Deals

Benchmark plops down $7.6M to make CouchSurfing into a for-profit

CouchSurfing, the site that helps you find a couch to spend the night on or a safe foreigner to warm your own couch, is switching from the slow lane to the fast lane.

It’s converting itself from a non-profit into a B Corporation, a for-profit structure intended for companies aimed at solving environmental and social problems. It’s moving to a new headquarters in the heart of the social media startup universe, San Francisco. And it’s picking up a $7.6 million first round of investment led by Benchmark Capital.

Benchmark general partner Matt Cohler, who is joining CouchSurfing’s board, downplayed the significant of the shift in corporate structure.

“What I know from my experience at Facebook and LinkedIn is that the most important thing is to build a really vibrant network and user base. You focus on that first, and everything else will follow in time,” Cohler said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It’s not like the board is going to lean down and say, ‘OK, it’s all about the revenue now.'”

That said, CouchSurfing has kept itself going with revenue from its identity verification service. The team is exploring other options for generating revenue, but says it will keep the core service (couch hosting and couch surfing) free.

CouchSurfing is set up like a social networking site centered on the idea of sharing couches. You can leave reviews for people you stay with or guests you host. Because of the sense of community, it tends to weed out the creepy people that you probably don’t want staying at your house.

It boasts 3 million users, and offers couches to crash on in 240 countries, 79,000 languages and 330 different languages.

CouchSurfing fits into a an increasingly crowded marketplace for online travel services that connect people to one another across international boundaries, such as AirBnB, Wimdu, Homeaway.com and Roomorama. Like these sites, CouchSurfing capitalizes on the ubiquity of internet services across the globe, and the familiarity and comfort that many people consequently have with social networks and online reputations. If you didn’t trust someone’s online reputation, you probably wouldn’t invite them to stay in your living room.

Unlike other travel sites, CouchSurfing emphasizes personal connections more than just finding accommodation, however.

More than just a place to crash, CouchSurfing is about meeting people, and about the hippy-like conviction that if we all just traveled the world a bit more, we’d understand each other much better. You’re much less likely to be in favor of a war if the bombs are dropping on a family you’ve lived with, after all. The company’s “vision statement” (separate from its mission statement) paints a picture of a world where people make meaningful connections and live in harmony, and it uses words like “diversity,” “tolerance” and “global community.”

“People are initially drawn to couchsurfing for accommodations, but it’s very different experience than any other accommodation in the world,” Cohler said. “It’s really about seeing the world through a different lens.”

The company will use the investment to build the product, increase the number of users, and hire people to support those efforts, including engineers, designers, product managers, brand experts, and community managers.

CouchSurfing was founded in 2004 as a non-profit, and has taken no previous investment. It was previously a “virtual” company but will soon open a headquarters in San Francisco. It currently has 25 employees.

Omidyar Network is also participating in the $7.6 million round.

Photo credit: StockLite/Shutterstock

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