Yesterday, the hospitality-exchange network CouchSurfing announced that it has raised $15 million in funding, an impressive amount for a niche travel site devoted to pairing local hosts with visitors from around the world — for free. But along with the money, the company announced it wants to transform CouchSurfing into a more than a utilitarian connect-and-book website: It wants to become a travel social network.
According to a note announcing the funding, there are two things on the CouchSurfing agenda:
1. The CouchSurfing website, as it currently exists, needs a lot of help. It’s unstable and not very easy to use.
2. CouchSurfing is amazing because it’s free and based on generosity.
This new round of funding gives us the opportunity to deal with the first reality without messing around with the second, and for that we are extremely pleased. Our priority is to make sure that we’re serving the community as best we can. And we now have enough money in the bank that we can give that our full attention.
Before there was Airbnb, before there was Zipcar, before the travel and commute industry was turned on its head by the sharing economy and relatively recent tech startup scene boom, there was CouchSurfing. The company started in 2004, a veritable lifetime ago by startup standards, and during that time it has managed to amass an incredibly loyal, passionate, and active userbase while simultaneously surviving the onslaught of sharing economy startups who have followed after.
CouchSurfing had pinpointed the sharing economy movement before there was a sharing economy movement, and it has thrived since.
Of course, along with all the praise, there’s some criticism to be heaped as well; namely that CouchSurfing’s platform needs some serious fine tuning. The team readily admits there is room for improvement.
“…We’re focusing all our energy on making a website that’s a more sustainable home for our community: one that works reliably, and easily. It’s going to be a big project, and one that will take us a lot of time, but we’re now in a position where we can take that time and do it right.”
So with the new money and focused attitude, there are a few things CouchSurfing needs to do to be taken seriously as a big social network contender.
Better profile creation
If there’s one thing I hate when filling out social profiles, it’s a blank paragraph box. Give me boxes to check, or personality-focused question, or pointed requests — like what’s your favorite book, movie, are you a loud or a quiet person, etc. The giant blank box asking me to describe myself is intimidating, and how people fill it out won’t be consistent.
Smoother sign up
Right now, it’s sort of slow and buggy. It took me a few times to get CouchSurfing to connect with my Facebook, and then getting through all the required account sign up nearly lost my interest.
As much as I don’t want to say it, I have to. When it comes to design and format, CouchSurfing could stand to take a page out of Airbnb’s book. The latter site has made looks a priority, even enlisting professional photographers to take pictures of hosting accommodations, and it has paid off.
Couchsurfing very much errs on the side of Craigslist when it comes to accompanying images, and big, high-res visuals go a long way. Any social network worth its salt right now has noticed that photo-sharing has hit in a big way, and CouchSurfing would be wise to implement some of this.
There’s nothing much to explain here, except that CouchSurfing’s mobile apps could use a significant upgrade.
Of course the complications come in when you talk about CouchSurfing’s original users, who are wary about what all this means for their beloved platform. Just browsing over the first few comments on the CouchSurfing blog post shows that there’s plenty of worry about what this all means for the site. But in a quest for bigger things, the company might have to convince them to embrace the change.