We hear you.
You’re disappointed that we did not communicate more about the financial state of the organization as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic earlier. For that, we apologize. Sincerely. Genuinely. From our hearts. We are sorry.
We are humbled by the outpouring of voices. You have shown us the depth of your passion for Couchsurfing, for the community, and for the friends you have made here.
We do hear you. Now, it’s time to take a deep breath to explain more about what’s going on, and more importantly, why. We want you to understand the situation as clearly as we do and clarify a few of the most commonly asked questions surrounding the implementation of our member contribution program:
1) Why was I not warned?
We understand that not being able to login into Couchsurfing and interact with the community without first making a financial contribution is a shock and disappointing to many Couchsurfing members.
The team supporting Couchsurfing is very small and we had very little time to try to do something, anything, to save Couchsurfing. The team was (and still is) working long days and through weekends just to get done what we can. Even sending millions of emails out to the community is not a simple feat. At the point of the rollout, we felt like this was the best option to keep the community we love. We are trying the best we can and we are sorry we let so many of you down. Looking back, not informing you of such a drastic change was a mistake.
Going forward, we will work on a process together with the Couchsurfing Ambassadors on how we should communicate changes that impact the community.
2) Why did Couchsurfing start asking for contributions?
Since 2015, Couchsurfing has been solely focused on improving our community. By all measures we have been successful and we have grown to a size and vibrancy far beyond what many could imagine. Yet, less than 4% of our active members financially contributed to Couchsurfing by choosing to verify their profiles. This number dropped to nearly 0% in March.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our community engagement dropped by almost 90% because fewer people are traveling and most people are staying home. That means even fewer people verifying their profiles and fewer people seeing advertisements and therefore less funding available for Couchsurfing. Given the global economic climate, fewer companies are advertising so we are seeing even less funding from the few advertisements we are displaying. We tried for two months to solve this problem in some other way and have had to fund operations with our cash reserves which were limited to begin with. In short, we had no other option than to turn to you, the community, for your support.
3) Did Couchsurfing consider other options?
Aside from profile verification and advertising, Couchsurfing tested over 10 different funding models multiple times in the past 4 years. These included asking for donations, permitting members to charge for hosting, asking surfers to pay a nominal fee when confirming a stay, negotiated advertising and sponsorships, affiliate partnerships (Couchsurfing getting paid when members purchased something we promoted), selling merchandise, a Couchsurfing cryptocurrency/blockchain, and more. Multiple versions of these were tested with minimal success. The funding we generated barely covered our costs associated with the tests themselves as well as the ballooning success of the community (growth and engagement).
We did not sell your data. We would not feel comfortable doing this. We think this is unethical. We did not do this. We will never do this. There are mentions on various social media channels of Couchsurfing selling member data. So we will say this once more, we have not and will not do this.
In addition to our attempts at generating additional funding, we also cut costs significantly. We constantly renegotiate our contracts. The beautiful (and expensive) Couchsurfing office which you can see pictures and videos of online was shuttered at the end of 2018 (it took us over 4 years to get out of the lease). Just like the Couchsurfing community, our team is now 100% remote and distributed all across the world. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the team have taken partial pay cuts or are foregoing compensation altogether.
4) But doesn’t Couchsurfing have millions of dollars from rich investors? Isn’t it worth one billion U.S. dollars? Can’t you just raise more money from these wealthy people since this is all about money and they have so much of it?
While it is true that in 2011, and again in 2013, Couchsurfing sold parts of itself to investors (Silicon Valley venture capitalists) in exchange for capital that was reinvested into the company, 99% of that money was spent by early 2015. Those funds were used to improve, scrap, and replace technology that was outdated and expensive to maintain.
By 2015 Couchsurfing was no longer an attractive investment for Silicon Valley venture capitalists, mostly because the community had remained the priority instead of making money. Prioritizing the Couchsurfing community was the right thing to do for the community, but not the right thing to do for the business. We stand by this decision.
