Back in spring 2011 — the end of black truffle season, before the climbing roses bloomed — the Couchsurfers gathered at the Palazzo Massarucci, built on a hill north of Rome at the beginning of the Renaissance.
The castle is said to have hosted Lucrezia Borgia, the Vicar of Umbria, Anna Mahler, and Sophia Loren. Now it was the latest collective home of the core team behind Couchsurfing.com, the internet’s biggest hospitality exchange and one of the largest gift-economy experiments ever. Some of the Couchsurfers knew what was coming before they climbed the castle’s steps. “I had to keep it a secret,” says then operations director Jim Stone. “It was not fun not being able to share that.”
Once inside, the Couchsurfers sprawled on couches around medieval-looking wood tables. They’d been on the road together for more than half a decade, an ever-evolving crew, operating as a nonprofit in a series of collectives set in stunning places ranging across five continents, overseen by Casey Fenton, the founder whose magnetism held it together.
“We’d always joke that Couchsurfing was a cult: We put the cult in cultural exchange,” says Casey Shultz, the company’s director of legal and finance at the time. “It totally had a lot of checkmarks: charismatic leader, living together in a group, social norms that from an outside perspective seem really weird. But once you're in it, you’re like, ‘Drink the Kool-Aid.’” This would be the end of all that.
Fenton stood in front of them, looking confident and calm, despite his roiling emotions. At 34, he was brown-haired and heavily freckled; he looked like what he was, someone who grew up on the border between Maine and New Hampshire, where the line between preppy and shaggy is thin. His enthusiasm and nervous optimism had a profound effect on all of them. “He’s really intense, in good ways and uncomfortable ways,” says then operations manager Colleen Sollars. “He’s one of those people who made me want him to like me.”
Next to Fenton stood Daniel Hoffer, one of the co-founders. It was the first time many of the Couchsurfers had seen Hoffer front-and-center. He’d visited the collectives before, but had held jobs outside of Couchsurfing and had less time to be actively involved. Fenton and Hoffer told the Couchsurfers that they couldn’t stay a nonprofit. They announced that the company was raising $7.6 million in venture funding from Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network and that Hoffer was going to be CEO.
Ben Hanna, then the user experience and design team lead, remembers “shock and awe and tears.” Couchsurfing was the rare internet project that seemed like it lived beyond the dictates of capital. To use the site, there was no required exchange of funds. Users would jump into the system and host when they could. They’d review references left by previous surfers, send hosts requests, and, if they accepted, stay on their couch or in their spare room and meet someone they would never otherwise have met. It was a utopian vision. “We all believed in it so much,” says Meredith Hutcheson, then a communications and community manager. “We were losing that, and it was brutal for everyone.”
Most of their worst fears were realized in the years that followed. It was a long fall, featuring conflagrations over Burning Man, an attempted coup d’état, persistent allegations of sexual misconduct by users, at least one nervous breakdown, and an unexpected takeover by a secretive investor — an alumnus of Peter Thiel’s controversial surveillance-analytics firm Palantir.
For most of that time, members of the site could keep using Couchsurfing for free as before. (I’ve been a member since 2014.) But even that changed in the early days of the pandemic, when the company instituted a paywall in much of the world and existing members raised concerns about access to their own data and whether Couchsurfing was in violation of European data law.
“Couchsurfing has been breaking hearts for close to a decade,” says Jun-E Tan, an independent policy researcher who was on the site from 2007 until last year. This is the story of the grand Couchsurfing experiment and all the heartbreak that followed.
Couchsurfing’s roots go back to a trip Casey Fenton took to Egypt following the 1997 massacre of 62 people outside the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. He bought a cheap ticket to go with a group trying to revive tourism. A local in Cairo offered to show him a different side of the country and connected Fenton with a friend, who guided the 19-year-old around the desert. Fenton recalls climbing the pyramids in the moonlight and creeping into a pharaoh’s sarcophagus.
“I was young and didn’t know better,” he says of those escapades in an email. “Now I wish it hadn’t happened.” At the time, though, the trip was a revelation. “I learned that the world is not as scary as I had initially imagined,” he says.
