What becoming a B Corp means for Couchsurfing


Published on 11/1/2010

By now you may have heard the news that Couchsurfing is becoming a B (Benefit) Corp, a new type of socially responsible corporation.

We’ve been working on this change for the last few months but we couldn’t make any announcements until we knew for sure that it was all going to work. Now, it has and I’m so glad to finally be able to talk with you about it! This transition to a B Corp is a huge change but it’s something I’m very excited about and something I know is going to mean great things for Couchsurfing.

The biggest benefit will be the flexibility that B Corp status brings us. It means that we can run much more efficiently and meet the needs of the Couchsurfing community even better. We will have the resources that we need to achieve our vision and mission, and the freedom to innovate. We’ll be able to make even more improvements to the website, ensuring that it’s fun and easy to use. And Couchsurfers can expect to see more great features and tools that will make it even easier to host, surf and connect with the community!

Becoming a B Corp doesn’t mean that we’re going to become obsessed with profits. That never has been and will not be our primary focus in the future. In fact, becoming a B Corp means that instead of having just the one bottom line of making a profit, as in the case of a regular corporation, we are required to have multiple bottom lines. We will be accountable to all the people who have a stake in Couchsurfing: our members, volunteers, staff and our investors. To us, our members have always been our priority, but now being a B Corp requires us to make them a priority too — they’re officially recognized as stakeholders.

I’m really excited about this change but even so, it wasn’t a decision we came to easily. The rest of the team and I did a lot of research and a lot of soul-searching. We were definitely concerned that not being a non-profit would make it harder to achieve our goal of creating a better world. And, after so many years trying to get 501c3 status we knew we had to find a legal structure that would work for us even better.

We interviewed many experts about all of the options available to us. We talked to B Lab, the non-profit who created the B Corp structure, to make sure that we were the right fit for each other, and they agreed that we were. As Jordan Chazin, Ratings Associate and part of the standards and certification team at B Lab, explained:

We’re definitely excited to have you on board for a number of reasons… One of the most interesting things that I learned about CouchSurfing was how well you treat your employees, and that everyone who works there is actually a CouchSurfer themselves. It just seems like a really interesting place and you fit well with the kind of companies we are trying to get to become B Corps. CouchSurfing holds a lot of the same values that we’re trying to instill in companies.

After comparing the options, it was clearly the winner. It’s the structure that will allow us the greatest flexibility to achieve our vision in the shortest period of time. It will allow us to provide better features, support and information for our existing members, and reach more and more people. Ultimately, reaching more people is what will help us achieve our vision of creating a better world.

So what exactly is a B Corp?

Published on 9/1/2010

In response to the need to fill a gap between non-profits and corporations, B Lab created the B Corp certification. This is part of a larger investment industry trend towards socially responsible investing: investment in businesses that considers social or environmental issues as important as making a profit. Organizations that are B Corps are often created by “social entrepreneurs.”

Ultimately, social entrepreneurs are driven to produce measurable impact by opening up new pathways for the marginalized and disadvantaged, and unlocking society’s full potential to effect social change. From Social Entrepreneurship Law

I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Couchsurfing, and becoming a B Corp will help us in achieving that vision. Our vision is that our community produce a measurable impact on the world by creating a shift in how people view each other. We want more and more people to explore and connect, and come to appreciate cultural diversity. Becoming a B Corp will allow us to use the power and resources of business to do that on a larger scale. In a way, every Couchsurfer who helps us reach our vision is a social entrepreneur.

A traditional corporate model doesn’t work for us. Normal corporate structures can only have one bottom line: profit, and are legally required to do whatever it takes to maximize profits for their shareholders, regardless of other factors. B Corps, on the other hand, are commonly referred to as “triple bottom line” corporations, where people, the planet and revenue are given equal value. Our priorities are our community and our vision, and B Corp gives us the protection so that we can keep it that way. As they explain on their website:

so what exactly is a bcorp

The B Corporation legal framework bakes your values into the DNA of the company.

