With yesterday's news of CouchSurfing raising $7.6 Million from venture capitalists, one of the worst nightmares of many people who love the idea of hospitality exchange has come true. The network with most members now is a business corporation that wants to profit from hosts opening their homes and welcoming people. This is not what my dream was about.
When in 2000 I had the idea for a hospitality network on the internet with profiles, photos, comments, message systems which became Hospitality Club, I dreamt of a future where millions of people would exchange hospitality, make friends all over the world, enhance intercultural understanding and in the long run make the world more peaceful. Even though I studied at Germany's best business school with a very strong history of doing startups and making money with them, it was clear for me that HC would never be about money. I wanted to spread the idea and build a community without introducing any money-making ideas. It was never about the money for us (I have received offers to sell HC, but this was always out of the question). It's just not right to encourage people to open their homes to strangers and then try to become rich doing so. If people start seeing the wonderful concept of hospitality exchange as a business, the idea will die a long, nasty, painful death.
Hospitality Club will never become a for-profit business
We will not let this happen. So here is my vow for you: Hospitality Club will never become a for-profit business. It was never planned and after today's feeling of getting sick to the stomach, this feeling is even stronger. We will continue to build on the strengths of our community of selfless giving, without ever trying to exploit it (contrary to CS who have ripped off especially new inexperienced members with their verification scam for years).
And the time has come for some clear words. So here are some of my personal thoughts and experiences with CS. When I first discovered the site in 2004 I was intrigued - the design was funny (surfboards) but good, the name silly (or so I thought…it's not about the couch, you know). I contacted Casey (CS Founder) and proposed we work together on one global project rather than building competing ones. He had skills I didnt have (he is a programmer!), and I thought I had a better feeling for the hospitality exchange community, having been active in it for 8 years already at that time and having built the largest organization (we were until 3 years ago).
CS was never about intercultural understanding and peace
An interesting email exchange developed. In the end Casey didn't want to join forces because he claimed that our “goals” didn't align - for him it was NOT, and I repeat this, it was NOT about intercultural understanding and peace. In fact, Casey specifically quoted these goals from our front page and said that we differed there. I have never published these emails, and probably never will because they were a private exchange. But with yesterday's news of CS trying to make a business out of hospitality exchange it's imperative for the community to know how this could happen. This is important. So again: from the very beginning, CouchSurfing was NOT about intercultural understanding and peace. Only in later years would they copy some of our ideas, start claiming to “make the world a better place one couch at a time”, change their domain from .com to .org, when they realized that in our idealistic community it IS important why we do this. I would not have spent 14 years of my life building a hospitality exchange organization if I didn't believe in this idea, most volunteers would not help out just to get others a free place to crash, and they certainly don't want to do this to make someone rich. We share a common belief. Casey does not have this belief.
Soon people started using Hospitality Club to promote the new cool site. We had always filtered messages between members for spam, out of the fear that spam could kill all trust in the network and started treating CS promotion messages as spam. A decision that haunts us to this day, since this was seen by some in the community as censorship. I also was wrong about the name - it IS catchy and especially the media loved it, giving CS an advantage over our a bit clumsy Hospitality Club
First betrayal of the community: the “crash”
In 2005 I met Casey when he showed up at one of our Hospitality Club Camps. We had some nice chats, smoked a clove cigarette or two together. He is a smooth talker. We kept in touch a bit over the next year, and then in 2006 Casey decided to shut down CS after a database crash. Here's a quote from his famous goodbye message: “I have devoted the last three years of my life to CouchSurfing. I have literally poured every cent I have into the site. I've sacrificed my health, my time, and my own ability to travel and meet people. In many ways I've put my life and wanderlust on hold to build this network. I'm not complaining; it's been a fantastic ride. As devastating as it is to consider, it looks like the ride is over. ”
What struck me as very odd quickly was the fact that there was no outcry from the most involved CS volunteers (“ambassadors”), many of whom I had been in touch with. I knew that if I had done the same thing and said: “oh, I want to travel again, so I'll shut HC down”, I would have had to hide quickly, so that our awesome volunteers who had dedicated so much time to the project would not find and lynch me. This didn't happen on CS - there was an outcry from the community, yes, but not from the inner circle. To us, they just shrugged their shoulders and basically said: “well, if Casey feels that way, it's his choice”. This just didnt make sense, and to this date doesn't - the crash was used so members would start donating (the database drop most likely happened, and Casey then saw it as a golden opportunity to bring attention and money to the site). CS' marketing has always been better than ours.
