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

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