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

King of the Jungle: CEO of Lincoln Park Zoo

When Kevin Bell first became director of the zoo, he had no managerial or administrative experience.

Growing up in the Bronx, the first sounds Kevin Bell heard in the morning were not honking cars and alarms, but rather the Tarzan-like screeches of white-cheeked gibbons and barks of sea lions.

To be fair, he didn’t live in the Bronx as most of us imagine it. At age 5, his family moved into a home behind the Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo, where he was surrounded by 252 acres of animals. He helped out his dad, who worked as zoo’s bird curator, and spoke to the giraffes and hippos at night until it was time for bed. He knew immediately that it was his calling.

After completing his Master’s studying the Atlantic Puffin off the coast of Maine, Bell was hired at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., one of the nation’s oldest zoos housing 1,200 animals representing 230 species. Now, 35 years later – as the zoo’s president and CEO – he reveals the challenges of running a nonprofit, why he’s not worried about a Bronx Zoo cobra situation, and how he gauges potential new hires (hint: it’s not resumes).

Title: President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Age: 58
Graduated from: Syracuse University, degree in biology; State University of New York, Master’s degree
Has worked at the zoo for: 35 years, and 18 years as president/CEO
Previous jobs: Curator of birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Visitors per year: 3 to 4 million

Bell is particularly fascinated by hornbills, which are indigenous to Africa and Asia. To lay eggs, the female seals herself in tree cavity with a tiny opening for the male to feed her through.

You’ve worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo your entire post-college life. I was hired there directly after graduate school. After working as the bird curator for 18 years, I became assistant director of the zoo for six months, and then director. After we privatized the zoo in 1995, my title became president/CEO.

What do you do all day? I oversee the overall direction of the zoo and concentrate a lot on fundraising. This is a free zoo, and doing something good for the public adds a feel-good part to the job. But you need an incredible amount of resources to operate a nonprofit organization.

What background did you have with animals? My father was the bird curator at the Bronx Zoo, and we moved to the zoo grounds – behind the reptile house – when I was 5 years old. Surrounded by 252 acres of animals, I had the zoo to myself in the evenings and early mornings. I spent all my time there until I left for Syracuse.

Bell describes his management style as relaxed: "People call me by my first name."

Did you help out your dad? Yes – I had chores. In the birdhouse, I carefully turned hundreds of eggs a quarter-inch in the incubator. I took care of some of the hatchlings since I was there 24 hours a day – even after the keeper staff went home.

Living at the zoo is many a little kid’s dream. I’d feed the giraffes and hippos and talked to all the animals. I was convinced they knew me; many animals develop relationships with their keepers and recognize familiar faces.

Something people don’t know about your job: That I started out as an animal person, and that I had no administrative or fundraising experience when I took over as president and CEO. I learned on the job.

Most important lesson learned: The impact zoos have, especially in urban areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So many kids don’t get outside the city – not to mention to Asia or Africa – so their only bond with wildlife is coming to the zoo. Elementary school kids are amazed when they come here and realize where milk comes from, where the food on their tables comes from. It’s a great way for them to see that science can be fun.

Best part of your job: When I get frustrated with personnel issues, I go over and see a giraffe or feed a rhino; they don’t get in bad moods. I also love walking around as a visitor and experiencing the zoo from that side of the equation. I’ll walk up to other visitors and tell them a fun fact that I think they may not know.

WATCH:

Most challenging part of the job: Balancing the budget in a tough economy. Attendance is free, but right now, revenue is way down since people aren’t spending a lot of money inside the zoo.

Responsibilities as bird curator: I traveled a lot as bird curator, doing fieldwork on birds in Central America, Iceland, and Indonesia. It was the best job in the world.

Favorite animal: You might expect it to be a bird, but I love tigers – they’re absolutely magnificent creatures. Unlike lions, tigers are very secretive and elusive; to see one in the wild is an amazing event. I also love great apes and the Himalayan takin, which is kind of like a sheep-goat.

Do you worry about escapes, like the Bronx Zoo’s cobra? You worry more about the visitors that don’t respect fences. With 50,000 visitors in a day, there are bound to be a few unstable people walking through who have had a few beers. That said, if a dangerous snake got out at Lincoln Park, it would be almost impossible for it get into a public space.

How would you describe your management style? Relaxed and informal – people call me by my first name. I’m a bit of a micromanager, but that’s because I’ve gone through the system and understand most of the jobs really well.

Gibbons are born with blonde fur, but by age 2, their color turns to black. As adults, males remain black and females change back to blonde.

Coolest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo: I try to stay away from favoritism, but the white-cheeked gibbon is pretty cool. It has long arms and fingers and swings between trees, Tarzan-style. They also communicate with a Tarzan holler that carries through the jungle.

Do you live on the grounds of the zoo now? No; I live a few blocks away.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. A liberal arts education, including some business management and economics classes, is great for people interested in nonprofit management. The key to fundraising is building relationships with people, so that they get to know and trust you – and at the basis of that is being to talk to people about everything from arts to politics. You need that broad background to relate to people.

2. Volunteer for every possible job at a company. As bird curator, I volunteered to do things like budgets and inventory, and not because I had the skills. It ultimately made me a better manager.

3. Get comfortable communicating with others on a large scale. Now, I give speeches to 2,000 people, but when I first took the job as director of the zoo, I was terrified to talk in front of 25 people.

Follow the Lincoln Park Zoo on Twitter at @LincolnParkZoo and check out its YouTube channel. Unless stated otherwise, all photos courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

PLUS: Other No Joe Schmos love animals, too. Jenny Litz is saving the Ecuadorian rainforest in $8 rubber rain boots!