Start Up Lessons From Backpacking

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hurriyet Daily News (click)

Next time you’re planning a trip to a faraway city, and you’re feeling lost just searching for the right hotel, think of this:  You could sleep on someone’s couch instead.

It’s called “couchsurfing”, and there’s even a website for it, www.couchsurfing.org. CouchSurfing is a free service, and it has grown quickly into the world’s largest hospitality exchange network.  Its members offer their couches or spare beds to travelers from around the globe.

Here’s the story of how CouchSurfing got started: The founder, Casey Fenton, got the idea after finding a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland.  Rather than stay at a hostel, Fenton randomly emailed 1500 University of Iceland students and asked if they would let him stay with them during the trip.  He received more than fifty offers of free accommodation!  Later, on the return flight to Boston, he started to develop the ideas that would eventually become the CouchSurfing project.

Couchsurfing has some things to teach us about entrepreneurship and life in general.

First, couchsurfing reminds us to build our networks before we need them.  Don’t think you’re just going to logon to the CouchSurfing website the night before your plane leaves for Caracas and quickly find a place to stay for free.

The CouchSurfing project encourages its members to participate in the community first, before they try finding free places to stay in other cities. CouchSurfing organizes casual get-togethers in cities around the world, and new members typically start attending these first, getting to know the community, and letting the community get to know them.

CouchSurfing also has an excellent system for evaluating its members, starting by verifying their identity and then allowing them to write references and to “vouch” for each other. I have a few friends who are actively traveling the world with this system, and they began participating in the community long before they began their trips.

Whatever kind of entrepreneurial venture you have planned, start building a network around it at least a year before you actually need the network. This will be a great way to meet your customers and to do market research, too.  What better way to get to know your customers and their needs, than to practice serving them in some context for a whole year before you actually start your business?

The second thing we can learn from couchsurfing is that when you lack money, you can make up for it in creativity. Couchsurfers know that in order to travel the world, you don’t have to spend tons of money on fancy hotels.  You just need people who are willing to let you stay in their homes for free.  And how do you do that?  You remind the hosts of the richness that will come into their lives when they open their homes to the international community, and you remind the travelers of the richness that will come into their lives when they trade impersonal hotel rooms for new friends and eye-opening life experiences.

Almost every startup is short on cash, but imaginative ones figure out how to reach their customers even when cash is tight. The end result is often a richer experience for both the startup and its customers too, because there is no room to cover up problems with money.

The third thing we can learn from couchsurfing is that entrepreneurship is more than just starting a business.
Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking, it is a way of living.  Casey Fenton was flying back home after a weekend crashing on peoples’ couches in Iceland, and he let one kernel of inspiration lead him to build a platform that would end up connecting millions of people around the world.

Entrepreneurship isn’t about patents, and venture capital, and burn rates and market share. It is about seeing untapped potential, and finding creative ways to bring that potential to life.  And as did the founder of CouchSurfing, you will find that the person who helps the world unleash that potential will be surrounded by a large crowd of admiring people who happily owe a debt of gratitude.

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