In the age of the billion-person social network, it can be challenging to use digital tools to find authentic, trustworthy communities.
As The Kernel observed, that became a daunting obstacle for Couchsurfing, the fast-growing quasi-nonprofit-turned-startup that connects couches with people looking for a place to sleep. The company has endured layoffs, uncertainty, and criticism in recent years.
The need to create legitimate communities amid billions of connections is a problem unique to the digital age — and one local startup thinks it has the solution.
Seattle-based Horizon helps travelers find places to stay based on existing networks, like clubs, religious organizations, graduating classes, and more. It follows the Couchsurfing model but aims to tackle the its trust and scale problems by connecting people in existing groups.
“The goal is to make community accessible wherever in the world you may be,” said Horizon CEO Drew Meyers. “We believe a world experienced face-to-face is a better world than when experienced through a screen.”
Horizon, which launched in March, has endured a long journey. Meyers’ original concept was a sort of Foursquare for travelers called Oh Hey World. He and his team realized their model wasn’t scalable and spent several years consulting and learning more about the location-based community field.
“During that time, we got enough conviction for the private hospitality exchange concept to warrant investing in building an entirely new product,” he said.
We caught up with Meyers for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature:
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Couchsurfing/Airbnb with friends, friends of friends, and communities. Or, ‘Uber Night’ as my stepdad says.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Late in 2013, we got in deep discussions with a large community of young professionals who desired their own private hospitality exchange network. While building a custom one-off solution wasn’t reasonable price-wise, it led us to dig into all the other types of communities (fraternities, colleges, high school graduation classes, service fellowships, religious/faith organizations) which could benefit from a simpler way to find members by geography with the goal of meeting in real life. We ultimately realized solving the ‘why use it’ with ‘to find a place to stay’ was the way to address a massive pain point for the 200 million millennials that travel every year. Some of the product inspiration came from Trover, another Seattle travel startup.
For Oh Hey World, the earliest inspiration came from my personal frustration trying to find those working in the microfinance industry while I traveled, and realizing their had to be a more efficient way to find like-minded people in new cities. A longer version of the story is available here.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrapped, but now that we have a product in market we are speaking to angels.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Deep understanding of community. I’ve been doing this for a decade professionally, and before that, informally. No matter what anyone says, true ‘community’ does not exist online. Community comes from in-person interactions, experiences, and friendships — over an extended period of time.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Deciding to start over completely, product wise, once we decided to pursue building our current private hospitality exchange offering — and rebranding to Horizon. It would have slowed us down considerably had we tried to morph our original Oh Hey World offering into the product you see today.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We’ve made many mistakes along the way, probably too many to count. We built for my personal use case, without receiving strong early validation from customers. Location sharing proved to only be a problem to the long term traveler crowd (niche segment). Once that realization came to the forefront, we began tacking on features as added incentives to check-in. The end result was a massively bloated product offering that didn’t do any one thing particularly well.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Horizon is all about people, so we’d have to take Zuckerberg because he’s managed to connect a billion people.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Travel, no surprise. We spent nine days over Christmas traveling to Buenos Aires and Uruguay with some friends. We believe travel is the best team-building exercise in existence.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “There’s no replacing passion for travel and community in our business. If making money is the reason you get up in the morning, Horizon is not the place for you.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Learn the industry you aim to conquer before starting your journey. If I did it over again, I would probably have spent a year or two working at an established company in the travel vertical to learn the ins and outs of the industry and build a base of connections on someone else’s dime rather than my own. Knowing the consumer win you aim to deliver is one thing; knowing the industry dynamics required to deliver on that is quite another.”