The Evolution of Spending in the Sharing Economy

Change is a constant and it’s clear that the growth in the collaborative economy is going to reshape current spending patterns throughout many economies.

The actual impact is still hard to ascertain. But the evidence is stacking up that there are going to be significant changes in the near future. As Larry Fink pointed out in a recent article, the impact of technology can profoundly affect an entire industry, even if it only directly impacts initially on a small subsection.

Fink uses the example of hydraulic fracturing in oil production to make his point. As the demand for the supply of oil has continued to rise by around 600,000 barrels a day over the past year, the actual supply – in part due to new technologies such as fracking (putting to one side for this article the immense damage that fracking causes) – has increased by around 2 million barrels a day.

His argument here is that (as damaging as fracking is) the technology has affected the overall price per barrel in despite the fact that the majority of barrels are not produced using this method.

So when it comes to the sharing economy, what sort of changes are we likely to see as a result of the stellar growth of such businesses as Uber and Airbnb? For most younger people in the Western Economy, there are two common twin goals when it comes to acquiring significant items of property: the car and the home. Not surprisingly, these are in the crosshairs of both growing businesses.

So whilst both assets are fundamentally different (one being an investment, the other a depreciating asset), the question still remains. If significant sums of money are less likely in the future to be tied up by these big capital outlays at the start of young people’s lives, where will they be directed instead? Any ideas?

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.

 

Unleashing the Potential of Information

One blog I make a point of always reading is by John Battelle. I read his book ‘The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture‘ about the early days of Google a number of years ago and found it a fascinating read given his access to some of the internal workings of Google as the business grew.

Like many of my favourite bloggers, he tends
focus on some of the bigger tech trends that are taking place in society and his post earlier this week is no exception.

In a world in which most of the population tend to forget just how much data records our every move (whether we’re leaking it as we access web services via third party authentication log-ins or learning a coue of weeks later that it was stolen, a result of our own blind trust in services and businesses that are amateurish about securing it), he talks about the concept of potential and kinetic data.

It’s particularly interesting to me because he frames the difference as explaining how some of the fastest growing modern tech companies are experiencing explosive growth precisely because of the fact that they’ve worked out how to release that potential. If you can build a business that focuses in unlocking that potential, you’re onto something that’s really valuable.

So for example Airb’nb, Uber and Nest have each discovered ways to release data that existed in what were previously ‘dumb’ environments and brought them into the structure of the internet. By building businesses in this way, they have unlocked potential information about:

  • merchandise (Amazon, eBay)
  • spare bedrooms (Airbnb)
  • transportation systems (Uber)
  • our home environments (Nest)
  • real-world relationships (Facebook)

And of course another great example is Google itself – a business which discovered how to convert potential information (links on the web) into kinetic information (search).

You could argue that it’s a subtle distinction – but I feel that it’s a key one. We’re all guilty of speaking confidently about how Big Data will change everything but for the most part, organisations are still flailing around trying to record everything possible in the hope that this will become somehow useful in the future (hello NSA…).

But if you’re looking for business ideas and want to make a real difference, think about one area and focus in on how you make that leap on converting potential to kinetic information. You might just stumble across a huge idea for a business.

photo credit: jah~ cc

Three Key Megatrends In Technology (And Society)

Binoculars
It’s not always that easy to see what’s ahead…

If you’re interested in technology, it’s very easy to be seduced by the hype that surrounds the new, shiny product or service that everyone’s talking about that month. And whilst that’s mostly harmless for the consumer, it can be fatal for a VC. Not only are the companies that you invest in risky but by paying above the odds, you now need your winners to succeed on an even greater scale to have a chance of repaying the people who trusted you with their cash.

So I always find it interesting to hear VC’s explain how they make the decisions about what to invest in given that they focus only on sectors that they believe have tremendous growth potential. Fred Wilson is both a top VC and daily blogger who’s particularly insightful and his recent talk at Le Web on three key megatrends in technology is no exception. You can check out the full talk in the video below.

 

You See Better From Further Out

Fred’s approach is to move one step back from focusing on so-called hot areas in general (such as machine learning and big data) to try to understand the bigger picture. Don’t attempt to guess which technology will be the most important. Look instead at how society is developing and the gaps that are being created. And it’s on this basis that he sees three ‘mega-trends’ driving business over the next few years.

1. Transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks

Business traditionally functioned from the top down. Management orders filtered down the levels whilst customer feedback would usually go directly to front-line (and often junior) staff. When the system worked, that feedback would have to travel back up through the various layers until management made the decision about whether or not to make changes. Inefficient yes but justified by the high costs of communication.

But now these costs have plummeted, traditional hierarchies are being replaced by technology-driven networks. Think about the disruption to the newspaper industry: vast newsrooms with armies of reporters directed by a publisher with stories being edited to meet deadlines before the publication of a physical daily newspaper. Cue the entry of technology-driven networks (and the advent of Twitter and blogs in particular) and now everyone can be a reporter.

