Collaborative Consumption

The Sharing Economy has really been gaining steam over the past few years. With Airbnb increasingly building mainstream awareness beyond purely tech circles and Uber’s rapid march towards a multi-billion dollar valuation in the short time since its inception in 2009 (despite being beset by recent scandals), it’s clear there’s a substantial societal shift taking place towards new business models.

I read an interesting article today by Rachel Botsman, author of “What’s Mine Is Yours” and thought leader in the field of Collaborative Consumption, in which she challenges a few of the myths surrounding the area.

I’ve always had an interest in watching the exodus from centralised organisations to technology-driven distributed networks of individuals (which partly explains Bitcoin’s appeal for me) and the ‘sharing economy’ clearly personifies one aspect of this. However, it was also interesting to read the argument that the terminology that we all use has, she believes, been twisted out of recognition. We all talk of the Sharing Economy – but the reality is that participants are not actually sharing at all (in the conventional sense of the word).

When we let people borrow our unused bedrooms, all that’s taking place is simply a rental transaction. This new raft of businesses is being built that use technology to connect supply and demand that would otherwise remain unfulfilled. But at its core, this activity is entirely different to the concept of ’sharing’, she argues. That word by itself comes with its own ideology and implied altruism. However, when we ‘share’ a room, we fully expect to get something in return.

Whilst she’s unsurprisingly critical of the values and culture at Uber, she also points out that pretenders with big plans to disintermediate an industry by simply providing an ‘on-demand’ service do not fall automatically within the classification of the collaborative economy. In other words, it’s not just removing the middle man – it’s more accurately about unlocking idle capacity.

In Botsman’s recent work, she’s identified five key areas with assets that are ripe for disruption together with the solutions for each area (here in brackets):

  • waste (efficiency)
  • complex experiences (simplicity)
  • redundant intermediaries (direct exchange)
  • limited access (shared access)
  • broken trust (transparency)

The explosive growth of the collaborative economy comes partly from the fact that it is replacing traditional asset-heavy business models with ones that are asset-light. The classic example from her talk mentions the fact that it took Hilton Hotels 93 years to get 610,000 rooms in 88 countries. Meanwhile, it’s taken Airbnb just 4 years to amass 650,000 rooms in 192 countries.

I love the example of Goodgym. It’s a platform that connects people who are seeking the motivation to go running with old people who would benefit from regular visits (albeit from lycra-clad sweaty visitors). It’s also fascinating to see that she has identified Financial Services as being an areas where so many of the drivers behind the collaborative economy are present. I couldn’t agree more. As an example, here’s a list of some of the areas that are developing fast, together with a few company names for context:

Botsman’s last point is, I think, key here. Whilst the inroads made by the collaborative economy are scary to many incumbents (statistics abound of the taxi industry losing two-thirds of its revenue to Uber and other upstarts in a period of less than three years for example), don’t forget the way that innovation inevitably plays out.

In the early days of Napster, the music industry tied itself in knots trying to restrict the competition by legal assault. By focusing on where the ball was, rather than where it was travelling to, they completely missed the fact that a new wave of demand has arisen from consumers who wanted to share and buy songs electronically. iTunes would never have had a chance of success if the incumbents hadn’t been asleep at the wheel.

I intend to write far more about the sharing, sorry, collaborative economy moving forwards. In the meantime, treat this as an early collection of ideas and go and watch Botsman’s talk.


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