Like any other organization that wants to become a B Corp, we had to take and pass a B Impact Ratings System test that sets the bar for the social and environmental impact of good companies. Once we passed that we then had to adopt the B Corporation Legal Framework. This is what helps us know we’re keeping the promises we’ve made. Lastly we had to sign a Term Sheet and Declaration of Interdependence where we promise to provide all the necessary documentation to prove that we’re honoring our B Corp requirements. That made our certification official.

And, we’ve got more strategies for us to demonstrate our transparency. We will complete a 200 point audit split across five categories, and we will have to score a minimum of 80 every year to keep our B Corp status. Jordan Chazin, Ratings Associate, part of the standards and certification team at B Corp says of their audit system:

We needed to develop a set of metrics and standards by which companies could measure themselves against themselves, their respective industries and other companies. We’re really trying to instill best social and environmental practices in companies. One way is through the self awareness of measuring.

At the moment we’re scoring over 106.8 which is above average for companies of our size and type. Not only is it really encouraging to hear that we’re already doing a good job, it’s also really inspiring to have a clear idea of where we can improve.

The breakdown of our score is available on our profile page on the B Corporation website for anyone who wants to see it, and we will be looking to improve it year after year. We will know which areas we need to proactively work on to become better and better.

To describe the value of these stringent terms that an organization has to meet to achieve and adhere to their B certification, B Lab explains on their website that:

B Corporation makes it easier to recognize a good company, and to tell the difference between a good company and good marketing.

Jay Coen Gilbert, one of the B Lab founders, goes on to explain, “B Corps are redefining success in business.” This is a really interesting statement if you pause and take a look at it. Here are two words, “success,” and “business,” that at least in my home culture in the US are generally used to talk about things like personal prestige and economic gain. Redefining those terms, as Jay suggests, to include the community, the membership, staff, and everyone else affected by a company’s actions can really cause change. It reminds me a lot of the idea behind CouchSurfing. In our community, we believe that every small interaction between human beings adds up to make the world a better place. At B Corp, they believe that every company should act just as conscientiously as CouchSurfers do. They want to create a structure that helps all of us that want to do good do even better, and they believe that the effects of this will add up one by one. I really feel that CouchSurfing has found a philosophical home with this movement.

There is an interesting TEDx talk where Jay Coen Gilbert discusses what a positive impact B Corps are having on the world, and if you want to learn more about B Lab and and B Corporation I encourage you to take a look at their website. You can see in more detail what it takes to achieve B Corp status, and see some of the other innovative socially responsible companies that have joined so far. I know we’re in good company.

How we created Couchsurfing’s mission and vision statements

Published on 6/1/2010

In 2003 I was at my mother’s office desk filling in the forms to incorporate CouchSurfing. One of the questions on the forms was “What is your mission?” I’d been thinking about Couchsurfing for years so I had an intuitive sense of what it could do for the world, I just couldn’t quite articulate what the CS mission should be. Just like you might write down on a napkin, I wrote:

“CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.”

The mission statement came from the heart, but it wasn’t all that useful. It captured the feeling of what we were trying to create, but it didn’t help us know what exactly we should be spending our time on.

For a few years Couchsurfing was run out of collectives (live/work spaces for our earlier volunteers), and the first one was in Montreal. About six months into the collective we had a huge computer crash that devastated our systems to the point we felt we might not recover. In true CouchSurfing spirit the members rallied round to make sure we did. Their messages of support and demands of “No! You can’t stop the site!” really energized all the volunteers and helped us get back on our feet, and it proved the perfect opportunity to reassess what our mission should be. We asked the volunteers to spend a few hours thinking about the mission statement and we came up with version 2.0 — “Creating a better world one couch at a time.”

We liked it a lot, it’s on our website even now, but it still didn’t really help guide us enough. It was a slogan that was useful in attracting people, but it didn’t help us in knowing what to do and what not to do. People had their own ideas of what should be a priority and what shouldn’t, and it could be argued that almost everything would fit into the mission in some way. This meant that people were taking lots of little steps in lots of different directions. What we wanted was to take big, coordinated steps towards helping Couchsurfing achieve something greater.

The founders started researching what a mission statement was exactly. We read a lot of books and online texts on how to create one. What we found was that there were really two different concepts: a vision statement and a mission statement. It seemed that more sophisticated organizations had both. The vision statement should be what we wanted the world to look like and the mission statement was how we were going to get there. We started distinguishing between the two and that helped us move towards finding our compass.

