America's new business model: Sharing
— -- The nation is in a sharing mood — and start-ups are capitalizing on it.
Americans with heaps of stuff, skills and time are connecting online with tech-savvy and early adopters eager to share and rent homes, cars, tools and services in exchange for deep savings.
Dubbed "collaborative consumption" — or "the sharing economy" — this movement represents the newly cemented intersection of online social networking, mobile technology, the minimalist movement and heightened penny-pinching brought on by lingering economic uncertainties.
Adam Hertz, a cable company executive in San Francisco, and his wife, Joan, have enthusiastically embraced the movement. Now that their kids are grown, the empty-nesters rent their Monterey Heights-district two-bedroom mother-in-law suite through Airbnb, an online marketplace for couch-surfers and hosts.
To greet renters and hand over the keys, Hertz sometimes hires a stand-in through TaskRabbit, a Web-based company that matches time-deprived people in need of temporary assistants with freelance errand runners who have passed criminal background checks and are looking for extra income.
"It's been a great way to meet people," says Hertz, whose suite goes for $99 a night and is occupied about half the time. "We've hosted some interesting tech entrepreneurs. We've had people from Australia and Singapore. And the money is nice, too."
The notion of individuals selling and donating to others online is hardly new. EBay and Craigslist pioneered peer-to-peer commerce through tools that allow users to be anonymous and that make uploading photos and descriptions quick and easy. But the ventures launched in recent years with gobs of venture-capital funding and targeting niche markets have accelerated the movement with user-friendly designs and a tight knit to social networks Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
"It's basically about moving to a world where access triumphs over ownership, and that unused value — things sitting in my garage — equals waste," says Lisa Gansky, who has written frequently on the topic and has listed 6,600 such sharing platforms on her site, Meshing.IT.
You can rent a room to strangers at Airbnb and CouchSurfing. Rent out your only-for-commuting car by the hour at RelayRides or Getaround. Turn your driveway into a cash cow at Park Circa or ParkatmyHouse. Find road-trip partners on Zimride. Find free office space at Loosecubes. Share your sewing machine at Zilok or trade it for an iPod at Swap.com.
"TaskRabbit has (people) making over $5,000 a month in San Francisco," says Craig Shapiro, founder of Collaborative Fund, a venture-capital fund specializing in sharing sites. "That's real money."
The dot-com boom of early 2000 saw a proliferation of similar anything-at-your-service start-ups. Remember Kozmo.com, whose employees promised delivery of DVDs and ice cream in under an hour for free? Struggling to manage costs, the start-up closed shop as quickly as it opened. What distinguishes the latest generation of start-ups is a confluence of new technologies and more-efficient business models that leave much of the logistical heavy-lifting to peers who share.
People, if not yet profits
Sharing platform companies don't need to carry inventory or hire en masse. The advent of GPS, the always-on Internet and social networks enable finding things in real time from people you somewhat trust.
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