Couchsurfing was never worth a billion dollars. We are going to publish another blog post later this week with more details, but Couchsurfing has been an independent and financially self sustaining entity since 2015. None of the investors, founders, or prior team members are actively involved in the company nor have they been since 2015 (except for two team members: our team leads for mobile development and trust and safety).
5) What will you do with the profits you make from the new member contribution?
Our first priority is to ensure that our monthly operational costs are covered. If we start receiving contributions that are above our cost base we will start prioritizing new product development that will make Couchsurfing an even more meaningful and engaging community.
What we will not be doing is sending any of those profits to our investors, or into the pockets of our CEO or employees. The money we earn at Couchsurfing has always gone straight back into the product. You will not see anyone at Couchsurfing driving a Lambo or flying in a Gulfstream jet on the way to the latest EDM party in Vegas. This is simply not part of the Couchsurfing DNA.
6) But how expensive can it be? Can’t we build an alternative for $25k?
Hosting an application costs money based on the amount of data you store, the complexity of the application, the features you offer, and the regulations to which you are subject. In order to provide much of the Couchsurfing functionality, some of which you see but most of which is behind the scenes, we have to integrate with and pay for third party technology. Scaling these applications to millions of members via web, mobile web, and iOS/Android mobile applications is expensive. Complying with regulations (like GDPR, which we fully support!) is expensive. Maintaining all of this is expensive.
A great example of some of the costs Couchsurfing faces is with the use of maps in the existing web and mobile apps. While we don’t use maps as much as you all would like, we do leverage location data across every aspect of the Couchsurfing application. Couchsurfiing previously used Google Maps to provide all location information. This past summer our cost jumped from $8,000 per month to $40,000 per month due to Google’s latest price increase. We made a decision (along with many other apps) to transition to another maps provider, Mapbox. This transition took us over 2 months to complete due to the complexity of our application. Due to our small engineering team, it consumed 99% of their time. We are happy to report that with Mapbox our spend is now less than $4,000 per month. This anecdote is good at identifying the scale at which Couchsurfing operates and the discipline we have in operating a cost effective platform. This is not a simple application you can host on your own servers, or something you can re-build and support overnight.
Our team is one of the least expensive parts of Couchsurfing. We have an incredibly small team of 25 who each do a job that is usually done by multiple people.
Our team serves many functions:
- Trust and Safety team: These folks ensure we are GDPR compliant as well as ensuring any safety complaints / violations are quickly addressed.
- Mobile engineering team: Responsible for delivering iOS and Android applications with security and feature updates on a regular basis.
- Web engineering team: Responsible for the entire codebase. This team was responsible for fixing and improving a rat’s nest of code touched by multiple generations of Couchsurfing employees.
- DevOps team: Ensures the site does not “go down” (which it used to a lot in the past).
- Product team: Interview users to understand what they need in terms of new features, works with engineering teams to improve existing features and build new ones.
- Operations team: Manages the finances, accounting, and legal work of a distributed, global organization.
Without any of the above Couchsurfing would resemble the wild west. The site and mobile applications would break and crash all the time with zero reliability.
7) So the larger you become the more money is needed?
In short, yes. It is a double-edged sword in that as we gain the amazing people that make up our community, it costs more to keep the systems in place to facilitate the connections that make Couchsurfing a place where we can easily share our lives and make a world enriched by travel. Maciej Ceglowsk, the founder of the site pinboad.in, wrote about it in his blog and titled it “Don’t Be A Free User”:
Were you a big Gowalla fan? Did you like Dodgeball? Did you think Trunk.ly (gasp!) was better than Pinboard? Did you make a lot of contributions to Nextstop? Do you miss Aardvark and EtherPad? Did “I Want Sandy” change your life?
These projects are all very different, but the dynamic is the same. Someone builds a cool, free product, it gets popular, and that popularity attracts a buyer. The new owner shuts the product down and the founders issue a glowing press release about how excited they are about synergies going forward. They are never heard from again.