We decided that what we really needed was input from our members, so we examined the mission statements on their profiles and what was being said in the testimonials. From that we created word clouds.

We could see that the word clouds contained lots of great concepts, but which one was the most important? After studying them for a long time we realized that the concepts were logically related, and that they made a causal chain where one event in the chain causes the next. CouchSurfing’s looked like this:

Explore → connect → appreciate diversity

We were so excited, because we realized it was Couchsurfing that enabled this chain to happen.

During the Thai collective we wrote the first draft of the vision and mission statements as you see them on the site now. We took them to twenty or so people of varying backgrounds and got back lots of changes and recommendations. We repeated this until we got back fewer and fewer changes. Then, we took them to about a thousand members and non-members, until we got to where 90% of people agreed with both statements. We were really surprised that the number was that high and knew this meant that the statements were probably as good as we could possibly get them.

We shared them with the community on the website in 2009 and since then they have helped us determine what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t. Knowing our long-term vision has helped a lot – it has helped us agree upon where we’re going and it has provided a framework for us to work within. We always knew we wanted to create a better world. Now we knew exactly how Couchsurfing could contribute.

So how do the vision and mission statements relate to what we do every day?

Well, our vision statement is the goal we’re aiming for. It’s how we want the world to look — an understanding world where people respect and appreciate each other’s differences. Our mission is what we’re doing as an organization to get to the vision. We have a list of different goals that help us move towards that mission. We also have a list of projects that help us move towards each one of these goals. And, we have a list of tasks associated with those projects. These tasks are what we do every day. Our mission statement is something that we can change if we ever discover a better way to accomplish our goals. The vision (which is the statement of those goals) should never change.

If you haven’t already, I hope you take the time to read the Couchsurfing vision and mission statements. I’d love to hear what you think about them.

Couchsurfing’s vision

Published on 2/1/2010

“A world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.”

At a time when it was considered dangerous for Westerners to visit Egypt, I traveled there and had a truly life-changing experience. One evening I was welcomed, along with a friend, into the home of a woman and her three daughters. We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us, and we couldn’t speak the same language. Yet, they fed and entertained us, and gave us somewhere to sleep. Why did they do that? Why did we trust them? If everything we’re taught to believe about ‘other’ people is true, we should have feared each other for our differences. Instead, we ate and and took shelter together. I got to see an Egypt I would never have otherwise seen, and to meet people I would never have otherwise met.

The experience showed me that people are naturally curious, and that if we provide them with the right tools, they’ll actively seek to meet those different from themselves. Two years ago we wrote out a very specific vision statement. I’ve seen it in action, and I believe it’s powerful and speaks clearly to what we’re aiming for as a community at Couchsurfing.

Our vision says we want people to explore, connect and have inspiring experiences, and that we believe this will help create a better world. An inspiring experience is fun, or “magnetic,” but also provides the opportunity for personal growth. Sharing an experience with someone who is similar to you might be magnetic, but does it challenge you or help you grow? What about sharing experiences with people who are different from you? I believe the more familiar we become with diversity, the more likely we are to approach strangers with curiosity rather than fear. The more friends we make with people from different countries and cultures, the more understanding and compassion we will have for those differences. In a world where people have many different friends from all over the globe, what do you imagine will happen when conflict arises? Will we react towards our friends with fear and anger, or with a desire to understand them and find a peaceful resolution? I think that with each inspiring experience Couchsurfing helps create, we move ever closer to achieving our vision of a better, more understanding world.

But, creating inspiring experiences isn’t always easy. My trip to Egypt was so wonderful that I thought all travel would be like that. I visited a many US and European cities in the early part of 1999 and found it difficult to make any connections. I left feeling unfulfilled. It turns out I had been very lucky in Egypt — inspiring experiences don’t just happen. I realized then that it takes the right combination of people and activities to make them inspiring. Is it possible for Couchsurfing to do this on a scale large enough to reach our vision of creating a better world? I’ve been asking myself this question since Couchsurfing first launched back in 2004, and I believe we can.