The crowd on each network determines what is popular (by retweets, follower count and the like) and the news that is relevant is delivered to us instantly via our mobiles. The same disruption can be seen in film/television (YouTube) and the music industry (Soundcloud).

Consumers now have the power to clearly signal what they want and find useful. But Fred believes we’re still in the early stages of this process which is only now starting to ripple through other industries like hotels (Airbnb, OneFineStay), creative industries (Kickstarter) and learning (Codecademy). Most industries will be affected by networks over the medium term.

2. Everything is being unbundled

It used to be expensive to get products and services to market. That cost meant that businesses tended to bundle things together that the customers had to pay for, even if they didn’t necessarily want the full selection (think of the Sunday papers with News, Holidays, Finance, Fashion, Classified Ads & Sports sections). Yet technology makes it cheap for new companies to be built to deliver single parts of these products, with the result often being that the bit you actually want is now both cheaper and of a higher quality.

Banking is a great example of an industry that’s being unbundled. It used to be very expensive to open and run a physical branch so the banks offered all types of products, including mortgages, credit cards, small business loans and working capital finance. Yet new businesses are now able to use networks of individuals to provide more efficient, specialised and more effective products – through peer to peer lending for example (Lending Club).

University education is another area where the high costs of traditional delivery – sourcing a building, lecturers, expensive academic books in libraries, face-to-face lectures – are being disrupted by MOOCs and mobile online learning platforms. The network model is also changing the face of research, both with the growth of Open Access publications and by enabling people to collaborate across different locations to enable researchers to share expensive, scarce research resources (such as expensive medical equipment).

3. We are all now a node on the network

The mobile phone has changed the game forever. Whilst those in the developed world still have the option of choosing to use a laptop or desktop rather than our phone, in the developing world, mobile has already won that race for dominance. With the cost of a desk computer too high in such countries for general adoption, people just moved straight to cheap (predominantly Android) smart phones. But regardless of the location, the result is that we are all now connected to each other all the time. Cue a wave of opportunities for businesses who are able to build upon that knowledge of people, locations and photographs across the network – in transport/logistics (Uber), payments (Dwolla, Square) and dating (Tinder).

Where The Three Collide

Fred goes on to identify four key sectors in which each of these three mega-trends are making their presence felt in particular:-

BITCOIN

It’s obvious that we’re heading for major change in the world of money. I agree with Fred’s view that Bitcoin (or similar) is going to be responsible for so much more than just innovation in payments. It has the potential to become the financial and transactional protocol for the internet that has always been missing. As the standard way in which financial value is exchanged across the web and one that is entirely free from the control of any one party, money will be able to flow as freely and easily as content does today. As a protocol, it will also act as a foundation upon which entrepreneurs can build a whole variety of products and services.

HEALTH & WELLNESS

Think of the growth of wearable technology with individuals wearing devices that can report back with details of their vital signs (Fitbit, Fuelband etc). In the future, some of this data will remain personal and private, some will be shared across networks and some will be exchanged solely between you and your doctor, caregiver or family member. Throw gamification into the mix (Fitocracy) and suddenly you’ve got a profound force for good with individuals making positive decisions about how to keep themselves fit and healthy.

DATA LEAKAGE 

When the industrial revolution arrived, the side-effect of such rapid development was the pollution that poured into our environment. By the time we realised and started the clean-up started, almost a century had passed and we faced a far harder task than it could have been had we dealt with it at the time.

Arguably we’re now facing exactly the same problem in the information age – only this time the pollution is data. Every digital activity we carry out leaves data exhaust which is, like it or not, letting other parties observe our activities. Fred’s view is similar to most people that I speak to: most of the time, he’s happy to let the government, Google, Facebook and others spy on him. However, sometimes the services that we’ve used end up recording our activities when we don’t want them to. Therefore, getting some control over this data leakage, both at an individual and a societal level is important.

TRUST & IDENTITY

Currently, many of us sign into services using our identities from other platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter etc). Whilst it is extremely handy to use their authentication services, we are essentially giving these companies knowledge about everything that we do. Fred predicts the emergence of a standard protocol that will provide individuals with control over their own identity, trust and data which will be distributed (like Bitcoin, across many thousands of computers), free from any one party’s control and global.

Tick The Boxes

No matter whether you’re a VC, entrepreneur or just a citizen in the modern digital era, Fred’s talk provides plenty of food for thought. Using this framework provides a useful lens through which to watch just how the world will change in the next few years as a result of developments in the tech world.

We’re only just at the starting line: the pace of technological advancement can only accelerate from here on in as networks strengthen and the remaining friction that slows down the voluntary exchange of information between people anywhere across the world disappears completely. So if you’re looking to start up a new business or simply to future-proof the one you have, you could do far worse than take start to consider how to take account of all three.

photo credit: C.P.Storm via cc