has been in 10 years. Go now!!!)

> I hosted lots of couchsurfing type people, on I believe a pre-CS network in the same light, circa 2005. Can't remember the name.

Was it Hospitality Club? Another website that became a ghost town due to lack of innovation.


Now Meetup performs much of the same functions and is far easier to sign-up, navigate and participate. There's usually a bunch of couchsurfing 'meet-ups' in every major city.

There was also a similar club, in the early 90s, probably existed already in the 80s, which operated my papermail. You mailed a letter to the club, explaining where you are travelling. And they responded with a list of people with addresses, whom you could then mail and ask for accomodation.

Yep that was it.

If you want to host more cyclists, check out WarmShowers. It's still in a nascent stage with a decent community thus far.

Cool. Sort of feel like I had heard of that somehow, must have been a few years ago.

Actually my family were thinking of buying some recumbent bikes and cycling this trip in Europe (3 months looking for a new house) but couldn't get enough info quick enough to make it happen. Kind of sux, but we're still keen. If you have any recommendations for places that stock or build custom recumbent bikes around western Europe, let me know.

PS. Your @shit_hn_says recommendation is great: a google of facepalms.

Seems interesting, but it is strictly for bicyclists. I really hope there is some community that is basically CS but without the crap.

I haven't tried it but keep hearing of BeWelcome as a place aiming at "CS but without the crap" http://www.bewelcome.org

BeWelcome suffers from quite toxic and counterproductive internal politics and petty power struggles. And the fact that the few founders maintaining control refuse to invest anything of substance in the code just _barely_ holding the site together.

Their constant boasts of "purely democratic!" and "proudly spending zilch on technical talent!" are in reality, massive liabilities and impediments. The site has barely seen any growth in about eight years, and without "enough" users, it provides little value to anyone except the small, core group. Which they're perfectly fine with.

Several extremely talented coders who invested tons of time and skill into CS and BW over the years, finally started this last December:



Who's into MEAN? Drop them a line!

tell me more about WarmShowers; I'm not dead certain but I am considering packing up my touring bike then riding off over the horizon.

If I do this I'm only going to have a very limited amount of cash, and no real way to earn any during my travels.

I have the Boy Scout Wilderness Survival Merit Badge so it's not like I don't know how to sleep outdoors but even show a "Warm Shower" would be nice from time to time.

I don't know much about it, but I signed up while living in Amsterdam, and got to host someone who had biked from Lille in France across Belgium to Amsterdam in a few days—and was headed to North Cape. She was hoping to use WarmShowers as much as possible on the way, but had brought some camping equipment.

Weary travellers need to shower, sleep, and eat, so there's a custom of hosts providing some kind of food. But obviously that's up to the host. I cooked something simple with rice and beans and vegetables and it was very appreciated.

WarmShowers sounds like some sort of sexual fetish. No thanks.

I don't know how to put this nicely, but warding off people with reactions like this seems like a feature, not a bug.

all about perspective, I guess. as someone who has toured foreign continents living out of a van for a month at a time, it sounds like a warm shower to me.

While it's true that couchsurfing.com isn't what it used to be, I don't think the same can be said about the individual couchsurfers.

It's a bit too easy to lament how the quality of surfers has gone down as the community size has grown. While couchsurfers today are a more diverse crowd I think exposing the idea of couchsurfing to people who aren't you stereotypical backpacker is not necessarily cause for lament. Sometimes all it takes is a nudge in the right direction for them to become involved too.

I was active myself on the old site and after a couple of years break I've decided to start again now that I have the space to easily host. During the few months I've had visitors stop by my flat here in Edinburgh I've had the pleasure of meeting a great amount of very different and almost always interesting people ranging from poor students on their first couch surfing trip to a guest hitch hiking overland from China to classical musicians from London to a travelling Blues Dance teacher.

Being in a cultural hotspot like Edinburgh I naturally receive a lot of requests, many of which looks blatantly copy/pasted. However since I decline most requests for lack of time anyway it's not much effort to filter through and find the people who seems like they are interested in meeting me and invite them in.

So at least speaking from my own experience I don't think there's any cause for alarm over the quality of the people on couchsurfing. But then again, I always found the meetups to be dreadful. As for the site itself I find the redesign annoying and wouldn't mind switching to a better site if any good contender came up, but so far the community on CS however much in decline is still much more active than any other site I know of.