When Fenton found a cheap ticket to Reykjavik, Iceland, he hustled up the emails of 1,500 University of Iceland students and messaged them all, asking if he could stay with them. He got back upwards of 100 responses and ended up gallivanting around the capital with an R&B singer and her friends. When he returned home, he started thinking about ways to replicate the experience. He started building the site and registered Couchsurfing as a nonprofit in New Hampshire.
He invited Hoffer, who he knew from working together on the web 1.0 consulting firm Hoffer had started as an undergrad at Harvard, and two designers, Sebastien Le Tuan and Leonardo Bassani da Silveira, to serve as co-founders. “I think he just liked hanging out with us and thought it’d be fun to start a company together,” says Hoffer. Fenton ended up doing most of the initial work and fronting most of the costs. But that was okay, he didn’t want it to be a traditional company.
It didn’t matter that the house was covered in ants. The internet was good, and the beach was a short drive away.”
On early calls, the team discussed ways to bring in money. Hoffer proposed “an Airbnb-like revenue model,” but says the others felt that would make the relationship between host and surfer too transactional and “fail to deliver on our social mission of facilitating intercultural understanding.” Instead, Fenton built an optional credit card and bank account verification feature that charged users a nominal fee.
They launched the site on June 12, 2004. By the end of that year, they had around 6,000 members. In his first year, Fenton made around $5,000, so he bounced around friends’ couches, traveling from Alaska to California to Hawaii, maintaining Couchsurfing on his laptop. The site hit 45,000 members in 2005. The group spent time in what Fenton calls “the crappiest house in all of Kailua.” Fenton and his girlfriend, Heather Atles, stayed in the cheap extra room.
It didn’t matter that the house was covered in ants. The internet was good, there was a beater car available, and the beach was a short drive away. “The first 40 days we were there, it rained,” says Atles, who held a variety of roles, including coordinating media and communications. “It was kind of biblical.” Locked away from Oahu’s attractions, they were able to spend long spells working on Couchsurfing.
When Hoffer and Le Tuan came to visit, Fenton says, “We noticed we got a lot of work done, so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a larger collective?’” The idea was to rent out a place for a couple months in some amazing part of the world and invite volunteers to live with them and help run Couchsurfing. “Wait a minute,” Candice Roberts, an associate professor of communication arts at St. John’s University remembers thinking when they first heard about the collective model, “you’re telling me that how this whole website is run is basically just people hanging out and doing this?”
In June 2006, the Couchsurfers rented an apartment in Montreal and threw open the doors. Soon, the space was oversaturated with volunteers, who slept in shifts in the bedrooms or on air mattresses or under the tables in the work room. Around 10 p.m. on June 27, the site’s hard drive crashed, deleting a large part of Couchsurfing’s data. Fenton scrambled to restore it from backups, but quickly realized that those too had failed. “It was his baby,” says Stone, “and he was so crushed when he was like, ‘I can’t fix it.’” The mood in the collective the next day was funereal. Fenton and Atles walked through the city, stopping at a playground. “We sat on these swings, and I’d never seen him so devastated,” she says.
On June 29, Fenton sent an email to Couchsurfing’s membership. “Couchsurfing as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore,” he wrote. “I have literally poured every cent I have into the site. I’ve sacrificed my health, my time, and my own ability to travel and meet people. In many ways, I’ve put my life and wanderlust on hold to build this network. I’m not complaining; it’s been a fantastic ride.” But a few days later, Fenton figured out that he could claw data back through the caching mechanism. Couchsurfing 2.0 was ready to launch just over a week after the crash.
“‘Incestuous’ isn’t the right word. It was more like super best friends, always cuddling.”
Toward the end of August, after closing the Montreal collective, Fenton and Atles made their annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert. “Burning Man being the intense environment that it is, we had a really rough time together there,” she says. “It really became clear that living together, working together, trying to run this growing business, trying to maintain a relationship, it was too much.”
Fenton flew to New Zealand’s South Island, and Atles initially stayed behind. They’d broken up. The Couchsurfing crew had found a house perched on a cliff, selected for its remoteness. If they made this collective harder to get to, the thinking went, maybe fewer people would show up just to party and hang out. It didn’t work out like that. According to Gardner Bickford, an attendee, volunteers slept five to a bedroom, some on the floors. Pressure built. At community meetings, Bickford recalls, everything from banning alcohol to making watching the sunset compulsory was discussed. The situation, Fenton says, “was just really driving people crazy.”
