CEO Files: The CouchSurfer

"CouchSurfing attracts anyone who is interested in having authentic connections," CouchSurfing CEO Dan Hoffer says.

Couches can speak volumes about one’s style and personality. A leather reclining sofa may suggest luxury and low-maintenance, while a brightly colored sectional may suggest versatility.

In his time, Dan Hoffer has come to know hundreds of people through their couches. Eight years ago, he co-founded CouchSurfing.com, an online network that connects travelers across the globe, allowing them to “bypass the typical hotel experience by staying at the home of a local and learning about their culture.” Once threatened by a database crash that nearly shut down the site for good, CouchSurfing now boasts millions of members in over 230 countries and territories around the world.

Age: 34
Graduated from: Undergraduate studies at Harvard University; MBA from Columbia University
Based in: San Francisco, Calif.
Has held the position for: Co-founded CouchSurfing eight years ago and served as chairman of the board; starting working full-time as its CEO almost two years ago
Previous jobs: Entrepreneur in residence at a venture capital firm; executive at Semantic Technologies, a large software company

What do you do at work all day? As the CEO, I spend most of my days in meetings. I meet with everyone in the company at least once a month, and get involved in certain projects involving project strategy, communication strategy, and fundraising. CEOs need to be generalists.

Inside the CouchSurfing headquarters in San Francisco.

Something people would be surprised to learn about your job: In a leadership position, everyone watches what you do very carefully. I’ve seen people make judgments about visitors to the office based on how warmly I greeted the person.

How often do you CouchSurf? A few times a year. I’ve been to Japan, Korea, Sweden, France, Senegal, Mexico, Puerto Rico…the list goes on.

Is your own couch available to CouchSurfers? Yes, I do hosts on occasion.

Dangers of the process: Cultural misunderstanding is the biggest one, where you don’t get along on a social level with the person you meet. There’s no vetting beforehand to match people socially, but you can look at profiles and photos to get a good sense of people.

Without vetting, how do CouchSurfers know they’re staying in a safe place? It’s like online dating. You can go meet a stranger that you met on the Internet, and you don’t know if they’re going to be a nice person or an axe murderer. With CouchSurfing, you look at profiles and references left by others. We have a vouching system and an identity verification system.

Coolest part of the process: The people and the sense of community. CouchSurfing enables you to find people to meet and activities to join.

Hoffer hosts a presentation at the company's headquarters.

Biggest setback: In 2006, we had a big database crash that threatened to destroy CouchSurfing. We were planning to shut it down, but the community rallied. Thousands of volunteers wrote to us, offering to help restore the website. With their help, we did.

Best part of your job: Supporting our community of millions of members so they can experience life-changing moments. I asked one 26-year-old German CouchSurfer about her best CouchSurfing experience, and she talked about climbing a 150-foot crane in London. She had been staying with someone whose hobby was climbing skyscrapers.

Most challenging part of your job: Balancing conflicting agendas. [The CouchSurfing community] doesn’t want to pay anything, but at the same time, they want an amazing website. To build an amazing website, you need to hire amazing people who cost money.

Target audience: We tend to have more participants in their 20s and 30s, but we also have people in their 70s.

Minimum age to sign up for CouchSurfing: 18.

Best advice for recent graduates: Learning how to think in any particular discipline is invaluable. While at Harvard, I took a semester off to work on a ranch in Texas for a former Marine Corps sergeant. I learned a lot about leadership by hauling hay and building fences for him.

Okay, so it's not quite a couch...

Like what? At the time, I never guessed there would be any professional career applications. But in reality, there have been quite a few, like how to lead effectively, how to listen, and how to deal with different skill levels.

Most memorable traveling experience: I trekked through the jungle in Borneo and hiked through the Virgin Rainforest.

Your indispensable gadget while traveling: Chromebooks.

What’s always in your backpack? A water bottle and flashlight.

If you had all the money and resources in the world, what business would you start? I would focus on African refugee relief.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Focus on learning from the people you respect the most – not necessarily in fields that seem professionally oriented. Pursue a career where you can excel.

Follow CouchSurfing on Twitter at @CouchSurfing. Photo, top: Meredith Hoffer. Rest of photos: Jim Stone, CouchSurfing.com.

PLUS: For more high-powered No Joe Schmos, check out the CEO of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and the founder/CEO of Home4Dance

The Oyster Farmer

Buddy McClure, on the left – sans rubber gloves and heavy duty rain gear.

The world is this man’s oyster. Literally.

