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Reddit saves Not Another Hostel

Jon Potter is a giver. The 24-year-old Pittsburgh native has been running a pay-what-you-can hostel out of his three bedroom Lawrenceville apartment for the past two and half years, often hosting up to five guests a night. If you stay with him, he will probably buy you a beer, ask you (in one of six languages) intriguing questions like "If you had only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?" and take you for a paragliding lesson above Phipps Conservatory, pro bono.
This past spring, Potter and his friends were instrumental in helping save the beloved Pittsburgh sandwich shop Mama Ros' with a $3,000 Indiegogo campaign. He's a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, and he recently took in Luther Percival Vandross, his ill neighbor's sweet, gangly Bernese Mountain Dog Rottweiler mix. He's writing An Autobiography of the World, a collection of sentence-long philosophies gathered from everyone he meets. Oh, and he's also about halfway complete in his endeavor to speedfly from the Seven Wonders of the World, having jumped from Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, and Petra, Jordan, with nothing more than his fabric wing.
Paying It Forward
Not Another Hostel (NAH) was born after Potter was "treated like a king" while hitchhiking with his former girlfriend through Tierra del Fuego in 2011. According to Potter, an ancient Argentinian law requires locals to feed and house travelers, and the people in Tierra del Fuego actively sought out him and his girlfriend as they rambled about the archipelago. They were invited to stay in a farmer's guest house for a few days, where their arrival was celebrated with the slaughter of a cow and a festive party.
This generosity compelled Potter to pay it forward when he got back to the States by opening Pittsburgh's one and only hostel. There was surprisingly little red tape in doing so– Potter's landlord supports the hostel, and when he inquired about legal matters with Pittsburgh's zoning department, Potter was told: "It sounds like you're just having a lot of friends over."
At NAH, guests have access to all the amenities you'd find in a modern, cozy apartment, and sleeping arrangements range from anything from a hammock to a pull-out couch to a futon. The suggested donation is $25 per night, but Potter is adamant about the "suggested" part, and he encourages alternative forms of payment– food, blankets, time spent helping out at The Red Door, the soup kitchen where Potter volunteers every week. About half of his guests donate nothing, and the other half donate between $10 and $20 per night. The most he's ever received was $100 for one night– from a card-counting blackjack player. Potter framed it, then had to use it to pay the water bill.
NAH is the first result when you search "Pittsburgh hostel" on Google. A few results down is the Pittsburgh Hostel Project (PHP), an organization that started around the same time Potter began working toward opening his hostel. In October 2012, PHP Director Anne Marie Toccket wrote an editorial in the Post-Gazette of the project's plans to open a $1.1 million hostel in the city by the close of 2013. A year later, no such hostel has materialized. Potter opened NAH with $2,000, and he officially began hosting guests in the spring of 2012, sleeping on the floor for the first week so that his guests would have a comfortable place to lay their heads while he acquired couches and mattresses.
Since then, Potter has taken in travelers from all over the world. Guests have included Jean-Gratien Uwisavye, a Rwandan genocide survivor, motivational speaker, and founding member of the Africa Healing Exchange who showed up at the hostel at 7 a.m., bottle of wine in hand. – to "Crazy Will," a homeless guy who claimed to have invented the hipster trend and shunned microwaves "because the Nazis invented them."
"It's always the Will in the world that's going to ruin it," Potter said while seated at his kitchen table this past September.
The Gift of European Plumbing
It's easy to take from a person as generous as Potter, and this past summer, a series of guests he refers to as "mini-Wills" left him feeling burnt out. Potter brought his fatigue to his favorite website, Reddit. A global online community meets news site meets forum, Reddit is organized by topic into subreddits, which range from "funny" to "DIY" to "Politics" to "Explain Like I'm Five." On a Tuesday evening in June, Potter started a thread in the popular subreddit "Ask Me Anything" (AMA), encouraging other Redditors to inquire about his experience running the hostel. He received hundreds of messages and comments, and dozens of people expressed interest in opening their own branches. Potter's faith in the project was ultimately restored when someone shipped him a bidet after learning his biggest expense is toilet paper.