Before the collective reconstituted in Thailand in late 2007, Fenton decided they couldn’t let just anyone show up anymore. They’d have to hire volunteers for specific roles. With a more steady crew, they were starting to get into a rhythm and beginning to establish a vibe. It wasn’t exactly Burning Man all year ’round. More like the sort of relationships that form between backpacking hostel longtimers. “Incestuous isn’t the right word, because there weren’t a ton of people sleeping with each other,” says Colleen Sollars, who saw the collective spirit in full bloom when she joined a couple years later. “It was more like super best friends, always cuddling.”
In Alaska, the following summer, they reached a sort of equilibrium. Their house stood on a bluff overlooking the Kachemak Bay. “We got really desensitized to these incredibly long, beautiful sunsets,” says then senior systems administrator Andrew Otto. “Somebody would be like, ‘You gotta look at this sunset.’ And we would be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll look at it in three hours, as soon as I’m done working.’” The quarters were cramped at first, but soon tents began popping up amid the surrounding trees. The Couchsurfers spent the indistinguishable days and nights hanging out in the hot tub and around the always-lit fire pit.
The festivities continued in the fall of 2008, at a rumored one-time nunnery in Berkeley, which the Couchsurfers soon discovered was on frat row. Though they mostly kept their distance, the collective got in the spirit. “We had a lot of epic parties at that house,” says Shultz. There was a rager where almost everyone wore sock puppets. Today, former team members tend to deemphasize the wilder aspects of the collectives, but as Menelaos Prokos, who ran Couchsurfing’s “contact us” team, notes, “It was a bunch of kids, high on drugs all the time, that loved what they were doing.”
Several months later, a small colony decamped for Samara, Costa Rica, where the Couchsurfers were robbed as most of them slept. (A collective member who’d been working with his laptop on the roof was hogtied with his computer’s extension cord.)
By mid-2009 — after the site hit a million users — Fenton was starting to believe Couchsurfing needed even more continuity and structure. The collective moved into a spacious apartment building in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, which they rechristened Base Camp. Employees were starting to receive more than a nominal stipend too, though nobody made a lot of money.
Controversies came with every step Couchsurfing took toward becoming a more traditional company. “There was definitely that feeling that the women were the assistants,” says then director of legal and finance Casey Shultz, “and that there was no path to leadership for women in Couchsurfing.” The largely male leadership team held meetings in an apartment in the top corner of Base Camp that jokingly came to be known as Mount Olympus. There were often no women present. “I was like, ‘Hey, guys, what are you doing in all these fucking leadership meetings?’” says then team member Miranda Hanna. “And they wouldn’t give us notes or do anything.”
Fenton points out that Rachel diCerbo, Couchsurfing’s longtime member disputes and safety team coordinator, was on the board and at times was part of leadership team meetings. “It would have been great to have more females” as part of the leadership team, he says. “Why didn’t we? It was basically who we got to take roles and who would be committed to taking roles.”
During the summer of 2009, a volunteer who’d worked for Couchsurfing remotely, wrote in a resignation letter, “I cannot continue to volunteer for [Couchsurfing] because I cannot volunteer under a team leader and/or member of the [leadership team] who has committed and admitted two (!) cases of sexual harassment.” The team leader in question, Jonathan Lewis (who has since married and changed his surname), left the company soon after. He says the primary accusation stemmed from a time he couchsurfed before becoming a team leader.
“When this accusation was brought forward, it confused me and it upset me,” he says. “I find it regrettable, I find it unfortunate, and I find it unfounded. But I also realize perception is reality, and that I’m responsible for the condition that I created that it arose from.” The situation left Fenton “upset and sad,” the co-founder says in an email.
“As a new CEO and leader it was a complex issue to be challenged with,” he adds. “Couchsurfing needs to be a safe place for all, both workers and members, and so there had to be consequences.” During that same period, a man in Britain was sentenced to 10 years in jail for raping a woman tourist he’d met via Couchsurfing. Media reports of alleged sexual misconduct by site users would become more frequent in later years.
