No, Couchsurfing.com is not in financial trouble… Yet.
On June 19th, I published a analysis of the CS finances (sheet) , predicting that CS (technically it’s actually just Casey) would be able to hire 3 to 5 extra “employees” by the end of this year. It happened a lot quicker than I thought however (Jim Stone and Mattthew Brauer got hired as well as a thus far unannounced and unnamed developer). This is the part where I say “See! i was right!” and continue speculating.
Let’s have a look at where this money comes from. As far as we know, there is only one source of income for Couchsurfing: donations. This is logical, since there are no banner ads, no paid subscriptions or anything and Couchsurfing has been unable to register as a 501(c)3 organisation in the US so far, which excludes the organisation (actually, just Casey and his friends, since there is no officially elected board) from US government money.
But! Surely people that (mostly) like to travel cheaply cannot afford to collectively donate over 150.000 $ a year (projected for 2007)?!? You’re right. They aren’t donating, they are “getting verified” at 25$ per person (or less if you can prove you live in a poor area of the world). Verification is essentially proving to CS that you are who you say you are and nothing talks like money. If it was just verification they were offering, money wouldn’t need to be involved. I’ve heard of CS meetings where you could bring a passport and 25$ to get verified by an admin. Why would you need to pay if you could just show your passport and be done with it? Because, of course, this verification/donation scam is the main revenue stream for CS. Yes, a scam. If CS was genuinly interested in getting people verified for “security reasons”, a showing of passports would be more than enough. However, I have thus far never met anybody who was able to get verified without paying cold hard cash. The administrative cost of sending you a “verification code” is also negligable, a 2$ “donation” would be much closer to the actual need since all the physical posting is done by volunteers anyway.
In and of itself, this verification/donation scam is mostly harmless, even if the “sliding scale verification” is pretty cynical if you really think about it. (We’re asking people to pay as much as they can affor, so they can “prove” their identities and get the same benefits as those who can afford it, how’s that for intercultural understanding.) I mean, even I fell for it and payed to get verified. Then why is it such a problem?
The trouble is that verification money scales directly with new subscriptions to CS. This in turn means that CS can only continue to afford paying people like Jim Stone if people keep registering (and verifying) at the current rate. This definitely explains why there is so much “verification spam” on CS (visible when you haven’t “verified/donated” yet). If at any point the amount of new users starts to slow down, verification/donation money will automatically slow down as well. If CS ever hits the peak of possible subscribers, income will fall, rapidly. Subsequently, Couchsurfing cannot afford it’s employees anymore and soon it will be in real trouble.
How likely is this? Well, Hospitality Club seems to have hit it’s high point already, with subscriptions slowing down significantly. We can only assume that it’s only a matter of a year or 2 (at the most) before the same thing happens to CS, since both organisations tap more or less the same userbase.
At that point – as they say – things will start falling apart. CS will be practically forced to work with volunteers again at the “top of the food chain”, which no doubt will cause enormous amounts of stress on the tightly formed group that is privately running CS right now. Note that Casey is not preparing “his” organisation for this. It doesn’t appear that any of the donation money is being saved (for instance by not hiring Jim and Mattthew but opening a savings account) and long-term thinking doesn’t appear to be a strength of the organisation anyway. Couchsurfing is technically running on “borrowed” time, on finances that will only last as long as new users keep coming in.
An organisation like CS almost has to run on volunteers, unless it drastically changes its business model. So, either we see banner ads, “payed subscriptions”, “golden accounts”, regular “donation drives” or whatever or we’re going to see a financial breakdown. When that happens, and it most likely will, we’ll be here to pick up the pieces.