Whether or not this is done in good faith, in practice this kind of ‘exit event’ is a pump-and-dump scheme. The very popularity that attracts a buyer also makes the project financially unsustainable. The owners cash out, the acquirer gets some good engineers, and the users get screwed.
To avoid this problem, avoid mom-and-pop projects that don’t take your money! You might call this the anti-free-software movement.
If every additional user is putting money in the developers’ pockets, then you’re less likely to see the site disappear overnight. If every new user is costing the developers money, and the site is really taking off, then get ready to read about those synergies.
What if a little site you love doesn’t have a business model? Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t take prohibitive per-user revenue to put a project in the black. It just requires a number greater than zero.
I love free software and could not have built my site without it. But free web services are not like free software. If your free software project suddenly gets popular, you gain resources: testers, developers and people willing to pitch in. If your free website takes off, you lose resources. Your time is spent firefighting and your money all goes to the nice people at Linode.
So stop getting caught off guard when your favorite project sells out! “They were getting so popular, why did they have to shut it down?” Because it’s hard to resist a big payday when you are rapidly heading into debt. And because it’s culturally acceptable to leave your user base high and dry if you get a good offer, citing self-inflicted financial hardship.
Our goal is not to “make lots of money” but rather to continue to invest in trust and safety initiatives, develop new and better features in the website and mobile applications, showcase the community, and provide support to all those incredible Couchsurfing members who reflect the Couchsurfing values to the world.
8) What about people saying that this is just like when Couchsurfing switched from a non-profit to a corporation?
Couchsurfing was NEVER a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Couchsurfing was founded in 2004 and applied for non-profit status but was denied by the United States tax authorities (the IRS) for not meeting the qualifications. Couchsurfing is and has been a company. It never qualified as a non-profit and has never been one. In a scenario where Couchsurfing was a non-profit and had achieved the same level of success, we would be in the same situation. Operational costs would be just as high, and they would need to be offset with some form of funding, like member contributions.
As we will share in the coming weeks, we have serious aspirations for the impact we want Couchsurfing to have on the world. In our current world, corporations are the non-governmental organizations that can have the largest impact. As soon as some other organizational format can have a larger impact than a corporation, we will become one of those. Just because we are a corporation does not mean we are focused on money, profits, or expensive compensation packages. We are focused on none of those things.
9) Wait. Millions of members? So the Couchsurfing community hasn’t been slowly dying?
No. Quite the contrary. The number of active members has grown by leaps and bounds in the past four years with no money spent on marketing (because we have none to spend on this). We have been successfully acculturating members into the Couchsurfing ethos as the number of Couchsurfing members engaging with the website and mobile applications on a daily basis has grown 4x. The number of Couchsurfing members engaging with the website and mobile applications on a monthly basis has grown almost 5x. The community has never been more vibrant (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course). With your participation, we have a real opportunity to transform the world in a way that few communities have.
In an effort to avoid over-commercialization, very few members of the community were asked to contribute financially. Unfortunately, very few of our members have made the voluntary Verification payment meaning we have not seen an increase in our funding to match the increase in our membership.
10) Why have I not heard more from Couchsurfing about any of this in the past several years?
We have made a conscious effort to keep the focus on the Couchsurfing community and all the amazing things you do. There are community members who still hold grudges against Couchsurfing for things that were said or done in 2012. In order to avoid that, we focused on making consistent positive improvements to the website and mobile applications. Given the unprecedented times and this abrupt change, we are going to break from this to provide more detail about all things happening in the Couchsurfing community and what you can look forward to and expect in the future.
11) Okay. So what is a Couchsurfing contribution?
All we are asking for is some marginal financial support to help cover our costs. In the United States we are asking for $2.39/month or $14.29/year. This amount is adjusted in a number of currencies and is often considerably lower in various countries.
12) I don’t see it on my account, what does it look like?