"[...]you guys saved me," Potter wrote the following day on his AMA. "I was so incredibly depressed last night after a hard week of guests, and I was ready to shut down this hostel. You have all been so helpful and encouraging, and helped me re-learn that people are so good. I cannot thank you all enough."
Since the AMA, Potter's spirits have remained high. He's coaching a Chicago resident on opening a hostel there, and he's being coached himself by a fellow Redditor who works with nonprofits and charities. Potter's vision is to go international with NAH, and he's looking to attain 501(c)(3) status in order to do so.
Cincinnati is also home to an NAH branch. It's operated by Potter's best friend, Alec Tamplin, and his roommate, Amir Gamble. Tamplin and Potter grew up together, and they affectionately refer to each other as cousins.
"The summer of 2013 I went on a road trip from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and then New York City," Tamplin wrote in an email. "While I was in Pittsburgh, I visited with family and stayed at Jon's hostel. I was left with such an immediate impression, we got to talking about starting one in Cincy."
After a few months of house hunting, researching zoning laws, purchasing insurance, and building their own bunk beds, Tamplin, Gamble, and another roommate, who has since moved out, opened their hostel in October 2013. Tamplin says it's been a great year of hosting, and Gamble finds the NAH model to be 100 percent sustainable.
Not Another Hostel, 2.0
A new NAH website is being built with expansion in mind. Potter explained that the new design will be similar to the hospitality exchange websites Couchsurfing and AirBnB. Guests will be verified through a Facebook or LinkedIn profile, and from there, they can stay at any NAH location. Reservations will be made quickly and easily on the site (currently NAH administrators send out emails with confirmation, directions, etc.), and setting up an account will be free.
That's a big difference between NAH and networks like Couchsurfing and AirBnB-- there's no obligation to pay. (Hosts and surfers are verified on Couchsurfing for a $25 annual fee; AirBnB hosts set their own rates.) Potter says the exchange-- or absence-- of money involved with these sites affects host-guest expectations.
"Since [Couchsurfing] is totally free, and it's actually rude to offer money or to take money, there's a huge expectation that you have to hang out with the host or you have to prepare them a meal or buy them a drink or something," Potter explained. "[NAH] could be like a professional hostel where you don't have to interact, you just have your own space, but the option is still there if you want to go out and hang out with me or my friends or other guests."
"AirBnB is on the other end where you're paying money. In my experience, normally it's very reserved, and you just have your own space. You don't really hang out with the host because it's kind of weird-- you're giving them money, and that makes it a little too professional. So [the hostel] is a nice in-between of Couchsurfing and AirBnB."
Both Potter and Tamplin agree that the biggest challenge in running their hostels is keeping up with cleaning and organization. There's always laundry to do, toilets to scrub, and floors to sweep. Rent, utilities, and supplies are generally covered by donations, and there's no pressure or intention to make money from their endeavors in hospitality. (Potter makes a living as the owner of Pittsburgh Paragliding, Tamplin works at a law office and a bike shop, and Gamble is studying creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.)

Time and energy are the resources most important to NAH. Tamplin said he and Gamble will be taking some much-needed time off from hosting in the near future, and Potter's burnout this past summer makes sense-- he runs the Pittsburgh location on his own while doing all he can to move NAH forward. He's had partners in the past, but they haven't stayed on long-term. Potter's most recent roommate fell in love with a Colombian guest and went back to his country after only a few weeks of living at the hostel.
And though very much a people person, Potter considers himself an introvert, and he needs a fair amount of time outside of the hostel.
"I understand alone time," he wrote on his AMA. "I try to gauge where someone is at and interact with them accordingly. Some of my favorite times were just watching Attack on Titan with a guest who doesn't like talking."
Despite clogged shower drains, disappearing toilet paper, and microwave-boycotting guests, Potter continues to believe in the decency of humankind and the premise of paying it forward.
"You have every right to be skeptical," he writes on the NAH website. "In a world plagued by violence and evil, it is hard to believe that people can truly be good. Let us prove it to you."
And when the less-than-good people get him down, he always has Reddit to prove it right back to him.
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