Yesterday, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care waiting for my single (unfortunately, you need three for full immunity, and no time left before I leave on Friday) vaccine shot for hepatitus B, I came across this terrific article in a copy of the newest Forbes lying there on the table. It expands beautifully on this and notes that the sharing economy is “disruptive” of the ownership economy. No kidding!
Now, let’s just go one step further, into the gifting economy, where we relax into our essential selves, express ourselves fully and generously, with no more need for money or any other counter to keep track of who exchanges what.
Whew! It will take awhile, but we are indeed lifting off, all together, like a flock of birds, both deeply connected and highly individual, exchanging energies, all at once.
Lots of interesting links to pursue here . . .
by Tomio Geron, Forbes Staff
This story appears in the February 11, 2013 issue of Forbes.
Photo: Eric Millette For Forbes
On paper, Frederic Larson is just one data point in five years of U.S. government statistics showing underemployment in dozens of industries and stagnant income growth across the board. The 63-year-old photographer with two children in college was downsized by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. He now spends his time teaching at Academy of Art University with occasional lecturing gigs in Hawaii. A far cry from the salary, benefits and company car he used to have.
But Larson is also a data point in an economic revolution that is quietly turning millions of people into part-time entrepreneurs, and disrupting old notions about consumption and ownership. Twelve days per month Larson rents his Marin County home on website Airbnb for $100 a night, of which he nets $97. Four nights a week he transforms his Prius into a de facto taxi via the ride-sharing service Lyft, pocketing another $100 a night in the process.
It isn’t glamorous–on nights that he rents out his house, he removes himself to one room that he’s cordoned off, and he showers at the gym–but in leveraging his hard assets into seamless income streams, he’s generating $3,000 a month. “I’ve got a product, which is what I share: my Prius and my house,” says Larson. “Those are my two sources of income.” He’s now looking at websites that can let him rent out some of his camera equipment.
The “gig economy,” the plethora of microjobs fueled by online marketplaces offering and filling an array of paid errands and office chores, has been well-documented, and sites like TaskRabbit, Exec and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk continue to grow apace. What Larson finds himself in, however, is something lesser-noticed and potentially far more disruptive–a share economy , where asset owners use digital clearinghouses to capitalize the unused capacity of things they already have, and consumers rent from their peers rather than rent or buy from a company.
While Airbnb is the best-known example of this phenomenon (to most casual observers, it’s the only example), over the past four years at least 100 companies have sprouted up to offer owners a tiny income stream out of dozens of types of physical assets, without needing to buy anything themselves. “The sharing economy is a real trend. I don’t think this is some small blip,” says Joe Kraus, a general partner at Google Ventures who has backed two car-sharing sites, RelayRides and Sidecar. “People really are looking at this for economic, environmental and lifestyle reasons. By making this access as convenient as ownership, companies are seeing a major shift.”
The sharing concept has created markets out of things that wouldn’t have been considered monetizable assets before. A few dozen square feet in a driveway can now produce income via Parking Panda. A pooch-friendly room in your house is suddenly a pet penthouse via DogVacay. OnRentoid, an outdoorsy type with a newborn who suddenly notices her camping tent never gets used can rent it out at $10 a day to a city slicker who’d otherwise have to buy one. On SnapGoods, a drill lying fallow in a garage can become a $10-a-day income source from a homeowner who just needs to put up some quick drywall. On Liquid, an unused bicycle becomes a way for a traveler to cheaply get around while visiting town for $20 a day.
Getting into the share economy was the reason Avis Budget Group last month chose to pay a whopping $500 million for Zipcar, despite the fact that the pioneering rent-by-the-hour startup generated a paltry profit of $4.7 million over the past year. But Zipcar in some ways misses the larger point of what’s going on: Its fleet, as with Avis’, has been centrally owned. A more profitable model may lie in peer-to-peer car-sharing services such as RelayRides and Getaround, which mimic Hertz or Avis except that the service itself owns nothing. Their fleets, about 50,000 combined at last count, draw from the tens of millions of autos idling in America’s driveways. SideCar and Lyft slice that market finer, monetizing an empty seat by letting owners tote along fee-paying passengers on routes they may already be taking.
Just as YouTube did with TV and the blogosphere did to mainstream media, the share economy blows up the industrial model of companies owning and people consuming, and allows everyone to be both consumer and producer, along with the potential for cash that the latter provides. Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist at Menlo Ventures and an investor in Getaround, TaskRabbit, Uber and other startups in this space, believes these services will have a major impact on the economics of cities. “This is much bigger than any specific app,” he says. “This is a movement as important as when the web browser came out.”
FORBES estimates the revenue flowing through the share economy directly into people’s wallets will surpass $3.5 billion this year, with growth exceeding 25%. At that rate peer-to-peer sharing is moving from an income boost in a stagnant wage market into a disruptive economic force. Technology has vastly improved on the newspaper classifieds that brokered the sweating of assets for a century. Ebay‘s much duplicated rating system bestows commercial credibility on individuals. With Facebook you can go further, checking people’s profiles before renting to them. Smartphone apps let sharers transact anywhere, see what’s being shared nearby and pay on the spot. “We’re moving from a world where we’re organized around ownership to one organized around access to assets,” says Lisa Gansky, who started the Ofoto photo-sharing site, before selling it in 2001 to Eastman Kodak.
Dozens of startups chasing the trend will fail, as marketplaces like these always prove winner-take-all. The leaders are, as expected, absorbing blows from anxious regulators and incumbents. Airbnb is fighting to prove its legality in New York and San Francisco. New York City officials are going after short-term rentals – but only when they get complaints. In 2012 the city did 828 inspections and issued 2,239 violations for short term rentals. This year, fines for repeat offenders go up to a maximum of $25,000. Lyft and SideCar, meanwhile, were cited by California utility commissioners recently for operating without a license. Big issues also have yet to be worked out over how these services are taxed and whether they protect customers sufficiently from liability and fraud. And who’s to say whether what works among the hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco translates in between.