I'm almost scared of suggesting it since it might get destroyed by marauding infidels, but I am a fan of bewelcome.org. It is much smaller, of course. They run OSS!

I can’t really share some of the sentiments – I'm using CS for a few months now, host plenty and so far have had no problem finding a couch in popular places (London, Berlin) with reasonable due diligence when picking guests and hosts.

I think a lot of the criticism is just life-cycle rooted. Sites grow, evolve and users of the "first hour" no longer see "their site" as what it once was and leave. I could say the same for... Ebay, for example – used to be fun to browse and sell. Now there are commercial sellers galore, millions of products and all the magic is gone. But that’s my personal perception. The site still works. Just not for me, so I have moved on. Doesn’t qualify calling Ebay "fallen" imo.

I had an informal interview at Couchsurfing's SF office a few years ago. Having met the people behind today's CS, it all made sense why the site had completely lost its magic.

The employees I had lunch with spent most of the time dogging on the "technically incompetent hippies" that founded the company. The recruiter balked at my question about why they switched to Ruby on Rails, saying that, "anyone who thinks Ruby doesn't scale frankly doesn't know what they're talking about." My intent wasn't even to question the validity of the question, but the guy immediately got defensive.

Everyone I talked to was drunk on the "startup culture" they were trying to latch onto. Every person talked about the great monetization opportunities.

I had felt that CS had lost its magic many years before this interview, but the people running the company were the nail in the coffin for me.

I always thought that the main attraction of couch surfing was the fact that you got a free place to sleep. Sure, meeting locals is a nice side effect, but for many people the fact that it is free is the thing that enables travelling in the first place.

We've hosted a bunch of people, and it's usually young people with little income (often students). And Couch Surfing works great for that: The website matches up people who look for a free place to stay with people who like sharing their place. And despite all the politics, couch surfing still works great for that!

I have been hosting 30+ people in Montevideo, Uruguay since 2011 and while I find CouchSurfing not as beautiful/user-friendly as AirBnb I really don't care. And I am a designer. The community at least in my country is and still really strong. I haven't had a single problem whatsoever and It really changed me for the better in an immeasurable way. Maybe other startup can hit the nail on the usability, credibility, signal-to-noise ratio. As a host who receive +5req / weekly, the main filter is always yourself. You need to do your due-diligence (aka stalking) and set your own rules. There's way more good people than bad people. Fortunately I haven't find one of the latter.

TL;DR; Join. So far there's no other community like couchsurfing, take the best of it. It will impact you deeply.

Hospitality organisations long pre-date Couchsurfing. Servas, the oldest such organisation, was founded in 1949 as part of the peace movement and now has over 16,000 hosts worldwide. Servas has avoided most of the issues that have afflicted Couchsurfing by requiring new travellers and hosts to be interviewed and vetted. Prospective members are expected to share a belief in internationalism, and use the network to build meaningful cross-cultural connections.

Are you a Servas member?

I think the original couchsurfing spirit is fundamentally incompatible with the startup "guzzle money and grow" mentality. For a successful community you need to keep things local to build trust networks - this is fundamentally a low profile operation, not something that's going to scale massively and make a big splash, because it involves tight groups on small scales. I think the SF startup scene just doesn't have the mentality to make that work - everyone is chasing the Next Big Thing (emphasis on Big), so a community website that, for example, makes it's mark in a handful of German cities isn't what founder CEOs and VCs are looking for.

BeWelcome is frequently on the verge of collapse, and IMO is simply too small and unreliable to be of genuine value. It serves mainly the French folks who set it up nearly a decade ago, as a form of protest against the founder of HC. Some sort-of funny criticism is here: openbw.blogspot.com

If you want to see a _really_ ambitious CS-replacement project, sign-up at trustroots.org! These guys are experienced travelers and hosts, and very skilled and up-to-date, professional coders. They invested years of unpaid tech talent into CS and BW, before finally starting their own site last winter.

https://github.com/Trustroots/trustroots/ Got some MEAN skills? Get in touch with them!