Buddy McClure, 44, harvests about 3,000 oysters daily during summers at Umpqua Aquaculture, a quiet fishing village on the coast of Oregon.

The slimy, briny job is something of a love/hate relationship for McClure. “I’ve been that guy in the office, and I’d rather be doing this,” he says, referring to jobs at various pharmaceutical corporations before moving to Oregon ten years ago. Now, he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I always loved the coast…I wish I would have [become an oyster farmer] a long time ago.”

Umpqua Aquaculture, which has been around for 25 years, is located in the Umpqua Triangle, where the Umpqua River meets the Pacific Ocean. Its oysters are suspended on long lines so they never touch the ocean floor.

During the off-season, in the fall and winter, McClure hunts, fishes, crabs, and spends time with his three sons, the eldest of whom has worked at the farm for the past three summers. But none of his sons eat oysters for dinner when McClure brings home some of the thousands he harvests each day. “My boys don’t like them, so I just bring home a pint for my wife and me,” he says matter-of-factly.

Below, McClure describes the perfect oyster (firm, not gritty, with an oblong bottom), his favorite way to eat ‘em, and the harvesting process.

The Umpqua Aquaculture storefront in Oregon. Photo: Wendy B./Yelp.com

Age: 44
Graduated from: Cordova Senior High School. I didn’t go to college.
Based in: Winchester Bay, Oregon
Number of oysters harvested per day: About 3,000 during the summer
In the industry for: 3 years, on and off
Previous jobs: Operations manager for a medical distribution company

How you made the transition to oyster farming: I’ve always been intrigued by the Pacific Northwest – specifically, with fishing and hunting. Ten years ago, after going through a divorce, I decided to move there, and was offered a shot to learn how to shuck and harvest oysters.

What do you do at work all day? During our peak season, from the end of May until the end of September, I orchestrate where and when to harvest the oysters, and how many. [At Umpqua Aquaculture], our oysters are situated in the Umpqua Triangle, suspended using buoys. The oysters are cleaner since they’re not sitting in silt and sand.

Oysters growing on a rope in the Umpqua Triangle. Photo credit: Macduff Everton/CorbisImages.com

Explain harvesting to someone who has never eaten an oyster before. We drive out a tractor – a new orange Kubota L4400 – and take them off a long rope. We bring back the oysters to our processing plant, where we place them into a huge cooler with a forklift and separate them by size.

Your routine during the off-season: Replenishing what we harvested over the summer. We save the shells with oyster larvae – the larvae are about the size of eraser heads – and hang them on the cleared lines.

Most important lesson learned: You need to be flexible in this industry. The weather affects what you can and can’t do. Sometimes, while working in a storm, I’ll be cold and wet – and stop to think, why am I doing this? But it’s a love/hate thing. I’ve been that guy in the office, and I’d rather be doing this.

What does the perfect oyster taste like? It shouldn’t be gritty – that means it’s been down in the muck and sand. It should taste like fresh ocean water, and the texture will be firm.

Can you tell by looks alone? The bottom should be an oblong shape. I wear orange rubber gloves all the time, since you can’t handle oysters barehanded. They’re very sharp.

What does your oyster farming outfit include, besides the orange gloves? Extra-tough Arctic insulated boots, bibs, and rain gear, including a rain hat and raincoat.

Best part of your job: I have the same tasks, but every day is a little different. I love being out on the water. It’s not really a thrill; you get the sense that you’re out in an environment that’s completely wild, but I’m not scared out there.

Most challenging part of your job: [Umpqua Aquaculture] is a small retail store, so it’s tough to balance everything. I also bring in shrimp, crab, and fresh fish when they’re available.

How often do you eat oysters? About once per week.

Raw oysters on the half shell. Photo: sweetpaprika.wordpress.com

Favorite way to eat an oyster: Fried in Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) with cocktail sauce and horseradish. I also love shooters – opened raw oysters – with a little hot sauce.

If you could eat one food for the rest of your life: It wouldn’t be oysters. Probably a T-bone steak.

Other hobbies: Hunting, fishing, crabbing, spending time in the woods.

Any non-outdoor activities? I also bowl.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Right here.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Diversify your skill level. Before getting hired at Umpqua, I learned to operate equipment like a forklift, tractor, and boat; to fix things mechanically; and to tie different knots. All of those skills apply to my job now. But one necessary skill you need to be a plain oyster farmer is running an air chisel.

PLUS: For more outdoorsy (but slightly more intense) No Joe Schmos, check out the alligator wrestler and the urban honey beekepeer.