May 27, 2020

Is This Finally The End Of Couchsurfing? (And What’s Next?)

published by Bren

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If you’re a part of the Couchsurfing community, you’ve no doubt heard the news.

And you’ve certainly seen the outrage.

If you log in to your Couchsurfing account today, this is the screen you will see:

What’s more, everyone has been locked out of their accounts until they pay the monthly fee. All our friends lists, messages, groups, photos, profiles and references are now locked behind this paywall.

Many of us have seen this coming, but after nearly two decades of helping people travel the world for free, it’s official. Couchsurfing is no longer free.

The first thing I want to make 1,000% clear is – I am not against paying fees, and in fact I’m not even against paying a fee for Couchsurfing.

Often I prefer it. I already pay monthly subscriptions for Spotify, Headspace, multiple blogging tools, multiple WordPress plugins, Audible, a couple of premium newsletters – quite a lot of stuff, actually. And I prefer it this way, because when you pay for things like these, they’re usually way better than the free stuff.

What I do care about is who I pay this money to, and how they use it.

Over the last few years there have been many “incidents” between Couchsurfing HQ and the community, and “Couchsurfing is dead” has been chanted by many longtime loyal members. But most of us let it slide. We tolerated one more stunt, because we love this community that much.

However, I think this one is finally going to nail the coffin shut.

Again, it’s not about the $3.

None of us care about the $3.

It’s a lot more complicated than that. In the words of The Count Of Monte Cristo: There’s a history here that you don’t understand!

So let me rewind and recount this Couchsurfing story from the beginning, since it’s quite a long and dirty one.

Couchsurfing and the many “Incidents”: From 1999 until today

The idea was born in 1999 by an American programmer named Casey Fenton. When travelling to Iceland he found it too expensive to book a hotel, so he randomly emailed 1,500 University of Iceland students from a hacked email list and asked for a couch to crash on.

He got about 100 offers, and this sparked the idea of creating a website.

In 2003 he founded Couchsurfing as a non-profit, and officially launched the site in 2004.

Couchsurfing took over the travelsphere and became one of the most popular travel sites in the world. But rather than blooming because it was such a beautiful site (it wasn’t) it bloomed because of what it stood for.

Casey Fenton regularly said the goal of Couchsurfing was to create a better world, one couch at a time. As many of you have experienced, the backpacking culture is not guided by money, but by trust and generosity and openness, so the Couchsurfing mission resonated. Everyone loved Couchsurfing.

But there was no money in it, obviously, so from 2006 to 2011, the site was built, coded and moderated entirely by volunteers. The events and groups were also moderated entirely by volunteers. Volunteers from every continent donated thousands of hours of work to keep the site operational and the community growing.

Many consider this period the golden era of Couchsurfing. Nobody made any money from the site, it was funded purely by donations and 100% a labour of love by travellers around the world. “Hosting” and “surfing” quickly became dictionary terms in the backpacker community. And the community was rich. Any time you were in a new city you could just post in the groups, who’s around this afternoon? And instantly you’d have awesome people to hang out and explore with. I started travelling full time in 2011, and was neck deep in the backpacking community. Couchsurfing was central to the culture. It was everywhere.

Even in my hometown I used it – after a surf one morning, I felt like hanging around to enjoy the beach. Logged onto Couchsurfing and what do you know? There’s a Couchsurfing event going on. I found them and spent all day lounging on the beach chatting. For those years, the site thrived.

In May 2011 came the first “incident” that started to split the community. Couchsurfing abandoned its non-profit status and changed to a for-profit corporation. Many of the volunteers that had dedicated much of their lives to the site protested. Why did they need to be for-profit? Where was the profit going to come from?

But this was just a precursor to the second “incident” that happened four months later. In August 2011 the founders accepted $8 million dollars in a Series A funding round. One year later they took an additional $15 million in a Series B. The beloved site that had operated solely on volunteer hours and donations for eight years raised $23 million of venture capital in 12 months.

I guess from here, it’s not too hard to guess how the story goes. Probably because we’ve seen this story a thousand times before. When venture capitalists put $23 million into something, they expect to get much more than $23 million back out.

(according to former CEO Jennifer Billock’s Linkedin, the company was sold again to a private equity firm in 2015, so technically we don’t even know who the owners are right now):

Almost the entire community was against this (except maybe the founders, and the new owners) but Couchsurfing assured the community nothing would change.

“We are confident that we will find a way to generate money that doesn’t hinder the amazing experiences that CouchSurfers have,” they wrote on their blog.

Yet many things started to change.

The third “incident” was a big one, but inevitable. Couchsurfing started hiring and staffed their own team to rebuild the site, moderate the forums and events and groups, and basically told the volunteers that had dedicated the last six years of their lives to the site they weren’t needed anymore.

Not to mention, those volunteers that had worked endless hours on the site for years got none of that big payday money. Couchsurfing was now a for-profit company, and this company now owned all the code and the site, and all the profit being made from it went into the pockets of the new owners and staff. The people who actually built the site got nothing.