Hey, it's Drew from Horizon (one of the new apps mentioned in the article). Just wanted to let everyone know, if you're interested in hosting/surfing among the HN community, there is a private hacker news group that is available by using the following group unlock code: hn2015#$

i used couchsurfing myself, as a host and guest all over the world. one point the article didn't talk about - Airbnb. once people realized they can charge money for the empty room/couch they ditched couchserfing. i find it too bad because in a way we all hurt ourself by charging each other. there was something magical about the vision that says - host someone from other county for free and next time you'll visit there you have a free place too.

Together with my friends, we are living in a large apartment, so there's often one room empty or extra space for people to sleep. We used to frequently host couch surfers, but in the end we have made the most friends and had the best experience with airbnb priced to just cover the room rent.

We found it to greatly reduce conflicts between guests and hosts, and actually get people more engaged in our small community.

With couch surfing, I often had thoughts like "I pay for your room and you can't even put your dirty dishes away". Since we offered the room for free, we kind of expected some sort of autonomy from their side to help us out in the household or maybe cook some dinner for everyone if they stay longer than one night. They often expected that we would go explore the city with them and give them a lot of attention.

On airbnb that problem somehow mostly vanished. If things with the guest aren't great, at least you get paid. Thus you also don't need such a strict screening process anymore. Due to this, there seems to be much more diversity regarding the types of people we get to meet.

Many of them actually just want a quiet room to sleep in, and it's absolutely fine. Some people however really get involved and become good friends. Especially when they stay longer (which almost never happens on couch surfing), the fact that they pay rent just like everyone else seems to make some of them much more open to suggest improvements and be proactive.

We've met a lot of diverse, interesting people through airbnb, some of which ended up staying for a long time, some coming back regularly. On couch surfing we've mostly met the traveling couple, group of friends coming here to party and young backpacker stereotypes.

What killed couch surfing for me personally though, was that no matter how many people I've hosted, I could never find anyone who would host me when I was traveling somewhere. That really destroyed the magical vision for me.

> What killed couch surfing for me personally though, was that no matter how many people I've hosted, I could never find anyone who would host me when I was traveling somewhere.

So much this. I've probably hosted easily 30-40 different groups or individuals (which is perhaps not a lot by CS standard, but fine, I've done my dues, no?), and I have only been able to surf 3 times, of which 2 were arranged by the attractive young lady I was travelling with (I am not 100% serious, that is sexist, but I suspect this dynamic does play a role). On the other hand, I have frequently sent out 20-50 reasonably personalized surfing requests, depending on popularity of destination, etc. Of course you'll have to take my word that I didn't just copy and paste a one-liner like "Hey I'll be in your city from x to y July, can I stay at your place?", but still, CS is dead to me, I don't even try to surf any more.

Another telling thing is that in many popular destinations (New York most recently for me) the first two pages of search results include predominantly photos of muscular males posing without t-shirts. Somehow I didn't feel drawn to that. :(

Great idea, tragedy of the commons?

For me, it greatly depends on the location. At locations where hostels are readily available and cheap, I had easy time couchsurfing, e.g. Mexico, and had a very good time (that was last summer, 2014). In SF, yeah, good luck, and better be a handsome girl/guy (and maybe get some unwanted advances).

Though, actually, back in 2010 I did find a CS host in Brooklyn, NY within maybe 5-10 requests, so YMMV.

Israel, I've been told by my guests, is very easy.

> I could never find anyone who would host me when I was traveling somewhere.

This part really does suck. They say to write a personalized message to someone available to host and who has things in common with you. Try as one may, this is hit or miss (more of a hit if you're a young, attractive female). I've tried countless times over the years, despite having all positive references and a full, friendly profile, but to no avail. People don't even respond, 95% of the time.

The whole travel experience is different when you're female. A lot of this is due to the fact that one is not perceived as dangerous, but at the same time vulnerable.

This means people are in general more open, especially other women, and especially those in cultures with more pronounced differences between the genders. Other women will be much more open to helping, in hitchhiking, in couchsuring and elsewhere. Guys will also be more open, but often enough in an unwanted way, which thus always has to be considered (Schroedinger's rapist). Not all offers should be accepted. Thus, it's easier and harder.

> Thus you also don't need such a strict screening process anymore

Is that true? I'd think screening would be more for keeping out the nutters than anything else... and I suspect most people wouldn't want to host nutters even if they got paid.

I meant something like "cultural fit" screening. If you pay, I don't care if you are a freelance developer, a young couple, whether you are introvert and stay in your room, or tell us your whole life story over dinner.

