Couchsurfing.com is a website that lets travelers shop for free couches to crash on in the cities they’re visiting (and often includes meals, beer, tours and new friendship) which is, yes, in some ways similar to AirBnb (ABNB), that “billion dollar business” that just raised a massive round. But Couchsurfing has always been about sharing resources for free, between people with a shared love of travel, with the vague idea that kindness to a guest would be repaid in karma when you needed a place to stay elsewhere in the network.
The website designed a clever reputation system, better than Airbnb’s, and though its user experience is not perfect, the nonprofit’s employees and volunteers have managed to iterate on the website and it’s gotten much, much better. And yet its founders decided they needed more money, enough to become a for-profit and invite the profit pressure that comes with tech start-up investors like Omidyar Ventures and VC Benchmark Capital.
When we started CouchSurfing, being a non-profit was the best option that we could find to make sure that we achieved our vision. But achieving the top status for American non-profits — known as 501c(3) status — has turned out to be very difficult. Although we’ve operated as a non-profit financially, our mission isn’t traditional enough for the government to grant us this type of status.
So we need to make a change. After 5 years of trying to go in the direction of 501c(3), we’ve finally understood that this isn’t going to work for us. We need to find another structure in order to continue our progress towards a world where anyone can explore and connect.
Makes sense. But the announcement of a $7.6 million raise and the fact that this news broke in TechCrunch gives us a very chilly feeling. What will happen to Couchsurfing’s robust, trust-based and highly engaged community? We’re feeling superstitious, afraid that part of that earnestness came from the fact that the site was not out to get users’ money. Does something happen when you throw revenue incentive into a good thing?
Not that there isn’t plenty of money to be made, of course. Couchsurfing could go for a freemium model, where users can search for couches and see both free and paid listings; the site could start running ads.
CouchSurfing has to change how we’re structured, but we aren’t going to change what we’re here for or what we do. We’ve found two investors that will help us take the burden of support off of our members. These are groups that have a proven commitment to working with organizations that are trying to do good in the world. You may have heard of Omidyar, which has invested in Kiva.org, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and other well-known philanthropic websites.
We are committed to keeping CouchSurfing as it is right now available to everyone, free of charge. We want to break down barriers for exploration, including financial barriers. We will need to find new ways of making money, but we will not make members pay for anything that is currently part of the CouchSurfing experience. Instead, what we’re planning to do is create new, optional features that people can choose to pay for if they like — without altering the basic nature of our community.
Perhaps investors should look into Burning Man next.