Couchsurfing’s last collective opened in Istanbul in October 2009 and closed in March 2010. Base Camp, which had been running in parallel, shut down in June. Among the many circumstances that lead to the end of the collectives were suspicions that they weren’t run completely in line with local requirements. “Countries would be like, ‘Whoa, you have an office here,’” says Miranda Hanna. “And we’d go, ‘No, no, it’s not the office. We just have a house.’ And they’d be like, ‘I think you owe us taxes.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
The Couchsurfers worked remotely after that, living in small groups around the world, in Dubrovnik, Croatia; Bali, Indonesia; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Very soon, we realized that people were just drifting away,” says then member experience coordinator David Mota De La Parra. They decided to meet for weeks-long conferences around the world to try to find a new future for Couchsurfing. The first, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was in a big house with a view of the Bahía de Banderas.
The second get together was at the castle in Italy in 2011, where it was announced internally that Hoffer would be CEO of the new for-profit Couchsurfing. “I’d been running ragged for years,” says Fenton of that decision. “People were like, ‘Maybe Dan should try being CEO,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’” That move made sense on paper. Hoffer had been an executive at the cybersecurity software firm Symantec. He had an MBA from Columbia, he’d gone to Harvard, he was one of the founders. But he didn’t have Fenton’s culty charisma.
Plus, Couchsurfing had failed in its multi-year effort to become a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. The way Fenton tells it, Couchsurfing was required to convert to a for-profit fast, and to do that, Couchsurfing had to buy its assets from the state of New Hampshire without using its own money, which, according to Fenton, cost about a million dollars, counting legal fees. “I knew that it was going to destroy the community,” says Shultz of the plan to raise venture capital. “I knew that we were not Airbnb, which was what was being sold to the investors.”
The Italian castle experience “was just emotionally gut-wrenching,” Fenton says. “Do people even want to be part of this anymore?” he recalls thinking. “Is Couchsurfing going to die?”
Today, Couchsurfing is cagey about a lot of things. It tries to keep the name of its current owner and CEO out of the spotlight. It doesn’t answer questions about how many members it has, though on its about page it claims, variously, 12 million and 14 million. And the company instructs current employees not to talk to journalists.
Over the first four years of its life as a for-profit, the company cycled through CEOs and employees. One of Hoffer’s first acts as leader was laying off about half the company, going from 44 to 22 workers. “The terminations were performed in ways that were consistent with the company’s caring and people-centric culture,” he says in a LinkedIn message.
The survivors moved into a converted warehouse in San Francisco. A letter from Fenton went out to the membership at the end of that August, just after the public announcement of going for-profit. “The CouchSurfing features that you use today will continue to be free,” he wrote. “We want a world where everyone can explore and connect, regardless of their financial situation.”
“That was the ethos: It’ll always be free,” says former director of legal and finance Shultz, who left of her own volition after Italy. “All of a sudden, we’re trying to monetize this thing. It was a total clusterfuck.” The for-profit transition provoked outrage from vocal elements of the Couchsurfing membership and the company hired a PR firm to deal with the backlash. (Hoffer calls that statement “a little simplistic,” adding, “Like many startups that are announcing a round of funding, we hired a PR firm.”) Independent policy researcher Jun-E Tan found in her PhD thesis that most Couchsurfing users didn’t object to changes as long as the platform remained free.
In April 2012, Couchsurfing announced that Hoffer was being replaced by Tony Espinoza, who’d been vice president and general manager of social gaming at MTV. Many of the early Couchsurfers think this is when Couchsurfing really went wrong. “Super-fun,” says former operations director Stone. “So glad we hired someone to fire us all.”
The new CEO’s first idea, according to several employees, was to turn Couchsurfing into a low-rent Airbnb — a plan they say he quickly abandoned. Espinoza remembers it differently. “There was never a plan under my watch to turn Couchsurfing into a transactional marketplace like Airbnb,” he says. “My attitude with it was, I don’t see this community being a platform to become an Airbnb. I don’t see the rudiments of a marketplace going on here.”
In any case, Espinoza’s early moves made him a controversial figure, both within the company and in the larger community. “Tony was a shrewd guy,” says then user experience and design team lead Ben Hanna. “He definitely knew business. But he didn’t know the Couchsurfing community, and he didn’t know how much pushback he was going to get.”