This was doubly damaging because the new staff at Couchsurfing weren’t Couchsurfers, so they had no idea how the community actually worked. After they completely rebuilt the site they emailed everyone saying “Yay, look how great the new site looks!”

And yes it probably looked nicer, but it also damaged the community in a way that wouldn’t become clear until years later. For years Couchsurfing volunteers had built and nurtured “city groups”, with regular meetups and many years of friendships. The site was redesigned and overnight those communities were gone. In their place they built generic city pages with events and forums. While trying to turn it into a fancy Silicon Valley website, they destroyed the communities people had spent years building that made Couchsurfing Couchsurfing.

Those were the foundations of Couchsurfing and looking back now at the big picture, I think this was where the downward spiral really began. Even when they turned for-profit and ads started going up everywhere, the community still survived. But once they imploded the original communities that the site had been built on, it meant the membership started to disband and finally give up on site (or become much less active), and newer, less loyal members started to make up the core membership. As we’d start to see, the site is nothing without a core group of loyal members.

The fourth “incident” was when Couchsurfing tried to start charging fees to surf. This was where they really crossed the line and one of the few times I saw massive pushback from the membership.

This was a notification I got in 2016 when a host confirmed I could stay with them:

Now again, I have no issue with paying a small fee like this.

Hosts invest a lot of time and money into hosting. Hosts often pick surfers up from train stations or bus stops, feed them, drive them around, do laundry, provide water and internet and power and linens. I’ve done my share of hosting. It cost money. Always.

So the fee wasn’t the problem. The problem was hosts were going to put all this effort into hosting, and then the fee wasn’t even going to the host!

Even then, most hosts would never want to receive a fee anyway. Couchsurfing resonated with us because there was no money involved. If people wanted to pay to stay somewhere, they could go to a hostel. Couchsurfing was supposed to be different.

To make this a double insult, we all knew exactly where those fees were going. This was 2016 and Couchsurfing were leasing some fancy new offices over in San Francisco:

Couchsurfing offices

We were all sleeping on floors and couches while these guys were playing nice in Silicon Valley. But that still wasn’t the worst part.

What made the move triply bad was Couchsurfing had promised they would never do this. After taking their VC millions in 2011, they published a blog post that said (I quote):

“CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf. It’s against our vision to exclude anyone from having inspiring experiences for financial reasons, and that’s not going to change just because our methods of generating revenue do.”

-Couchsurfing 2011

As you can imagine, the move generated a big uproar (again) from the community, including from myself and other friends of mine on the site:

They never replied to me or anyone I know, but to my surprise and to Couchsurfing’s credit, they pulled this idea after a month or so and surfing remained free.

Until now.

This fifth “incident” happened a few weeks ago where Couchsurfing suddenly locked everybody out of their accounts.

It didn’t matter if you were one of the most active members of the community and had thousands of positive references and hosted hundreds of surfers per year, and even if you had paid for lifetime verification.

As soon as we logged in, we were asked to pay a monthly $3 fee to access our profiles again:

All our friends lists, photos, references, groups, were suddenly held hostage behind a paywall.

After promising Couchsurfers would never be forced to pay to host or surf, we were now being forced to pay just to log in.

When I saw this I was obviously disappointed (again), not because of three dollars, but because of how we got here. Because how did we get here? $23 million squandered over the years on CEO’s we never asked for and who never talked to us, fancy offices nobody needed, being bombarded with ads on every page of the site and app (which still doesn’t work properly), numerous other money grabs over the years which I won’t even go into right now, all the other “incidents” I haven’t even mentioned, and finally it had come to this. Locking us out of our beloved community for $3 per month.

Which led to the biggest question of all…

Where has all the money gone???

Despite painting themselves right now as a company that has always been frugal, and all their staff are now valiantly working from home in the spirit of Couchsurfing and living on ramen, that’s not the case.

In fact, I’m quite certain Couchsurfing has earned PLENTY of money over the years.

Don’t forget, I’m not just a travel blogger, I’m also a Chartered Accountant. This kind of thing used to be my job (and now I also know a little about websites). So maybe I can find the money. Let’s have a look.

How much does Couchsurfing make from verifications?

They said on their socials last week that only 4% of active members pay to verify their profiles, which usually costs around $30 per year (it differs between countries). So let’s take a guess.

Of its 12 million members, it’s estimated there are 400,000 active hosts, and you could guess an equal amount of active surfers, giving them ~800,000 active members.

At 4% that’s 32,000 verified members, $30 per active member, that’s around $960,000 per year in verification fees (a guesstimate of course).

I have also seen the 2008 financial statements, shown to me by the volunteer accountant from back when CS was a non-profit. Even then they were bringing in a million per year in verification fees/donations, but with a tiny fraction of the members they have today.

So I would say $960,000 per year is almost certainly an underestimate.

How much does Couchsurfing make from ads?

CS makes money from ads. Every Couchsurfer will tell you there are more ads on the site than Couchsurfers.

In fact, I can just show you. Here’s what a Couchsurfing profile currently looks like:

That’s pretty much as many ads as Google will allow you to put on a page (header, footer, left and right sidebars, and maybe one more in-content).