It looks like this:
If you don’t see this when you login it is because you have been left out of the contribution program due to either you 1) being an Ambassador, 2) having purchased Lifetime Verification, or 3) you are in a free country.
13) But what about countries that can’t afford $2.39/month or $14.29/year?
We have adjusted these amounts for many countries. In fact, your contributions will allow over 75% of the world to still have access to the Couchsurfing community for free.
14) How did you adjust the contributions and decide which countries did not have to contribute?
We looked at a variety of factors: economic development, economic purchasing power, credit card adoption, debit card adoption, digital payment adoption, size of the countries’ Couchsurfing communities, vibrancy of the countries’ Couchsurfing communities, country population size, country population density, and many other factors.
15) Will you be publishing a list of these countries?
Not just yet.
Unfortunately, we have seen some chatter about people trying to circumvent the contribution program by saying they are from one of these countries even though they are not. This type of behavior is not in line with the Couchsurfing values. We consider this cheating everyone else who is contributing to Couchsurfing. If you do this you will be banned for life from Couchsurfing.
16) But do hosts have to contribute?
We are asking for contributions from all members. It is important that everyone participates. Everyone – whether you are hosting, surfing, organizing an event, or attending a hangout – receives value and needs to contribute to the Couchsurfing community. Everyone provides the community value, everyone receives value from the community. The contribution is for the tools and upkeep of the website and mobile applications that everyone in the community uses.
17) What if I purchased Verification?
If you purchased Verification we are not asking you to contribute for one full year from now. Thank you for your support of Couchsurfing – you are a huge piece as to why we are still a community!
18) Aren’t you holding my data hostage?
Nope. We understand some of you feel we are keeping your profiles “hostage” or require that you pay a “ransom”, and apologize for this. This was not the intention we had in trying to rally the community around saving Couchsurfing. We remain compliant with all privacy regulations. As has always been the case, you can ask for a copy of your data and to delete your account by contacting Couchsurfing Support at firstname.lastname@example.org or through email@example.com.
19) What happens to my profile, information, and pictures if I don’t contribute?
Nothing! Your profile will be waiting for you whenever you are ready to return to the Couchsurfing community. We understand if making a financial contribution to Couchsurfing is difficult at this time and can’t wait to see you in the future.
20) Won’t this make the community smaller?
Yes, but with fewer accounts to support our overhead will be lower and thus the funding will go further to improve member experience in the long-term. This is a win for members that choose to contribute. When you contribute to Couchsurfing, you are enabling others to enjoy Couchsurfing even when you are not (like when you are asleep and Couchsurfing members on the other side of the world are awake). Some members may look at this through the lens of “What does it do for me right now?” While we wish everyone could see the global impact of their contributions, we understand that certain members will not understand this aspect of contributing to a global community.
While there may be a drop in the overall number of Couchsurfing members, the community will be stronger and the interactions better. There were people freeloading on Couchsurfing, using it as a way to find a free place to stay, not responding to messages, and flaking on hosts, hangouts, and events. By implementing the contribution program we will begin to put an end to all of this and raise the overall quality of our shared Couchsurfing community.
21) I see people saying negative things about Couchsurfing, what should I do?
Admittedly, we could have been more transparent beforehand, which may have allowed for less confusion. As with any change, some people will have an emotional reaction to implementing contributions. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, this is bad news on top of bad news on top of bad news. We encourage everyone to show compassion towards people that are angry, upset, and frustrated by this change.
There will inevitably be conspiracy theories, misinformation, and downright lies spread about Couchsurfing and these contributions. We know that some people and other sites are opportunistically preying on people’s temporary confusion. It is frustrating to have our intentions called into question which is why we’ve spilled our heart out to you now. We hope in doing so it has shed light on our commitment to keeping the Couchsurfing community alive.
We encourage everyone to come to Couchsurfing with any questions, concerns, or clarification for anything seen on Couchsurfing or any other online channel. As always, you can contact Couchsurfing Support directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Couchsurfing Team