This is the third and final in a series of interviews where we speak with leading innovators who are appropriating lessons from open source thinking—once purely the domain of the software engineer—for social change.
Casey Fenton is co-founder of CouchSurfing and an Ashoka Fellow in the United States.
Roshan Paul: I imagine that when many people think of CouchSurfing, they don’t immediately see the underlying social mission. Can you describe that mission?
Casey Fenton: CouchSurfing cultivates trust, inclusivity, and appreciation of difference within the global travel community by facilitating one-on-one interactions with strangers, orchestrated at mass scale. Central to our vision is the sense that building this appreciation of difference enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity and respect, thus spreading tolerance and creating a global community. We do this—achieve our mission—by creating inspiring experiences.
Today, CouchSurfing users represent every country and territory in the world, with over three million participants—not bad for a platform built by a collective of volunteers. Talk us through the early days.
We really had to bootstrap-it in the beginning. We didn’t have many resources, least of all financial. I went deep into credit card debt and mortgaged my car so I had enough to eat and could keep programming. But success couldn’t be based on how much time I could devote to it, and it wasn’t easy to find volunteers, because the nature of the task was technically complex and many volunteers couldn’t commit time over long periods.
So we created a “collective”—a group of people living and working together for three months. The first was in Montreal. We split a total cost of $3,000 for rent, servers, and food. There were 15 of us at any given time, and it was chaos. But it was highly social, which helped us philosophize. We set up these collectives in New Zealand, Costa Rica, New York, and other places. It was an amazing experience. We were now getting hundreds of applications for each one.
What did you learn by crowdsourcing all these resources from so many volunteers?
It was always exciting. It helped us refine our mission with our audience. We were harnessing intense energy and fun. But we had to navigate around different tax structures in different countries regarding short-term employment. You obviously can’t run a large-scale operation like that. Nor can people keep up that sort of energy for long. When we hit one million members, we needed more programming support and more servers. Keeping volunteers engaged for sustained periods of time became challenging. You also can’t tell volunteers how much to work, and you can’t track hours. So in a way we were trading maximum output for flexibility.
The other important learning was putting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to work: If people can satisfy their basic needs, they will be OK. First, you have to understand your own basic needs and how to meet them. Then, see how those needs play out in behavior, especially in the social sector. So, for example, you frame it differently for different people. For those who typically can meet their basic needs, you can appeal to altruism: Do this for a better world! For those at a different level, you might offer them chances to meet other like-minded people through volunteering, thus making friends and creating a better world for themselves. (That’s meeting two needs!) Add a third: Get appreciation from others. Add a fourth: Eat some great food while you’re here.
I also learned the importance of leadership styles and how to inspire people. From Daniel Goleman’s leadership styles, I saw that I was an ”affiliative” leader, eager to minimize conflict. If you don’t have much experience when you are starting off, understanding leadership styles (and what yours is) is useful.
Refining your mission and vision with your audience (users, beneficiaries, stakeholders)—how did you do that?
When we started out, we had so many good ideas that even the leadership team couldn’t agree on a common vision. So we went into the CouchSurfing data. When you sign up on the website, you have to enter your own personal mission statement. We took each user’s personal mission and did word clouds on them. We put the results into different categories (we called them “concept buckets”) and wrote those on note cards. Then we put them on a table, gathered around, and started to see relationships. Slowly, we saw a picture emerge: “Deep and meaningful experiences lead to cultural appreciation, which leads to a global community of people.” We narrowed it down further to get at the essence: Remove the barriers so that people can “explore and connect.”
Well, how do you do that? Through inspiring experiences that are also fun, exciting, and addictive. All of this leads to personal growth and understanding one’s place in the world.
We took two-and-a-half years to figure it out. But when we finally came to it, it was bulletproof.
What’s the next big step for CouchSurfing?
We are setting up The Cultural Exchange Research Institute, a nonprofit alongside CouchSurfing that investigates how people actually end up appreciating diversity and building tolerance. We will create and distribute intellectual products to help people embed those learnings into their own organizations and systems—for example, how do you manage wildly diverse teams by harnessing that diversity as a core strength?
Second, we are planning an annual Appreciation of Diversity index, based on CouchSurfing data, where we try to show, for example, how much Germany appreciates its own diversity or how much the Swiss appreciate the Germans. Then we can look at the trouble spots and start to do targeted work—for example, getting Finns to better appreciate Russians—always in an open and fun way, not in a way that’s dry or academic.
Finally, all this information and data will be shared with the world; it will be open and free.