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From Couch Potato to Couch Surfer

The next great billion-dollar concept on the Web might just involve airbed mattresses, second-hand couches and the ability to swap and share local accommodations on a global scale. A group of Web-based startups led by CouchSurfing, Airbnb and One Fine Stay are starting to disrupt the online travel space in much the same way that companies like Expedia, Kayak and Trip Advisor disrupted the offline travel space years ago. At a time when the dominant zeitgeist calls for sharing, collaboration and connecting with others on a local scale, it’s perhaps not surprising that nimble Web start-ups founded on these very principles are starting to raise the alarm bells at some of the leading names of the hospitality world.

At the heart of this disruptive change is the powerful concept of Collaborative Consumption, which has been most elegantly prosletyzed by Roo Rogers and Rachel Botsman. In the online travel space, companies are building on the basic notion that travelers to far-flung locales sometimes just want a place to crash for the night while hanging out with the locals. CouchSurfing, for example, bills itself as a worldwide network of travelers who are interested in meaningful cultural adventures and friendships. If you’ve ever done an international home stay, you get the basic idea — instead of staying in an impersonal hotel eating Western versions of the local dishes, you get to stay in a “real” home and meet “real” people and sample “real” cuisine. So why not experience the “un-hotel”?

One of the most promising of these online travel pioneers is Airbnb, which has been touted as the next great billion-dollar company and the “eBay of physical space.” The concept is simple – people want to visit a city and need a bed to crash in, but don’t want to pay full market rate for a cookie-cutter experience. So they hook up with a local in the city via the Internet and get a room that’s much cheaper than available elsewhere. What started off as a concept that could disrupt the bed-and-breakfast industry is now emerging as a distinct threat to the biggest names of the hospitality industry.

Remember, truly disruptive innovations always start at the low end: that’s Clayton Christensen 101.That’s how powerful the concept of collaborative consumption is in the travel space — sites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing started as ways to share accommodations nearly anywhere in the world, geared to travelers with smaller discretionary incomes. If you like to stay at a 5-star St. Regis, this is probably not the place to start looking. (But the choices are certainly intriguing, especially if you’re visiting a city with a dearth of rooms for business visitors).

If eBay started by selling pez dispensers to fans, though, it’s not an entirely absurd notion to think that an online travel company that started as a way to share airbed mattresses could evolve into something much more than that.

The problem is that it is not always possible to identify truly disruptive innovators in advance. Even the highly-regarded venture capitalist Fred Wilson has admitted publicly on his blog that he passed on Airbnb, seeing it as an interesting concept but one that would have a difficult time growing into a billion-dollar market behemoth. Now, he’s an ardent supporter. There’s definitely something there in the whole sharing concept – keep in mind that the $75 million Zipcar IPO is on tap this week – perhaps the strongest proof point yet that the concept of sharing and collaborating around physical goods and space has a very strong and enduring future.


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