In other words, they are maxxing their ad space allowance.

How much is that in dollars?

We would need to know their traffic. But we can make a rough guess using some tools.

Here’s the current Couchsurfer Alexa score, which ranks a website’s traffic/engagement on the internet. It’s the 10,000th most popular site on the web currently:

But you can see that 90 days ago (before Covid 19) their rank was actually 4,000 (that is very high).

I don’t pay for Alexa premium so it’s hard to find a perfect comparison, but to give you a yardstick, that puts it significantly higher than a mainstream travel site like The Travel Channel, which ranks around #16,000:

And a few months before Covid hit, it was ranking almost on par with the NZ Herald – New Zealand’s largest newspaper:

That’s a lot of traffic. Millions of page views a week.

We can cross check this with more tools (blogging tools are so much fun, hey?)

Here’s their score in SimilarWeb, which ranks sites purely on traffic:

Couchsurfing ranks 32,000 globally, and is the 42nd most popular travel site in the world.

More importantly, it had 1.39 million visits in April. Look at the graph though! Before Covid when people were travelling, they were actually doing 4.5 million visits per month.

You can also see they get ~5.5 page views per visit. Do some math, and that adds up to around 25 million page views per month.

Just to cross check again and make sure we’re in the right ballpark, here’s the Travel Channel SimilarWeb results:

Their traffic (very interestingly) hasn’t been affected by Covid. They’re doing around 22 million page views a month. Similar to Couchsurfing a few months ago.

Couchsurfing said last week they will remove ads as part of their new revenue model, but up until last month, we can make a reasonable estimate that Couchsurfing was making as much (or possibly more) money in ads than The Travel Channel, one of the largest mainstream travel sites.

(Note: Based on my own sites, SimilarWeb isn’t super accurate, but tends to underestimate rather than overestimate. So their traffic is possibly even higher).

How much ad revenue is that, exactly?

I know on a blog like mine, 100,000 page views brings in about $1,000 USD. And that’s not with ads in every corner of the page.

If you really pump out the ads like CS is doing, you can get up to $2,000 per 100,000 page views pretty comfortably.

Let’s just give a conservative $1,500 per 100,000 views.

Over 25 million page views, that’s $375,000 per month, or $4.5 million per year.

So where’s the money?

$1 million a year in verification fees. $4.5 million per year in advertising. $23 million in venture capital. Nine years. Where is it?

The only way we’ll know is if they release their financial statements. The community has asked for this numerous times (in fact, we’ve asked numerous times just to be talked to) and we’ve had nothing to date, so I don’t expect we’ll ever see them.

But I can tell you where that money didn’t go:

It didn’t go to hosts, who are the foundation of Couchsurfing.

It didn’t go to volunteers who have spent thousands of hours organising events and keeping the community alive.

It didn’t go to the volunteers who spent thousands of hours building the site for the first seven years of Couchsurfing’s life.

It didn’t go to bloggers, influencers and unofficial ambassadors like myself, who for years recommended the site to friends, readers, fellow travellers, while also putting together beginner guides like this to grow the community.

We can also guess it didn’t all go into the site, which is a pretty standard membership site and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) cost $5 million per year to maintain.

So where else could it go? Our best guess is it went to the investors, staff and executives who, in all honesty, haven’t added millions worth of anything to the community since they took over in 2011.

Of course my numbers are estimates and may be wrong; Maybe it’s only $4 million per year. Or even $2 million. Or maybe it’s way higher. Does that change anything? Not really.

It breaks my heart to finally say it, but I have to.

I’m breaking up with Couchsurfing

I’ve resisted this day for a long time. For many of those years on the road, I considered Couchsurfing a part of who I was. It was like a badge we wore, we were so proud of it. The site really did give me so much, friendships, lessons, and changed me as a person. But I guess we all part ways eventually.

Under different circumstances and different leadership, I’m sure many of us would have gladly paid $3 per month or even $5 or even $10 to support the community we have built over the years, but after this many years of second and third and tenth and eleventh chances and being let down year after year, we can’t do it anymore.

It’s like having an ex that says they’ll change and stop treating you like ass so you keep getting back together and they’re still treating you like ass ten years later. Well, for many of us that ex is Couchsurfing.

It’s heartbreaking because with the community we had, we really could have been something great and different, a free community that thrived and built something revolutionary like Wikipedia or Afrikaburn. In fact for a few years, that’s exactly what we were. But unfortunately it has ended up as ten years of so much hope and so many disappointments. It’s a fool me once fool me twice (or ten times) scenario now, and I don’t want to be the fool anymore.

Let me give them some credit where it’s due. I used CS heavily up until around 2018, and met some of my closest friends on the site. I can attribute dozens of my best ever travel experiences directly to Couchsurfing.

The site has changed my life.

Of course we knew there were people earning huge salaries off our community, while we all slept on floors and tried to show people money wasn’t everything – that disconnect wasn’t lost on us.