There was a massive spike in users on the site under Espinoza, but because they’d been attracted in part by an advertising push and there was an easier onboarding process, they were less committed and slower to adapt to the pay-it-forward spirit of Couchsurfing. Suddenly, there were a ton of people who were active surfers and relatively few who were actively hosting. So it started taking surfers longer to find hosts.
Members also were disturbed by changes to Couchsurfing’s terms of service that they believed would allow the company to sell their data to third parties. Espinoza rolled back some of the changes several months later, but the damage to member trust was done. Meanwhile, the company had taken in an additional $15 million in investment.
“It took me a few minutes to realize that everybody in the hot tub was naked except for me.”
Espinoza’s new hires fit poorly with the old guard. Right before new vice president of technical operations Steve Phillips’ time at the company, he attended a retreat at a big house on Lake Tahoe. “I went out and got in the hot tub,” he recalls. “It took me a few minutes to realize that everybody in the hot tub was naked except for me.” He recalls sitting next to a longtime employee who said, “You’re a little overdressed for this party, buddy.”
Phillips went back into the house, but, as he remembers it, the nudity spilled over there. “At one point, a party was going on in the master bedroom,” he says, “and Casey [Fenton] came running down the hallway, completely naked, covered in suds, saying, ‘We need more shampoo!’” Fenton could not immediately recall Phillips’s existence, but, when asked about this, he remembers the events differently. “We were all in our swimming suits when we got the idea to see how large of a bubble mountain a hot tub could create,” he writes in an email, “so we added all the shampoo we could find.”
Phillips recalls other hijinks. “There was one time I was going through our Amazon bill and realized that [an employee] was ordering lube and condoms on our company Amazon account,” he says. “In large quantities.” Fenton, again, quarrels with Phillips’ account. “I don’t know of and I would not approve of anyone buying something like this,” he says via email. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
That August, Espinoza clashed with the old Couchsurfers over Burning Man. They’d always been free to take off to the Black Rock Desert. “It was a huge part of our culture,” says former operations director Stone. Espinoza did not approve of everybody leaving. “When [Tony] found out,” says Phillips, “he goes, ‘Fuck this. This is not going to happen. We need to have people to keep things going.’” Espinoza relented, except in the cases of employees who were vital to keeping the site functional.
Amid tensions between the old guard and the new, the company started firing employees at an increased pace. “It was really tough to go into the office after that,” says Phillips.
“The cultural gap to me seemed to be oriented around a reverence for the history of Couchsurfing that I didn’t necessarily get or know how to appreciate,” says Espinoza. “I don’t think I cared about the culture of the founding fathers as much as I cared about the entity that was this mass of millions of people that experienced travel in an amazingly vivid and meaningful way.”
“They wanted to do a coup d’état on Tony.”
Fenton and Hoffer still held jobs at Couchsurfing under Espinoza, but employees say tensions between the CEO and the founders began to boil over. Fenton responded by throwing a party at the company’s in-house chef’s home where he pitched some employees a radical idea. Phillips, who attended, says Fenton made the case to him later. “They wanted to do a coup d’état on Tony,” he says. “I turned away, and I thought, ‘Casey’s out of his fucking mind. When Tony finds out about it, these guys are all gone.’ And that’s precisely what happened.”
Fenton and Hoffer are closed-lipped about the details of their exit. “I wish I could talk about everything,” Fenton says, “but I don’t want to get sued.” There was a formal announcement to the employees that the two were out. “They still had board seats, but they had no day-to-day Couchsurfing responsibilities,” says Ben Hanna. “It was a surreal experience to have outlived Casey at Couchsurfing.”
Under Espinoza, the company had quickly hired and fired employees, depleting about half of the more than $22.6 million raised in the investment rounds. Espinoza lost his job in October 2013, after less than a year and a half; at the same time, more than 40 percent of the company was laid off. Employees called it “Couchpocalypse.”
Jennifer Billock, who’d been head of product marketing, took over as interim CEO when Espinoza left, and was officially given the job the following August. One hallmark of her tenure was the increased circulation of stories about alleged sexual and physical assaults at Couchsurfing hosts’ homes, a trend that had begun in the wake of the membership influx Espinoza presided over.
“There started to be a lot more issues with sleazy guys.”
“There started to be a lot more issues with sleazy guys,” says Ben Hanna. There were heartbreaking stories of idealistic young women being raped or murdered, allegedly by people they’d met through the site. Stories of harassment and assault have continued to surface in the years since.
