Thirteen years ago, Casey Fenton started Couchsurfing, a web platform that connects travelers with locals who have a free couch or a guest room to offer them. With a 5 million user base and growing, the site has inspired a proliferation of new websites built to facilitate new forms of connection and peer-to-peer exchange. Some call it the new “collaborative consumption economy,” and it is changing how many people live and how they relate to each other.
Q How did Couchsurfing come about?
A I grew up in a very small town and I felt i would never be able to escape. I figured the best way to get out was to seek the most diverse and intense experiences I could possibly have. I started traveling to the most distant places I could afford. I decided to go to Iceland. I was a computer programmer. I wanted a way to meet locals so I hacked into a university data base and sent an email to 1,500 college students asking if they would like to put me up. I got 50 – 100 people saying I could stay with them. This made me realize that people from different places really wanted to meet each other, and it inspired me to start the site.
Q What are some of the most important principles of Couchsurfing?
A The most important one is that the exchanges are noncommercial. We are not charging each other. We are meeting to get to know each other. Couchsurfing is about people sharing experiences together, and about getting to know yourself by exploring the world.
Q What is the most surprising thing you discovered from running Couchsurfing?
A All of my life I assumed that people were all like me or all the same in some way. Although we are all human and share the same human condition, we really all are very different. Discovering this diversity has been inspiring.
Q Why did Couchsurfing change from a non profit to a for profit?
A We tried to get Federal nonprofit status for more than five years and used every resource and idea we had to make it happen. In the end, the government said that couchsurfing was not a charitable activity. There are advantages to this since it can be hard to innovate as a nonprofit and we are a very innovative and experimental company. Since we had to convert, we chose to convert to a B Corporation.
Q What is a B Corporation?
A A B Corp is a new type of corporation that is halfway between a for profit and a nonprofit. B Corps work for a better and more sustainable world, but they are not afraid to make money and move quickly.
Q Right now there is a big trend toward what is being called a “collaborative consumption economy,” where people share or trade resources rather than owning them What’s happening and why?
A We now have the technology to share, and we can actually solve the problems that made sharing difficult in the past. This allows us to cooperate at greater levels than ever before. As people learn and become familiar with these newsystems, they start to see their benefits. Cooperation is becoming an increasingly powerful and attractive option. People are discovering they can get more of their needs met, for less.
Q What are some of the new sites that you like?
A One is called startupstay – it is a couchsurfing for entrepreneurs, where you can go stay with other people working on start-ups. With ubertaxi, anyone can become a taxi driver. There is taskrabbit, where you can hire someone to do anything you want – pick up your laundry, carpentry, and so on.
Q In five or ten years, how will the trend toward cooperation have changed our society?
A It depends on regulation. For instance, with taxis, there are a lot of regulations that make it hard for a normal person to tap into this economic flow. Ubertaxi allows people to tap into it and supplement their income. We have to design systems for collaboration that reward people for the quality of their work and for being good cooperators. You also have to remove people who are not cooperating and not following the rules.