But we let it slide and stayed on board, because the site meant so much to us. To be fair, it still gave us what we needed. The site was used by us to meet people and find hosts and connect with other travellers, and in that sense it worked just fine. As long as they didn’t change things too much, we tolerated it.

But I think now it really has changed too much.

When Couchsurfing released the news of this latest move, I was sure it was just another money grab hiding behind the excuse of Covid 19, and this was also the word recently on reddit by a former CS employee:

“Some time ago, I joined as an employee of CS because I was passionate about this project.

Unfortunately, I was only able to make a small dent, as the profit incentives were quite misaligned.

I was quite disappointed by the leadership. Don’t blame the employees. I know many of them were true couchsurfers and had real heart. (Read the glassdoor reviews, skip past the obviously fake ones). I doubt that most of the leadership has ever even couchsurfed in their life.

The leadership sees a golden goose and doesn’t love it. That’s it. This latest thing is a cash grab.

And bird for bird, this one needs to die so a new phoenix can rise from the ashes.

The concept of couchsurfing has been released into the world, and like the best ideas, the idea itself will never die.

XO. Stay Safe. Stay Curious. Stay Awesome.”

I can’t confirm that post is actually from a CS employee, but it lines up with a lot of what we’ve heard through the grapevine. The employee reviews on Glassdoor are similar.

Will Couchsurfing survive?

I guess this isn’t a surprise; this is what happens when you take big investor money. Investors aren’t interested in hearing how many nice travel stories they’re creating. They’re interested in profit.

And of course that’s not always evil – you can do it and can do it the right way.

Couchsurfing is really just a social network after all – people connecting people. And it’s not impossible to do that for free; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Google, all do it, all are much more complicated than Couchsurfing and have never charged me a cent. For some reason, Couchsurfing just never figured it out.

So my guess is this ends in two ways. Either CS is lying and they have plenty of money, and a few people are going to get even more rich off all the new fees. Or they’re not lying, they really are going broke, and soon they’ll disappear. Maybe a combination of the two.

Either way, I can be certain Couchsurfing will no longer be the Couchsurfing we knew and that spirit will move elsewhere. If the site continues, it will be a different type of travel community. The entire premise of Couchsurfing was that money was irrelevant, and anybody with a free spirit could be one of us. Obviously that is no longer true, so it may become more like an upper middle class, millenial, glamping, Airbnb hybrid kind of high society place with a membership fee.

Maybe that type of thing will thrive, I really don’t know. If it does, all my best wishes to them.

However I am also going on record today to say:

I will not be paying the Couchsurfing monthly fee (at least not under the current management), meaning I will no longer be using Couchsurfing and Couchsurfing is no longer a service I am recommending.

I know I have promoted them endlessly on my blog, to many thousands of people, but as always things change and it’s time to explore something new.

The site is still active and anyone is still welcome to sign up and pay the fee and use it, but my recommendations will now move elsewhere.

What’s comes after Couchsurfing?

It’s important to remember Couchsurfing isn’t just a website; it’s an idea, and a set of values, and a community.

Ironically Couchsurfing said this quite well in their lockout message:

All of us who are members of Couchsurfing believe in something greater than money, possessions, and status.

This is true and while Couchsurfing itself no longer embodies this ethos, the members still do and communities can be rebuilt anywhere, from the ground up, just like we did before.

There are two active communities up and running already.

The first is BeWelcome. This is a site very similar to Couchsurfing (pretty much the same) and is run by volunteers on a donation target of $1,500 per year. It was founded in 2007 and has around 130,000 members.

The second is TrustRoots. Most people I’ve met talk quite highly of TrustRoots, which has about 36,000 members and is also very similar to Couchsurfing. I am unsure of their budget but they are a registered UK non profit.

What do I think of them? They’re both great. They’re also both very anti-profit, possibly to the point it is hampering their potential. I don’t think profit is dirty, I just think obsession with it is. I think they could also use someone at the helm who can really push the site full time – something that Couchsurfing had for its early years. Regardless I think with a little push in the right direction, both have the potential to do quite well. Maybe neither of them want to be the next Couchsurfing anyway, and are happy where they are.

There is also a third option, which is Facebook Groups. I’m already a member of several Couchsurfing Facebook Groups, and a lot of activity happens in there, including finding hosts and surfers. I think this will grow as people migrate off the platform and into these groups to stay in touch. If you search for a Couchsurfing Facebook Group in your city, you’re likely to find one.

The fourth option is your own travel network. When we Couchsurf, what are we actually trying to find? People. Usually people to stay with, or people to hang out with. And we don’t need millions of people, usually we just need one.

In fact, in many countries I visit these days, I always have an old travel friend who is happy to let me crash, or will say “I know someone that lives there, let me hook you guys up!” And their friends become my friends, and the circle grows. This is really Couchsurfing in its purest form, travellers helping travellers connected by other travellers, and you don’t need a website with millions of members (or dollars) to do it.

The fifth option is the space itself evolves, and it kind of already is. This is likely where I’m heading. If people actually want to pay to join a travel site, I would recommend something that gives you more than just a basic social network. The best example I know of is NomadList.