Espinoza argues that the increase in such reports was the result of a more aggressive internal effort to confront the problem. “As a survivor of sexual abuse myself,” he says, “of all the issues and challenges, that was the thing that meant the most to me, and still does, and that I was willing to do anything to prevent.”
“Anything” included an attempt to sell the company. “I didn’t believe we had the resources to handle the problem,” he says. “We needed the company to scale to deal with the problem. It wasn’t a programmatic problem that we could fix with features and software. It needed human support.” He claims the moment that he brought the idea of selling the company to the board was what led to him being asked to leave.
In 2015, Billock, who declined to comment for this article, responded to a case in which an Italian cop was arrested and charged with drugging and sexually assaulting a Couchsurfer staying at his home. (He was ultimately convicted of this and several other assaults.) Billock told The Guardian that user safety was a top priority and that the company was “evolving our tools and processes to find and halt abusers of our system.” It never seemed like enough. “It’s really hard when you find out the crappy things that happen,” says Colleen Sollars, who worked on the safety team under Espinoza.
For the most part though, Billock was thought of as a good steward. “I give her a lot of credit, because she took over when Couchsurfing was not in a very good state,” says Karolina Mikołajewska-Zając, a visiting researcher of digital platform ecosystems at the University of Queensland in Australia, who is studying Couchsurfing. Billock experimented with changes to the paid verification feature, including an annual payment option as well as an updated — and more strict — series of safety features.
In 2015, Couchsurfing required additional funding. “We needed to raise a Series C and the metrics under Billock were not at a Series C level,” says Hoffer. “And so, there was interest from Patrick [Dugan].” Dugan did not respond to questions about how large a stake in the company he bought, but a spokesperson for Couchsurfing writes in an email that “the majority of the investment was from Patrick. Some of Patrick’s friends and contacts wanted to support Patrick and so they also participated.”
“[Dugan] worked with the [Palantir] head honchos. The fact that he was so well-trusted would mean that his brain was pretty important.”
The spokesperson adds that “there have been no new investors since 2015.” Hoffer says that all of the former investors still own shares in the company, though those were diluted by Dugan’s stake. He adds that Dugan’s investment was large enough that he was able to reset the board when he came in, removing Hoffer and Fenton.
At the time, Dugan was an unknown quantity. “I think he made an active effort to scrub any traces of himself on the web,” theorizes Hoffer. A 2018 capture on Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine of the website for Dugan’s firm Valencia Street Capital, which is no longer online, shows a nearly blank white page with nothing but the name of the firm and a copyright message. (While this article was being reported, Dugan’s LinkedIn ceased to be public, his Twitter was locked down, and the name on his Facebook page was changed to an apparent alias.)
When I reach out to Dugan to request an interview, he writes back, “We don’t do any interviews,” and invites me to send questions over email. He and Couchsurfing’s spokesperson graciously answered most of them, and his friends, coworkers, and former employees shared their impressions of Dugan, allowing this article to present the first detailed portrait of Couchsurfing’s current CEO.
The son of a funeral director dad and a junior high school teacher–turned–grief counselor mom, Dugan was born in April 1980, according to the LexisNexis database, and grew up in Fremont, Neb., current population of about 26,000. In 2008, he joined Peter Thiel’s data and surveillance analytics firm Palantir, as part of the business development team. “He worked with the head honchos,” says Mike Bell, a former coworker at Palantir. “The fact that he was so well-trusted would mean that his brain was pretty important.”
Palantir analyzes data to assist in the operations of large organizations, which have included French and American intelligence, the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team, the U.S. Army, and — at one time — police departments across America. Its assistance in an ICE operation that, according to The Intercept, targeted unaccompanied children and their families fueled interest in Peter Thiel and Palantir’s relationship with the Trump administration. “We built our company to support the West,” Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp told the New York Times Magazine last year. (“My interactions with Dr. Karp,” Dugan says, “were memorable but infrequent.”)
Couchsurfing has repeatedly denied that it has sold member data, and in response to questions for this article, it specifically denies any attempt to sell insights drawn from the modeling of member data. “There really is no similarity between Palantir’s business model and Couchsurfing’s business model,” says Dugan, who left Palantir in the early 2010s. “Couchsurfing today is much more data-driven than it ever has been. That is the extent of the relevance of Palantir to Couchsurfing.”
