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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Foodie Friday: The Salad Dressing Entrepreneur

Ramona Waldecker of Central New York, with her line of homemade dressings and marinades.

Ramona Waldecker has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years, but she’s never followed a recipe. Instead, she glances at the list of ingredients and doctors up the dish herself.

The same entrepreneurial spirit that Waldecker cultivated at age 9 — when she sold veggies from her backyard organic farm to neighbors in her wagon — can be found in her approach to business today. The former restaurateur started a line of salad dressings and marinades made from local products, which she collectively refers to as Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken Sauces.

Waldecker sells about 6,000 bottles of her products each year in Central New York grocery stores like Wegmans and Price Chopper. Although she plans to move her business to grow in Tennessee, she’s counting her home base in New York for support.

Age: 50
Graduated from: Culinary Institute of America, Associate of Science degree
Based in: Syracuse, NY
Previous jobs: Restaurant owner; food broker [agent that negotiates sales for food producers and manufacturers]

How you got started: As a food broker, I thought bottling my own dressing would make great Christmas presents.

Moment you realized this could be a career: When I first introduced my dressings, a newspaper in my hometown of Baldswinville, N.Y., asked to interview me. From there, the phone started ringing off the hook – and one of those calls was to do a TV commercial. Through that commercial, I met buyers, which landed my products in the supermarket.

You already had a whole line of dressings? No, just one – my Sweet Country Italian dressing. That one will always be my baby.

Chicken riggies, a pasta dish native to New York State, typically includes chicken, rigatoni, and peppers in a spicy cream and tomato sauce. Photo: applecrumbles.com

And now? I have a whole line of Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken products, which I started six years ago. That includes Sweet Country Italian dressing; Mildly Spicy Chipotle dressing; Cajun Black Bean dressing; Citrus Greek Feta dressing; and of course, Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken Riggie Sauce.

What goes into your Kickin’ Chicken Riggie Sauce? Since I work in food services, I have access to restaurant-quality ingredients, like fresh cream and cheese from the farm. For the sauce, I use all locally-grown veggies, like cherry peppers, regular peppers onions, mushrooms, black olives, and fresh garlic.

Do you make it from scratch? I used to, which took two to three hours in the kitchen. I would taste-test each dressing about 50 times. Now, it’s made in bulk for me at a co-packer.

How did owning your family’s restaurant shape your career path? I started at The Good Times Restaurant at age 12, washing the dishes, which is when I first learned to be a workaholic. Now, with my own business, I still do everything any anything; there’s no being tired, no excuses. Plus, the house dressing I made at the restaurant turned into my Sweet Country Italian. It’s still served there, almost 40 years later.

Most important lesson learned: It takes a long time to get your brand out there. It doesn’t happen just because you have a great product; it can be the luck of the draw. But there’s also a snowball effect when good things start happening.

Best part of your job: Making people’s lives easier with my dressings and sauces – oftentimes, the lives of people who maybe couldn’t cook before.

Most frustrating part of your job: The slow pace. I’ll hear good responses from customers, but then they’ll forget to buy the dressing again the next month. It’s so hard to train people and change their buying habits.

"The only canned vegetable I use is cherry peppers," Waldecker says. "The rest are fresh off the farm." Photo: blog.beauty-goodies.com

How do you measure what tastes “good”? I’m very easily pleased when I go out to eat, but I’m very hard on myself. I can go to a restaurant, taste a meal, and come home and make it exactly – it just comes naturally to me. I’ve only goofed up one dinner in my life, and it was Chinese noodles.

Do you follow recipe books? No. I just look at the ingredients list, but never follow the steps. After I messed up those Chinese noodles, though, I went back to the steps to see what I did wrong.

If you could be a chef anywhere in the world, where would you work? Italy, even though I don’t know any Italian.

Your very first job: I had an organic garden at age 9. I’d load up my wagon with veggies from my garden and sell them around town in a 5-mile radius. Even at 9, I was an entrepreneur – I had business cards and everything.

You’ve always wanted to: Cook on a cruise ship. I love their decorations and presentations!

What are you working on right now? I’m moving to Tennessee, so I plan to grow my business there. But I’m counting on local customers in New York for support; my products will still be sold to supermarkets and smaller retailers in that area. I’m also writing a cookbook.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years? I’d love to go national. My inspiration is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

Must-have kitchen appliance: A chef’s knife and large cutting board are still my favorite tools in the kitchen.

Photo: blog.sellametrohome.com

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Ramona Waldecker dishes about business ventures centered on food.

1. Take a course that will teach you about being an entrepreneur, such as The Women’s Symposium. It gives you an idea of what you’re getting yourself into; you don’t want to spend a ton of money and then not sell any products off the shelves.

2. Join your local Chamber of Commerce. I think smaller ones are better, because they’re less intimidating and allow you to network with other businesses in more intimate groups.

3. If you love to cook and share, there’s ample opportunity out there. Lots of people are fulfilling their dreams at this very moment.

Check out all of Ramona’s recipes using her dressings and sauces, like Citrus Greek Feta Chicken and Cajun Chili.

Hungry for more? Click here for more Foodie Fridays on No Joe Schmo, like an Oscar Mayer Hotdogger and head beer brewer!