It’s a community of people who actually live and work on the road full time, and not only do you get access to tons of useful info, you’ll be mixing with other web entrepreneurs like bloggers, Youtubers, programmers, freelancers etc too.

Since this lifestyle is growing rapidly I think NomadList will actually become huge. You can also find people to crash with, and I’m sure a lot of the members were Couchsurfers too back in the day (CS is mostly centred around younger backpacker student types). I also love that its founder levels.io is super transparent about running it, building it, how much it earns etc. I’ve pretty much watched him build it from the ground up on Twitter over the last few years. Been very cool to see. The site is free to use, but also has a premium membership.

Going forward I will probably use all of these resources in some way, and continue to report to you on my experiences and which ones have worked best.

Lastly, I’ve just donated 2x the yearly subscription Couchsurfing was asking for to BeWelcome, and will do so for TrustRoots too once they’re accepting donations again. I’ve also bought a lifetime membership at NomadList.

Just to show that it was never about the money 🙂

Sending love always!

B

Disclaimer: The figures in this article are all guesstimates. I do not have access to Couchsurfing’s financial statements and everything is a best estimate based on the information and tools mentioned.

Photo credit: Bob Dass @ Flickr

Note: Originally I used Huffington Post as a comparison, unaware their URL had changed. Huffington post actually has much higher traffic than Couchsurfing.

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  1. Hi bren,
    Thank you for the breakdown of CS history, very thorough analysis. As a not so active traveler and less involved user it was not so easy to understand what was going on there. It will be interesting to see how CS will develop and where the users will go. Good to know there are some alternatives.
    Cheers, kat

  2. Hey Bren, big fan of yours and have had your “Couchsurfing 101: Everything You Need To Know” on my profile since you published it. I have a few hundred refs and been on CS for 8 years.

    I understand all the anger and resentment and confusion.

    Yes, CS didn’t launch this well. They typically haven’t ever relaunched well. They don’t have many staff and only during the gogo years flush with VC did they have a big staff. And then as with so many tech companies, that money dried up and was gone and on to find a new business model they went.

    So the oldsters who believe it should stay free forever and therefore in their ideological righteousness will abandon CS. To them I say: bye! Don’t slam the door in your face on the way out.

    We are in a goddamn global pandemic, the worst in 100 years. People are dying. Businesses are dying. Things we loved are vanishing on a daily basis and a lot of them won’t return.

    The people who actually read CS’s mea culpa last week, that long blog post that said “Hey, we’re sorry, we could have launched this better” understand we live in an imperfect world and little tech companies don’t do everything perfectly or even well.

    I’m one who is staying on. Especially as I had free verification.

    And that gets me to the incorrect premise in your opening paragraphs:

    “What’s more, everyone has been locked out of their accounts until they pay the monthly fee.”

    Those of us who were verified, i.e. if we had hosted even once in the past 3 months were in because we had verification.

    So because I had hosted last year, I am verified for free through later this year and therefore no paywall for me until then.

    And many countless thousands of others are in the same position.

    When we think about it, it means those who still were actively participating in CS and “living the values” as we say in corporate doublespeak saw no change.

    So then you descend with a very solid analysis into the same whinging I’ve heard since I joined.

    “What I do care about is who I pay this money to, and how they use it.”

    Dude, it’s the price of a hamburger and french fries. Every time you order a hamburger and french fries, do you expostulate at length upon the righteousness of the establishment; whether the proprietor pays his/her staff a living wage; and whether that burger was sustainably-sourced and the meat comes from a cruelty-free meatpacking plant? Or perhaps you are vegetarian and leading the pure life (congrats) and you could still expostulate at length on the proprietor’s business practices.

    Stated differently, a great Buddhist master once wrote: “Even the finest meal turns to excrement.” So whether or not you meditate at length on that burger and fries, it’ll turn to shit within 24 hours.

    But Couchsurfing? My friend for 8+ years we’ve heard of its demise. It’s a long, tired, story, rehashed more times than ancient refried potatoes.

    Here is my new go-to reply for all the angry tinfoil hat-wearers:

    Facebook is free, and you the user are its product. It uses evil algorithms to divide people and to silo them into tribes.

    It makes tons of money off everyone, and pretends to be a “free” experience while using military-grade artificial intelligence to sort out the world’s humans through facial recognition.

    That’s honestly scary as shit … and millions of comfortable Europeans angry at everything (especially in Belgium! I know many of them!) spend 6+ hours per day on it blissfully unaware and couldn’t care less.

    That worries me much more than whatever Casey Fenton might have done wrong X years ago.

    https://theweek.com/speedreads/916467/facebooks-internal-research-warned-about-polarization–but-executives-weakened-blocked-efforts-combat

    Now more than ever decent platforms that actually connect people without profiteering in the BILLIONS need their users — and users need their connections. Abandon if you will but for the price of the CS annual subscription in western countries (most countries in the world will be free!) it’s kind of nuts to be permanently angry that CS simply could have announced this better.

