Spamming Bjork – can I stay on your couch?

Published on 3/1/2010

In the year 2000 I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland for a long weekend. I knew I wanted to build a website, and that it would connect travelers with local residents who were willing to host them. But, I didn’t know what that website would look like or if it was even something people would be interested in.

I knew from experience that people could be open to hosting someone they had met socially, even if they hadn’t know them very long, but to host a stranger off the Internet? I didn’t know about that.

I was about to get the perfect opportunity to experiment. I found an off-season ticket to Reykjavik on a Monday that was a bargain-price if you could leave Friday and return Monday. Iceland was always somewhere I had wanted to go. I love rugged and unique landscapes, particularly those in northern climates, and flying there suddenly for a long weekend seemed like fantastic adventure. At the time Iceland was the second most expensive country in the world and even hostels were more than I could afford. I definitely needed to see if I could stay with someone for free and discover once and for all how to make CouchSurfing possible.

I didn’t know where to start trying to find someone to ask if I could stay on their couch. I tried Googling “Icelandic website” and contacting the owners of the sites. I wrote a nice email introducing myself, telling them that I would love to come to Iceland and stay on their couch. I can’t imagine what they thought of a young American man randomly emailing them and asking to stay on their couch, but needless to say, by Wednesday I had received zero responses.

In another search I stumbled across a student directory for the University of Iceland. After a little digging I figured out that if you could search for people’s email addresses by either their first or last name. I think this would be a privacy issue today! So, I had found a way to get in touch with people, but the question was “who?” I didn’t know any Icelandic names… but, then I realized, “Björk”! She’s famous, she’s Icelandic. It’s worth a shot. Sure enough, there were a handful of women with the same name. Then I was really on a roll because as I looked at the last names in the list, a pattern emerged. I did some research and I learned Icelandic people take their last name from the first name of their father. So, for example, the son of a man named Ísar would have the last name Ísarsson, and the daughter the last name Ísardóttir. Once I understood this, every time I saw a new last name I would take the first part of it and plug it into the search again. I repeated this process until In the end I had gathered about 1,500 names and email addresses.

I thought that maybe part of the reason I had been unsuccessful with the website owners was because I hadn’t made my emails personal enough. I had to make a more personal connection this time to give myself any chance of receiving some responses, and not be dismissed as spam. I knew I had to seem not only trustworthy but interesting enough to bother meeting.

If there was any way to know anything about these people, I would have written individual messages. But all I had was their names — I had no idea who they were or what they were interested in. So I had to do my best with what I had. I created a mail merge to make sure that each email used the person’s name. Then I wrote all about myself: where I was from, what I did for a living, what I was hoping to see in Iceland and links back to my own website so they could see what I looked like. I did everything I could to make make the letter seem as personal as possible. I even made sure to use their name at the beginning and end of the letter in the hope of making a better connection somehow. All 1,500 were sent in a matter of minutes. All I could do was sit back and hope for the best.

After a couple of hours responses started coming in, and they ranged from ordinary invites to hang out and get a beer, to staying in a house made of volcanic rock, and drinking vodka in the nearby hot springs. I was excited because people seemed very eager to offer up ideas of what we could do together and to open up their homes to me. Now I had the opposite problem. Too many awesome opportunities to choose from. But, it had worked! My experiment had shown me that there were people who were more than willing to host a traveler they had never met, they were really happy to do it. The idea could obviously appeal to hosts as much as it did to travelers. It seemed as long as you put the effort in to fully describe yourself and show yourself to be a sound and interesting person, then people were eager and excited by the prospect of meeting you.