If you pay for it and want to spend two weeks alone in your room and never talk to us, that's more or less fine. If you live in my apartment for free and you're not getting involved in at least some way, I'll be angry and disappointed.

So that way, screening on CS needs to be much more thorough and the chance that you get disappointed is much higher.

The screening process is vital. I believe if by giving people way more granular control over who (people and community members) they are willing to field requests from, we can increase the frequency of hospitality & cultural exchanges occurring.

Couchsurfing is not that effective if 95% of the community is just looking for a free place and 5% actually hosts. You've got way too many parasites in the community. With Airbnb, that problem is solved - people who don't host have to pay and the people who do host can still reduce their costs significantly when they go for a trip themselves.

I think the parasite problem is/was not that bad outside of tourist hotspots. In fact, one couple that hosted me in Eastern Russia is frustrated that there are not enough visitors anymore, probably both because of CouchSurfing's decline and the Ukraine crisis. I've hosted a dozen people or so in an obscure Asian city, and none of them were parasites either.

I think the key here is "outside of large business/cultural hubs". If you had hosted in NYC or Hamburg your story could be different altogether.

I live in a rented apartment so I can't legally host on Airbnb - but I'd love to simultaneously room-swap with people in other cities when I travel... (Eg swap my place in London with someone in Berlin for a week or two)

I don't think you can legally do that if you can't legally host in AirBnB. You may, but e.g. my lease (before I owned my apartment) specifically limited non-family[0] stays to no more than 1 week at a time, and no more than 4 weeks per year total. On one hand, it is non-trivially onerous. On the other hand, I really liked the apartment, and I understood the rationale.

[0] the "family" was very broadly defined - e.g it explicitly included unmarried S/O and their family, and implicitly close friends. but it wouldn't have included "someone I never met and who found me on couchsurfing.org".

I had seen a site that does this[1] but think they are more geared to bigger residences.

May have small setups too..

[1] http://lovehomeswap.com

http://www.horizonapp.co may be able to help :)

some group unlock codes: couchsurfing airbnbhosts

Their redesign is awful also. I stopped coming since it now requires 3x clicks to do the same.

I was curious as to why the non-profit model didn't work, and was surprised it was registered in Deleware. I am automatically a bit nervous when a California based non-profit registers in Deleware. Sorry, but I want to download those free previews on www.guidestar.org, and find out who is on the BOD, and who is making the most money in the 501c3. If I can't find the detailed financials; I don't donate.

Why would a non-profit register in Delware:

"One advantage provided to corporations under the DGCL is flexibility in internal structure. Unlike some states such as New York, the DGCL requires a corporation to have only one director. A nonprofit corporation in Delaware must have members, but directors can serve as the only members. Unlike California, there is no requirement for a majority disinterested board. Finally, Delaware does not require the naming of corporate officers.

Delaware also generally applies less cumbersome regulation to the formation and operation of nonprofit corporations than some other states. Unlike New York, which requires in certain circumstances the approval of various state agencies prior to the formation of a nonprofit, an individual can form a Delaware nonprofit corporation simply by filing a certificate of incorporation. Delaware also does not require nonprofit corporations formed under Delaware law to register with its Attorney General’s office or file annual separate financial reports to the state (though if the nonprofit operates in Delaware, it may be required to file a copy of its federal Form 990 with the Delaware Attorney General). Finally, unlike some states, Delaware does not require any state government approvals for nonprofit corporate changes such as amendments to the certificate of incorporation, mergers, and dissolutions."

Looking at the Federal From 990 is important--IMHO. The public shouldn't have to pay to see that informantion. I don't know if couchsurfing even filed 990's? A disinterested board is important--for any non-profit--IMHO. Registering with the attorney generals office is important--IMHO. My point is if you are a San Francisco non-profit register in California. If you have a good cause, and all financial information is open public viewing; you might be surprised just how much money you raise?


Well, maybe its time to sign for BeWelcome (non-profit)


Can BeWelcome be sold? http://www.bewelcome.org/wiki/Can_BeWelcome_be_sold

Differences with Other Networks http://www.bewelcome.org/wiki/Difference_with_other_hospital... No.

I'm confused. Can't you get a 990 from any nonprofit in any state by just asking them for it?

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