The way Dugan lives his life sounds exciting — and expensive. His sailing, diving, and pilot licenses are current and, according to Couchsurfing’s spokesperson, “Patrick flies a variety of aircraft through numerous flying clubs.”
Dugan says he learned about Couchsurfing in 2014 and jumped into the community, though his profile on the site currently shows a zero percent response rate to messages from potential surfers. “Choosing a favorite experience is impossible,” he says. “The most enjoyable have been when I was able to show visitors around my neighborhood or other favorite spots in San Francisco and rediscover parts of my own life in the process. My Couchsurfing experiences in Turkey, Germany, Japan, and Myanmar are probably the most memorable. Some of the individuals I met on those trips through Couchsurfing have become lifelong friends.”
Dugan’s name appears nowhere on the Couchsurfing site outside his member profile, while Fenton’s and Hoffer’s are prominently displayed on the site’s about us and press pages. Hoffer and Fenton say they’ve been completely locked out of Couchsurfing operations since Dugan took over. “Dugan has made it clear that he does not want a relationship with the founders, which was disappointing to me and Casey,” says Hoffer. “We’ve reached out a number of times and offered to help, and he always ignores us.” A spokesperson for Dugan says that Hoffer and Fenton’s account of this relationship was inaccurate, but does not elaborate.
When I ask Fenton how he feels about transparency at the company today, he says, “Check out Glassdoor.”
Comments about Couchsurfing on the work culture review site tend toward the extremely critical. “Patrick Dugan, the CEO is paranoid, in denial, desperate, [and] delusional,” runs one recent entry. “He thinks that being productive is how long you sit in your chair at work. Meanwhile, he’s on his computer online shopping and looking at planes.” The company says that some of the reviews were written in the wake of the firing of a group of employees, but former staffers are equally scathing years after leaving.
“We’re here to do work and not complain. If you want to complain, go somewhere else.”
Alex Mikitenko, who worked for Couchsurfing in Ukraine, says Dugan did not respond well to dissent. “I think you should shut up,” he recalls Dugan saying in a staff meeting in response to complaints about the late hours Ukrainian workers were expected to put in to attend a daily meeting with their California colleagues. “You get good money,” he remembers Dugan saying, “so I think you should just do your work.” In an internal Slack conversation that Mikitenko says followed the exchange (a screenshot of which was provided to Input), Dugan tells an employee, “I don’t care if you think it is rude or/and offensive. We’re here to do work and not complain. If you want to complain, go somewhere else.”
In response to a query about Dugan’s alleged behavior, Couchsurfing’s spokesperson writes, “We actively solicit feedback from employees about how we can better function as a team and better serve the Couchsurfing community. However, all team members are required to understand the difference between providing actionable feedback and complaining.” Mikitenko says he had a nervous breakdown at the end of his time at Couchsurfing and had to be hospitalized.
Around 2016, Ben Hanna, then no longer at the company, approached outside investors about purchasing Couchsurfing. That didn’t go anywhere, but he came away with the impression that Dugan was running “a lifestyle business.” Dugan objects to this characterization. “Some are of the opinion that the very nature of a technology company is to ‘go big or go home,’” he says, “that if you’re not spending aggressively, not trying to maximize user growth or revenue, or/and not raising another round of venture funding to cover financial losses then you are a ‘lifestyle business.’”
Couchsurfing freely admits that the company is not a significant part of Dugan’s income, but that hasn’t stopped them from aggressively experimenting with revenue models under him. In a letter to the membership after the paywall went up, Couchsurfing says that it had tested, to “minimal success,” more than 10 different ways to fund the company, which included, “permitting members to charge for hosting, asking surfers to pay a nominal fee when confirming a stay, negotiated advertising and sponsorships, affiliate partnerships (Couchsurfing getting paid when members purchased something we promoted), selling merchandise, a Couchsurfing cryptocurrency/blockchain, and more.”
“We apologize. Sincerely. Genuinely. From our hearts. We are sorry.”