    Thanks as always for posting. You gave an extremely thoughtful and thorough analysis, even if I disagree.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for sharing my CS 101 guide.

      Again, had nothing to do with the money. If I believed in this management team and believed they were telling the truth, I’d give $50 a month. CS has been hugely important to me. I’ve lived through my share of “CS is dead” as well but this one certainly feels different. Maybe it won’t be, who knows.

      You’ll see on Glassdoor ex staff claim the new CEO had this subscription model being readied for a while. Just this was the right time to launch it. It’s a new team running CS right now. Former CEO Jennifer Billock revealed on Linkedin she oversaw the sale of CS in 2015 to private equity, which CS obviously kept quiet after the backlash from the first deal, but it’s now certainly under much more aggressive management. Of course with private equity maxing profit is always the goal so they’ve obviously done the math and figured half a million paying members is more profitable than 12 million non paying ones. I didn’t write about this because couldn’t get enough (confirmed) details on it, but it mostly checked out. As I wrote above, I think there’s a chance CS survives but will just be a different type of community now. And if enough people are happy to pay and it makes the owners happy I don’t begrudge them any of that. All the best to them.

      Also I’m aware some verified members have been given temporary access, but even those who paid for lifetime verification are being told they’ll be locked out in 12 months unless they start paying monthly again. Which I couldn’t believe.

      As for conscious spending, yes I do spend with orgs I agree with AMAP. I don’t design my whole life around it or go out and start campaigning against everyone I don’t like but I simply spend my money elsewhere. Won’t be giving money to this new CS team but again if this works out for them then I wish them a long success.

      Thanks again for sharing and happy for us to disagree. As they say if both our opinions were always the same, one of us would become unnecessary.

      1. Thanks much for your reply! And for being awesome. Truly, you are amazing and that’s why so many people think very highly of you (as do I).

        I’ve read the Glassdoor stuff and seen over the years the negatives about CS on Glassdoor. I’ve not defended their management and I only know how the company was run from the stuff that can be found in open sources as well as on Glassdoor. And it ain’t pretty. But compared with other tech companies — the amount of crazy-ass stuff that happens in corporate America in comparison is beyond breathtaking.

        I mean, just yesterday Twitter apologized on behalf of its biggest troll who daily destroys public life and the rule of law. They could have just deactivated his profile, right? But they won’t because they want the big ca$$$$$h that comes from their biggest abuser.

        CS in contrast is known to remove abusers based on user reports. Now, do they always get it right? No. But do they get it right when things go wrong? Unquestionably most of the time.

        So two address two open points that are of great interest (and thank you for mentioning them!):

        1. “I think there’s a chance CS survives but will just be a different type of community now.”
        Agreed. And if it is one without freeloaders and whiners in my view that would be worth double the price they are asking. Stated differently, it might actually be a great community if shrunk down to a manageable size.

        2. “even those who paid for lifetime verification are being told they’ll be locked out in 12 months unless they start paying monthly again. Which I couldn’t believe.”

        I also could not believe it. I still can’t. I want to guess that it won’t happen and that in a few months if they have enough case (which we don’t know if they will) they will crunch the numbers again and decide those who paid it forward long ago should not have to pay for verification again.

        Even if we disagree on stuff, nothing will change the fact that you are amazing

        1. Giving $3 to CSHQ because CS is worth way more than that is like giving $3 to Donald trump, personally, because living in America is worth way more than that. If you give them your money you are enabling their mismanagement, and there will never ever be a more opportune time to hold them accountable than right now. You have no reason to expect their platform to ever improve.

          If you weren’t on CS before the hard shift away from developing community and towards developing consumers you don’t understand how much better it can be, and how likely it is that an open source alternative NFP (like BW or TR) will return to that if we are willing to break CS’s monopoly.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Bren.

    How things have changed. I remember hearing, long after it happened, about the CouchSurfing Collective in Nelson NZ of early 2007. Which was strangely during the time I was planning my first trip. I didn’t come across CS until later, during a serendipitous encounter on a train to Berlin in October 2007. I have always admired that nice connection to our country. I wonder where those volunteers are now, and what they think of how their contributions have been treated…

    Personally I mostly gave up on CS in 2013. The culture had shifted too far into free-Airbnb terrortory with many guests not even wanting to talk after arrival. I went to a few meetups during 2018 and 2019 in Europe, which was a far different experience than I had before.

    We all use CS for different reasons. The new fee is cheap. But I no longer like what I’d be buying. See you on BeWelcome!

  4. A couple big errors… couchsurfing said they only get a few thousand dollars per year from advertising and they are dropping it from the website all together. If they were lying and got a few million dollars per year, they would not drop advertising from the website. Who would give up a few million dollars per year?

    Also you have the wrong URL for huffpost. It is huffpost.com and has an Alexa rank of 700.

    1. It’s impossible to get “just a few thousand dollars per year from advertising” with their level of traffic. This blog you’re reading right now uses exactly the same ad network as them and even I get more than just a few thousand dollars per year in ads, and I don’t even put advertising on every page, and my Alexa score is 800,000. So yes, what they said about not making money from ads was a PR stunt and they are lying.