Thousands of Couchsurfers were stranded, so we immediately kicked into high gear, trying to help them out, finding them hosts through HC or getting them in touch with their original hosts and quickly set up mailing lists. But one of the worst actions I have ever seen in the hospitality exchange scene came after CS changed their front page from the sobbing goodbye-message to something claiming to help their stranded members: they gave them a couple of emergency links. Not to Hospitality Club, where a lot of them could have found actual help and the hosts they were looking for. No. To hotels.com and hostels.com. This was the breaking point for me. If I had ever shut down Hospitality Club for whatever reason, I would OF COURSE have sent all our members with a personal message over to CouchSurfing. No matter how big the differences or little quabbles between friendly competitors were, this would have been the only thing to do. I was shocked that CS didn't do that - it showed that they didn't give a rat's ass about the idea of hospitality exchange.
I also had a chat with Casey a few days later after they started to regroup, which I'd love to publish because it's rather disgusting. After that I had not much interest in talking to him anymore - I had learned my lesson. Casey Fenton is not an honest person.
Everything that happened in later years can be read up on plenty of other websites, the juggling around with the non-profit status, and lots of other issues with CS, no need for me to add something else here. What pisses me off personally is that they still put “1999-2011” in the footer of every page, so on an almost constant basis I have to answer the question who is older - CS (which actually went live in 2004) or HC (2000). Sigh.
Big plans for HC: going Open Source
Which leads us over to HC: yes, we screwed up. We should have moved faster, addressed criticism more head on, and most important of all, improved the site. We got entangled in internal struggles commonly found in volunteer-only organizations, and we were lazy. Also, I'm not a programmer. However, we never died, HC has always been alive, the basic functionality is working, even if it's not as flashy as on CS. And we have big plans…
Already in 2007 we decided to go open source and release our code. The project stalled until late last year, because our programmers had decided to patch the current code and then release it - something that unfortunately never happened (understandably, the code apparently is a mess now, and it's very difficult to try to improve or change things for new programmers).
Late last year we finally took the decision to abandon those efforts and concentrate on developing an entirely new site based on new open source code. By chance I was hosted by Ariel in Buenos Aires in January, he had been offering his help for the last 8 years, and he took up the idea of our new open source site and started coding our new site. We are starting to involve other programmers in the effort now - if you would like to help, please get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org. We plan to release the new site this year and then together with you will build the best hospitality exchange website this planet has ever seen.
There is so much wrong with the decision CS took. They essentially did not have the moral right to sell (part of) the site to venture capitalists. It was built on many volunteer shoulders, who rightfully feel deceived now. I might not be the best leader of a volunteer project, but this is something that would not have occured to me in my dreams. It's disgusting. Venture capitalists don't invest into something because they are nice people - they want to get this money back, from you, the community! CS already made millions with the verification scam, what is next?
Do you still believe in hospitality exchange?
We welcome any couchsurfers who still believe in the idea of hospitality exchange as one global community and not as a big business. You will feel at home in HC, I'm sure - even if the site is not up to par at the moment (I have personally always hosted couchsurfers and will continue to do so until I can't bear the thought anymore that I'll be supporting a company that has turned our wonderful hospitality exchange world into a business). And to all loyal Hospitality Club members: thank you for sticking around, we are sorry that we let you wait for so long for improvements, please help us get back on track. Together we CAN build something that all the venture capital in the world can't buy.
And most importantly: keep hosting and visiting members, make friends! It's not about the couch.
Warm Greetings from Dresden, Germany,