Despite this flailing, Couchsurfing’s spokesperson claims that the company “would have been financially sustainable if not for the pandemic.” In a mid-May 2020 announcement of the paywall, the company told members, “Given the challenging realities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Couchsurfing will soon be unable to meet our financial obligations. We have reduced the size of our team, taken pay cuts, eliminated or renegotiated all contracts, eliminated our physical office space (we are now a 100% remote workforce), and applied for COVID-19 relief funds.”
To access the platform, most members had to pay $2.39 per month, or $14.29 per year. It seemed like it was meant to be a permanent shift. “Your member contributions will be used to support Couchsurfing through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” the company wrote in the announcement. Immediately, there were questions about whether the way the paywall was implemented was in compliance with European Union data law, known as GDPR, which stipulates that people have a right to access their personal data.
“What Couchsurfing did — changing the model such that even people that already had an account then suddenly need to pay to access their own data — I haven’t heard of before,” says Sarah Eskens, an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Under GDPR, you always have a right to access your [personal] data, regardless of the specific business model.” An internet user’s personal data is meant to be easily accessible to them, Eskens says, and having to request it by emailing the company can be extremely inefficient.
GDPR also generally allows an internet user to request that a company delete the personal data that the company has about them; if there’s even one Couchsurfing member who hasn’t been able to get their data taken down from the site within the timeframe required by the GDPR, she says, that might mean Couchsurfing is “in breach of the GDPR.” Couchsurfing’s spokesperson says that the company “consulted with highly qualified legal counsel that specializes in GDPR and privacy rights best practices to ensure that Couchsurfing remained in compliance with all GDPR and other privacy rights best practices.”
The implementation of the paywall led to waves of backlash. The original Couchsurfing crew, many of whom are still close with each other, began discussing it in their message chains. Even Fenton, who is cautious when asked about any period after Hoffer stepped down as CEO, describes it as “not ideal.”
Couchsurfing admitted it had botched the paywall rollout a week after it did it. “Looking back, not informing you of such a drastic change was a mistake,” the company wrote in a letter to the community. “For that, we apologize. Sincerely. Genuinely. From our hearts. We are sorry.” The letter, signed “The Couchsurfing Team,” never mentions Dugan by name. It wrapped up with the disclosure that “it is frustrating to have our intentions called into question which is why we’ve spilled our heart out to you now.”
Two days after the paywall was announced on Couchsurfing, Itsi Weinstock, a 25-year-old Australian, texted his friend Aapeli Vuorinen. Within 15 minutes, they’d decided to build Couchers.org. Their plans are based on close study of Couchsurfing’s history. “We have clauses that stop us transferring assets to other organizations that are not nonprofits,” says Weinstock. Their code is open source and they plan to integrate the community into the governance structure so that the leaders can’t go rogue.
Couchers is not Couchsurfing’s only competitor. More than a decade old, BeWelcome has more than 160,000 members. It’s registered as a nonprofit in France, is run democratically by volunteers, and kept its operating costs below $3,500 in 2020. Its way of doing things has caused some friction though. “If you’re absolutely democratic, decisions take a long time,” says Anja Kühner, a spokesperson for BeWelcome.
Trustroots has seen an influx of new signups, which one founder credits to the outrage many Couchsurfers felt over the paywall.
A group of BeWelcome volunteers, frustrated by these inefficiencies, split off in 2014 to form Trustroots, which now has more than 60,000 members. Mikael Korpela, one of the founders, says Trustroots’ membership should have flatlined or decreased during the pandemic. Instead, it’s seen an influx of new signups, which Korpela credits to the outrage many Couchsurfers felt over the paywall.
Weinstock and Vuorinen like to talk about Couchsurfing in the past tense, but the site remains a monolith in hospitality exchange. Vaccinated hosts in America are starting to take in Couchsurfers again, and there are still Couchsurfing community meetups happening around the world.
The company has also stepped back from its initial announcement that the paywall would continue to fund them “through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.” Asked how Couchsurfing planned to compete with free services, its spokesperson says, “We are looking forward to eventually ending Couchsurfing’s contribution program once the pandemic fully subsides.”
For longtime members mulling whether to go back on the site once they’re ready to hit the road or host surfers again, the persistence of the paywall might be a deciding factor. “I think I’ll always be a couchsurfer,” says Roberts, the St. John’s professor. “I don't know if I’ll always use Couchsurfing.com.”