      The reason they are dropping ads (this is my best guess) is because they have modelled they will likely earn more from verifications. They have 12 million members so let’s say they manage to keep half a million members after the paywall, at $30 per year that would be $15 million per year. So about 3x the $4-$5 million they are making from ads. Even if they only keep 200,000 members it will be more profitable (around $6 million per year). But if they go this route they have to drop ads because you cannot show ads to verified members. So they had to remove ads anyway, they just spun it in a way that’s good for PR. Most people don’t know how web advertising works so just took their word for it.

      Also thanks for the Huffington note, I don’t read huffpost so didn’t know their url changed.

      1. Hi Bren, thanks for this great article.
        As the huffpost URL is wrong, do you think it’s possible to update your article ? Just to stay credible ?

  5. Your estimations about the money generated by the site are way too high.
    According to some trustful internal sources and some discussion between current management and ambassadors, there is literally no money left.
    The revenue from Google Ads was irrelevant.
    The revenue from verification was also pretty irrelevant. None of them generated “millions”. If they did, the site would have survived.
    The investor money just paid the salary of the few people still working there, the server costs and the legal costs. These running costs are quite high and that’s simply how that money burned down in few years. With nothing to replace it, the site ran out of it.

    I was as pissed as everyone else when the profiles got kidnapped and I agree the multiple managements changing every year have been a disaster.
    But in the past two weeks I have seen a lot of false information and a lot of bile spew by people who didn’t bother to login in the site since years.

    1. Those are estimations based on reasonable sources of data that will not be 100% correct but are certainly not 100% wrong.

      It is a fairly simple task to estimate advertising income. Because we can see the ads on the site, how many there are, which network they’re from, and we know the rates (because we use the same networks). We can do the same exercise on our own sites to test how accurate it is.

      I was also sent the 2008 financial statements by the old volunteer accountant from 2006-2008 and spoke with her about them (we are both in one of the “originals” Couchsurfing FB groups) and the accounts show CS was bringing in a million per year in verification fees even back then, 12 years ago with only a fraction of today’s membership. So I am 99.9% sure they are bringing in even more than that now.

      I’m aware ambassadors are being told there is no money. Many of them are in our FB group as well. I don’t even doubt there is no money. But there has certainly been money coming in. Where has it gone is the question.

      I’m happy for Couchsurfing to send me the current financial statements and I’ll update the numbers. I’m also happy to hear from your internal source and see if what they’ve been told checks out with the data I have.

  6. Thank you for this very comprehensive article. I get the feeling that many of the newer members on couchsurfing do not understand the culture and community that couchsurfing used to be and therefore do not understand that many members are so extremely unhappy and unwilling to be forced to pay now. I hope that a new platform will take the place of what couchsurfing used to be.

  7. Hi Bren,

    Thanks for the breakdown. I’ve been a long-time CSer (since 2007 on the site), verified, and hosted and met-up way more than surfed. Also active locally. . . and was an ambassador (oh how brief!). As an expat for over 20 years and a long time traveller, I made many friends through CSing, but I kinda feel like you do. If it survives, I am not sure it is the same. I can still access my profile (?) but it has no activity. Nor do my groups.

    Peace and Love,

    SK

  8. This hit me right in the heart. Couchsurfing changed my life too, and I have been so sad to see it decline over the years. I still remember how many friends I made in my own city, let alone while surfing and hosting. I had sadly already become cynical about it from experiences over the last couple years, and then locking surfers out was just the nail in the coffin. Thankfully I was able to transfer my whole profile over to Be Welcome, thanks to having hosted recently enough that I was still verified for an extra month (which allowed me access behind the paywall, somehow…though I know not everyone got that).

    It makes me very sad, but I hope Be Welcome and Trustroots thrive. I fear they won’t. I have seen very little activity on Be Welcome, but I really hope that changes. I will definitely be checking out Trustroots too. Thanks for this information. It’s nice to see there are still awesome travellers out there.

    1. Trustroots is very interesting, I got in touch and asked how I could donate, they said they don’t need donations, their costs are all already covered by volunteers. They just want people to join the community.

  9. “If you log in to your Couchsurfing account today, this is the screen you will see”

    nope you won’t unless :

    you live in a country where the 2 bucks a month are not significant
    and you have not been verified before or have not hosted people in a long time

    The problem I have with this type of ‘outrage’ is :

    you pretend to have as if the endorsement of the community & quite frankly have not been ignoring all the facts that don’t fit in this ‘outrage’ theme.
    I have been around for some time – I feel very different about all this and I am certainly not even close to rage over the 2 bucks (yes I know it s not about the 2 bucks – but you did expect to be consulted and before anyone does take any decision)

    1. Well, since you are so educated about the subject, how about a Brazilian couchsurfer who said in our Facebook group that her entire small family has to live on about 65$ a month? It is not about the money, as Bren has stated correctly, but about the way Couchsurfing has turned a great and open spirited idea into a some Venture Capital venture, wasted the venture capital money according to a current Couchsurfing employee on our Facebook group and now they make a significant change to a “subscription only” model (they said they would never charge for Couchsurfing a few years ago) without ANY newsletter sent out so people just got locked out and saw they had to pay to even log in? You seriously think this is the way a company treats its customers, who by the way, provide the core service (free hosting) that makes this site interesting in the first place?

