Meet one of our dearest members, Darren Overby. He is one of our beloved Treehouse Society members who found the Hostel Management. He founded HostelManagement.com in 2004 in the hopes to contribute management tools for potential hostel owners and workers internationally. His passion for sharing information, software, and technology to the hostel industry has developed into the #1 website for finding and sharing resources in the hostel industry. Read more about his intriguing and successful story!
What industry is your company in?
Hostels and budget travel.
Tell us about your background and how that led you to what you do today?
I have always had a curious fascination for the world. I used to love road trip vacations with my parents but I always wanted to go further. I was told international travel was expensive and beyond the financial reach of most people. Still, I used to spin the globe, stop it with a finger, and wonder what it was like in far off lands. Was it day or night? What language was being spoken? What would be the talk of the town at the moment? As soon as I was able, I joined the Navy since it was the only way I knew how to travel internationally without being rich.
While in the Navy we cruised to Townsville Australia. A friend Dave and I went scuba diving on Magnetic Island and met two beautiful and friendly Swedish women. At the end of our diving day, we missed the ferry to the mainland. It was then the Swedish women introduced us to the concept of a hostel. “A hospital?” we asked. “No, a hostel!” As it turned out, the place where we rented our scuba equipment was a hostel. Soon after that, as Dave and I settled in for a beer, I had my mind blown by the possibilities of travel. Backpackers began streaming to the hostel picnic tables with their round the world travel tales with little to no money. I was so excited. These backpackers were proof that I could travel the world on the extreme budget of a backpacker. Hostels would make my dreams of world travel possible.
Over the next 8 months or so, I become enthralled by the freedom of adventure that these international backpackers exhibited and I began spending my free moments reading books such as "Europe Through the Back Door" by Rick Steves and "Work Your Way Around the World" by Susan Griffith. I had planned to sell all my things of value (tools, cameras, etc) to fund my trip, however, my car was broken into and I lost everything. After selling my car I only had $1600 to my name. Still, I was determined. I got a one-way air courier flight to London and just like that, I was off. At first, my financial situation in Europe was a little scary. It became apparent that if I wanted to stay in Europe I would need to find work and fast and frequently as possible. Hostels turned out to be great little employment agencies for me. I volunteered to clean or do odd jobs at every hostel. Sometimes work was available to me, and sometimes it wasn’t. However, hostel receptionists frequently thought of me when the odd job was available. Sometimes a job would last only for a few hours and sometimes it would be a week but it was always interesting and afforded me a sense of freedom to roam from place to place that was fantastic.
If you have read this far, I should say there’s something I haven’t mentioned in the previous stories. I was painfully shy and always felt socially awkward and I knew it. It had always been a personal mission of mine to get over my inhibitions. Hostels helped me overcome this in two ways. First of all, people in hostels are for the most part VERY social and friendly. Hostels are the easiest place in the world to meet new friends. Second, the community in a hostel is constantly changing. As a shy person, I tended to be afraid of saying or doing something that I would be embarrassed by or chastised for. Since the community in a hostel is constantly changing I was able to “try myself on for size” and when I did I found people were not repulsed by my true nature, my true sense of humor. They were attracted to it! I highly recommend hostels for all shy people.
Eventually, I met the owner of the Inverness Student Hotel who offered me a job at his other hostel in Edinburgh called High Street Hostel. At the time, Peter MacMillan was a young ambitious entrepreneur making his way in the hostel industry. He was also a talented carpenter. Peter was very only with me about his business and let me travel back and forth between Edinburgh and Inverness. I learned a lot from Peter.
Scotland and Peter’s hostel became my base for further European adventures. I still worked along the way but I was learning new techniques for extending my travel budget. One strategy was researching for a travel guidebook. I found a book called Youth Accommodation Centres International on a hostel book exchange shelf. It was a self-published directory of hostels from Malta. I wrote to the publisher and asked if I could be a field researcher for his book. He sent me a letter attesting to this fact. Now I was able to call hostels in advance and tell them I was a “guidebook researcher”. This enabled me to stay for free at many hostels. Although, the book only listed hostel name, address and phone number I took notes about each hostel's facilities, amenities, and atmosphere. What I learned is a hostel's facilities and amenities were no indication of its atmosphere. Some hostels had a vibrant social atmosphere and others were devoid of “soul”. I studied what attributes (both operational and architectural) were correlated with a hostel’s community vibe. I would later apply this to my own hostel.
In Europe, I experienced humanity in a way I had not experienced during my upbringing in the US. When I made the decision to come back to my home country I was bound and determined to either find or create a hostel community in the US. I wanted to experience the life I had in Europe and make a living doing it. My first stop was Manhattan. I was totally broke when I arrived in Europe and again needed a job.
I decided the community and like-minded people I was looking for was most likely to exist in San Francisco. I asked my girlfriend, who I met in Scotland if she wanted to go to San Francisco with me to start a hostel. She had just graduated and said, “sure, I don’t have anything better to do!” Together we took somebody else’s car, by way of a Driveway, and drove to San Francisco. Within about a year, a proposal to many landlords and lots of trips to various city departments I managed to start our small hostel. Here I was able to test my various theories about creating a genuine and social community of international travelers. After 20 years, I’ve learned that what people say they want and what people REALLY want can be very different things. We operate from the premise that most people are inherently shy and need and appreciate a little help to be social with others. Our hostel is very unlike other hostels but it has an intensely social community that has a loyal and enthusiast following.
Back in 1992, I was already involved in the internet. I was intrigued by the possibility of people of the world communicating with each other and sharing what they know. Because I knew and was passionate about hostels I decided to write Frequently Asked Questions about Hostelling which was hosted on rec-travel libraries by Brian Lucas on Gopher servers at the University of Manitoba. At the bottom of the FAQ was my email address and I encouraged people to write me if they had further questions. I found the questions I received were along the lines of “do you know any other hostels in __________?” I learned that while there were about 11 hosteling organizations in the world and each of these organizations published book directories of hostels - they only listed hostels belonging to THEIR organization. I felt this was a problem. I decided there needed to be a database of ALL hostels. So I used my knowledge of computers and created “Hostels.com - The Internet Guide to Hostelling”.
After 27 years in business, I now operate HostelManagement.com (a website to help other people start hostels), HostelJobs.net (a website for people to find jobs in hostels) and OurHostels.com (a website for travelers to find and direct book hostels). We provide information and software to help their hostel be profitable.
Who is your role model?
Elon Musk - because he sees some important problem in the world and works hard to solve them
What makes your company special?
Rather than be just another online travel agency like booking.com or hostelworld.com (sites that end up costing travelers 15-25% more on every booking). We provide hostels with the tools and knowledge to control their destiny and receive more direct bookings. We also help travelers find and direct book hostels to save money.
What are your biggest achievements and/or failures?
Building several lifestyle businesses without the use of investors that give me the freedom to do whatever I want to do.
How did you end up in Treehouse Society and why did you decide to stay longer?
The coworking business I tried never worked as well as the Treehouse Society because it ended up catching on fire in the middle of the night, unfortunately. I wanted to find coworking space where it wasn’t too big like WeWork. Because then, everyone is just minding their own business but I liked the small friendly community that Treehouse has to offer. This is one of the reasons why I decided to stay longer with Treehouse. Another reason is that it’s a simple yet effective coworking place with a good community of people at a reasonable price and that is what I needed for my hostel.
Any advice for the future hoteliers?
Dream big - Start small - Work hard - Move fast (borrowed from Stride Travel)