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 Traveling Motivational Speaker

Photo courtesy of Jessie Jolles

Need some motivation to get back in the work groove after a long, relaxing Memorial Day Weekend? Thought so. Well, look no further: today’s No Joe Schmo is Robert Jolles, who has spent nearly 30 years as a professional speaker and corporate trainer. And he has 2,000 pages of journal entries to show it.

At 22, Jolles began his career as an insurance salesman. Now, more than three decades and 2 million air miles later, he gives seminars to corporations across the world that inspire success and dare clients to change their working cultures.

Below, he explains the science behind nailing an interview, his rationale to a work/life balance (hint: he never stays at work past 5 p.m.), and why he wears black underwear during seminars.

Title: Professional speaker and corporate trainer, Jolles Associates, Inc.
Age: 54
Salary: Ranges between $200,000 to $2 million/year, depending on time on the road.
In the industry for: 30 years
Number of miles in the air: 2 million
Graduated from: University of Maryland, major in communications/minor in business
Biggest audience : 10,000 people. Usually speaks to 300-500.
Previous jobs: Salesman for New York Life Insurance Company; Training specialist for Computer Science Corporation; actor

Job description in one sentence: I teach persuasion and influence to a variety of clients, including over 60 financial institutions, universities, and other Fortune 500 clients.

What does that mean? I can get in front of a group of teachers and totally change the way they teach you. They’re not persuading the way students learn – they’re using fear tactics. You have to motivate and inspire someone to learn.

How he got into the business: At my first job working as an insurance salesman at the University of Maryland, I went to a meeting to find that the entire management team had gone to lunch and was stuck in the parking lot because someone had parked behind them. So I handled the meeting instead, and I ran it like I was directing actors. I got such a high, it made me want to be a corporate trainer. Another freakish occurrence made me take that to the next level. I was sent to a seminar called “How to Listen Powerfully” by Lou Hampton. They charged $250 per head, and I thought, that’s a very good day’s work that guy is having. I thought, I can do that, and I can do it better than that guy.

Why he loves his job: I get the pleasure of teaching, the thrill of performing, and the ability to feed my family.

Biggest mistake in interviews: People forget that the more the interviewer talks, the more they like the interviewee. If you want to win an interview, engage the interviewer in some questions about themselves, the company, and something they would want to brag about.

The most important lesson he’s learned: You’re as good as the last time you opened your mouth. You need to always give 100 percent maximum effort, period.

One of Jolles' three best-selling books, "The Way of the Road Warrior."

What skills are necessary for starting a business? The book answer is to have a passion for what you’re doing. But the reality is, it’s too much pressure to tell a recent graduate to go do their passion. Recent grads think they’re absolutely heading to their careers, but I think they’re just answering some questions so they know more about what they want their careers to be.

What rules do you live by? I have a fear that if I give into a temptation of quitting, I’ll open a Pandora’s Box to make it much easier to quit the next time. So I have many quirks that a psychiatrist would have a ball with. I only wear black underwear when doing a seminar; I wear a Jerry Lewis cufflink on my left arm, and a Dean Martin one on my right; I’ll pick up a USA Today sitting outside my hotel room, but won’t read it until the wheels have lifted on the plane, as a treat to myself. I’ll never drink the night before a seminar — I believe doing so would open the door to not run the best race I possibly could. Some of it is superstition, and some of it is probably crossing the line.

So you’re kind of like George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air. I measure speakers by their mileage in the air. I understood on a deep level what it felt like to have that addiction to travel that was portrayed in the movie.

Favorite quote? “We weren’t put on this earth to make a living, we were put on this earth to make a difference.” During my first two years in the business, I was caught up in making a living. My travel went up to over 200 nights a year, and the more I went out, the more money I made. Limos came to my house. But then one day, my wife sat me down and told me we didn’t need all that stuff. Now, I balance my family and career, and feel like I make a difference because I help others become more successful. I never stay at work past 5 p.m. so I can spend evenings with my family.

Jim Carrey in the movie "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Photo credit: hollywoodjesus.com

Does being positive 24/7 ever get tiring? I live in the positive, and that’s not crap. I’m not bullshitting you. The only time I had serious trouble with that was on 9/11 – I couldn’t think of anything positive, and there was nowhere to go mentally.

If you could be reincarnated into someone dead or alive, who would it be? Jim Carrey.

Sense of humor: I never tell jokes, but I can have you falling out of your seat laughing. I have go-to lines, but you’ll never hear me say, “Two guys walked into a barber shop…”

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Want a job based on inspiring others? Rob Jolles offers the steps to get there.
1. You need to be energized by getting up, performing, teaching, and motivating others. You also have to like to write, since you need to study and know your subject matter.

2. A job as an entry-level training specialist is a great place to start. It’s the step before becoming a professional speaker. As a professional speaker, if you do a good job, everyone knows it. But if you don’t do a good job, everyone also knows it. If that scares you, don’t be a trainer. But if that makes you smile, let’s keep talking. At the end of day, I’m just a training specialist on steroids.

3. Remember the quote by Jerry Lewis: “If you finish a performance and you’re not sweating, you’re an amateur.” Not only will I sweat [during seminars], but I will very rarely wipe it away. I want people to see me go across the stage and think: wow, that guy is really working.

How do you prepare for interviews or presentations? Any superstitious quirks? Share them by commenting below! To learn more about Rob Jolles and professional speaking, visit jolles.com. You can also follow Rob on Twitter at @Jolles.