      I don’t care one bit about the money, but I do not trust a management who seems to have zero sensibility towards its core users and pushes through this kind of change. The glassdoor reviews by former employees paint the rest of the picture so I am happily moving to another platform, even though as a “lifetime” verified user, they were so kind to convert my “lifetime” membership into one year of their great subscription model.

      There was a million other ways to monetize the site. The current CEO, who was involved in investment banking and venture capital, before joining Couchsurfing, who names flying planes and sailing as his hobbies on LinkedIn certainly has a “different” approach to running a successful thriving community internet business, compared to other CEOs I know.

  10. “I know on a blog like mine, 100,000 page views brings in about $1,000 USD. And that’s not with ads in every corner of the page. ”

    Can you please provide us with the financial statements (ad sense reports & bank statements ) so we can verify that ?

  11. I was a couchsurfing host in California in the past. As a guy over 30 it was always very hard for me to be hosted anywhere. I paid to verify. 90 percent of cs members had shell profiles and were just looking for a free crash pad. They didn’t host.
    How much did Casey Fenton cash out at? Cs reminds me of every other volunteer org. You volunteer to work for burning man and maybe you get a ticket. You volunteer write for yelp and create their content and maybe you get a free party.
    Let this be a warning to young Or naive idealists. Usually orgs get greedy and get worse over time. Control your content and control your life.

  12. Thank you for a great article. I started Couchsurfing in 2007 and I feel your pain. It was a really beautiful community that also gave me so much. I’ll add my lightly edited resignation letter from the Ambassadors here in case you’re interested: I touch on non-profit alternatives back in 2011 and have a few more sources you may not have seen, including a surfer who wrote her thesis on CS.
    I disagree on profit and think that hospitality exchange is fundamentally incompatible with a for-profit, which is why I’m pinning most of my hopes on bW and TR. But it really speaks to me that I’ve encountered several people who were willing to pay but CS implemented this so terribly that they’re no longer willing to. And you’re welcome to my couch wherever I am =)

  13. I want to present a different point of view from the others below: a beautiful and simple idea, only possible by internet technology, generous people and trust, in few years, from a gem, became a 14M database of users with around 700K active,
    without a decent safety system to select the users ( like for example AirBnB). Unfortunately, after around 2012, the typical pattern was male hosting single female. No longer couples hosting singles or couples, female other males of females.
    Sadly, the average level of CS users became men looking for sex and mostly female looking for a free hotel without any interests on the host. The basic function of the CS team should be to ensure safety for people who put their property at risk for free and to the people surfing. This takes time ( document verification, managing complains and reviews, which bacame often a backstabbing system when they because double blind ). Too much freedom never worked on this world, and lots of people saw the real corporate face of CS when they had a problem and tried to communicate with them.
    A profile describe an identity and defamation is around the corner if not managed properly. The actual CEO and his team don’t care less about what is the real value of it ( a trusted community of people with some money and time to spend for travels ) so they preferred to have a community based on street smart people or even worst. Bad business guy ? Greedy ? Name it. Of course you can think about a business model for CS as a selected club for people ready to meet new ones, only if you club is a real clean place, but this is not longer the case.

  14. Here’s my guess.

    They wanted to destroy the community. In fact, it was their Goal.

    Always follow the money. What happens when you can’t stay somewhere for free? You pay to stay somewhere. Or you just don’t go.

    They’re probably the people who own airbnb. Or some big pharma. Or hoteliers. Lots of businesses would benefit financially from destroying CS.

    If one thing is true, it’s that they like to separate people away from support and loving community.

    And they will do whatever it takes to complete this task.

  15. Great analysis!! I got so mad at CS for suddenly keeping my data hostage, that I have just asked for a GDPR request on all my data held by them. They are now processing the request, and have 30 days to comply. I have also received emails from an employee asking for my account details (!). My point is: if they wanna keep my data hostage, they will have to work/put down man hours for it. I will make sure to keep them busy, using GDPR as a tool. If every user of CS made such a request: the a Silicon Valley execs would have to start working as volunteers in order to process everything in due time. Keep in mind that has serious legal fines if you don’t follow the protocol of data request. ;). Karma is a bitch….;)..

  16. I miss travelling and the closest thing I can do is check my CS account, reminiscing on places I’ve been and remembering awesome people I’ve met. I actively host and surf at the same time. Didn’t pay any cent, and my membership is valid until December 2020. 🥰

  17. Alongside from Bewelcome.org and Trustroots.org, a new initiative has been brought to life in the form of Couchers.org. This is set up by a group of disgruntled CS hosts and surfers. So far, they seem very serious and professional about setting up a new community with all the good things CS featured – and more good things CS lacked. Go check it out if you will.

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