From bikeshares to spare couches, from swapping clothing to trading tools, the sharing economy has picked up steam in the last five years. Some trend watchers point to Millennials
as the source of the national uptick. Others say that a renewed interest in all things green paired with a fresh brand of recession-related thriftiness has led to the growth in collaborative consumption.
The most successful examples of the sharing economy in action have all come from individuals who saw a system or industry ripe for change and pioneered an innovative idea. Entrepreneurs that have found ways to monetize their disruptions, while at the same time improving the system they are disrupting, are the ones turning a profits.
, the site that matches travelers with empty couches or beds in their destinations, is often held up as the "granddaddy" of the movement. It was founded in 2008 by three roommates in San Francisco, and one year later, Airbnb listings could be found in more than 1,100 cities in 77 different countries around the world. Today, its reach is limitless — over nine million people have used its services and its business model has spawned copycats in many spheres.
Despite (or many because) of all the energy in this sector, the sharing economy has presented issues for regulators. Airbnb faces ongoing legal issues in New York
and the e-hail taxi alternative Uber very publicly battled
the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Some critics argue
that rideshare services like Lyft will rob cities of potential income streams and cause division along socioeconomic lines, especially as successful startups pursue lucrative exit strategies and are bought out by major corporations.
It’s too early to see get a clear sense of the macro impact of the sharing economy, though some are trying
. Most companies are still in the startup stage. What is clear is that thousands of entrepreneurs are finding ways to capitalize on this model. And one of them might just be the next Airbnb.
Being Neighborly in D.C.
It only took about 50 years, but someone finally found a way to monetize Herb borrowing Dagwood's garden tools
, a startup in the peer-to-peer sphere, launched in Washington D.C. this year. Built by entrepreneurs Erik Dreyer and Andrew Garcia, the firm helps users make money from unused stuff lying around their closets by lending it to their neighbors for a small fee.
The concept is simple enough. Dagwood has a power drill he's not using, so he posts it on GoodShuffle and sets two prices: a daily rental fee and a deposit (usually equal to the cost of replacing the item). Herb, who is sick of hearing about the broken porch railing from Tootsie, knows he needs a power drill to get the job done. Rather than spend the time and money researching and purchasing a drill that will likely end up sitting in his closet or garage, Herb hops on GoodShuffle.
On the site he finds a plethora of power drills to choose from. He chooses Dagwood's drill, and the shuffle begins, with Dreyer and Garcia's platform holding the rental and deposit fees until the exchange is made and the drill is returned. GoodShuffle keeps 5 percent of the owner's cut of each transaction.
"Our vision is to foster the local economy by putting things you own but you don't use very often [to work for you],” says Dreyer. In the process, he continues, GoodShufflers become microentrepreneurs, contributing to a sharing economy that’s often invisible but definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Pooling Resources in Philly
Sharing cars, books and tools can save money and help the environment. But sharing real estate has the added bonus of creating community and allowing for cross-pollination among creative minds.
Hackerspaces are member-operated spaces for makers or tinkerers to work on science, engineering or technical projects. They’ve been popping up in cities around the world
over the past four years or so. Now the idea is catching on in other fields -- The Philadelphia Sculpture Gym (PSG
), which opened in June, touts itself as a makerspace for artists of all stripes.
PSG provides workspace for amateur and established artists, offering access to a wood shop, metal shop, foundry and modeling studio. According to PSG Manager Darla Jackson, cross-pollination between artists and genres is a given.
"We get a variety of people -- furniture makers, jewelry makers, crafters, sculptors," says Jackson. "People inspire each other and can see new possibilities in different media." She herself sculpts in clay, plaster and resin, and has recently been inspired by the metallurgists she meets at PSG. "I'm learning how to weld. It's really exciting!"
PSG follows a gym-membership model: members pay a monthly fee of $225 for unlimited use, or they can start small and buy one-day-per-month access for $25. Membership includes access to the space, storage lockers, classes and "personal training sessions" (one-on-one help with projects).
Jackson attributes the growth in makerspaces to "people wanting to do things for themselves and to get back to craftsmanship." The growth of Etsy, an online marketplace, has been an essential boost, allowing creators to sell work on the side or even earn a living as a full-time artist.
"There have been so many Etsy success stories of people quitting their full-time jobs,” explains Jackson.
Swapping Closets, Searching for Chanel
The thrift store and the clothing swap have moved online. For Snobswap
co-founder Elise Whang, the genesis of her idea started with a Chanel handbag.
"I was pregnant with our first child and looking for a used Chanel," explains the Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur. "I didn't want the guilt of spending money on a luxury bag -- but I also didn't want to feel like I was shopping at a garage sale."
Whang and her sister, Emily Dang, used to hit consignment sales together. When Dang moved away, Whang missed her companionship, as well as her closet. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have virtual closets, so I could swap with her?'" she recalls. That’s how the two founded Snobswap in April 2012.
Snobswap shoppers create virtual closets online that they fill with "pre-loved" items. The list of items on the site grows daily and includes clothing, bags, shoes and accessories for men, women and children. Swappers can search by designer or type of item, and narrow by price and color. They don't have to "swap," either. They can purchase items outright, or make offers on items in others' closets they like.
Swaps on the site are free for buyers. Sales generate a 10 percent commission, which covers transaction costs. Snobswap also offers a Closet Concierge at a 30 percent commission; they take pictures of your items and list them in the system.
"It's for people who are too busy to list their own clothes,” says Whang. “A lot of people say they would use our service but don't have time to list their items."
The company was built in Washington, D.C., but has generated national interest due to its virtual platform and strategic partnerships with upscale consignment boutiques in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C. and St. Louis. Giving fashionistas the ability to shop and sell consignment online -- and become micro-entrepreneurs in the process -- has generated a groundswell of interest.
Making Space in Baltimore
Cars have long been at the forefront of the sharing economy -- think ZipCar
and Philly Car Share. Many urbanites want occasional access to a vehicle but have no interest in all the cash and hassle it takes to maintain one. Or park one. Nick Miller launched Parking Panda
in Baltimore in 2011; it’s a matchmaker app for empty parking spaces and the drivers who need them. Initially, the company used a peer-to-peer model, allowing people to sell driveway space. Now it’s grown to include unused spaces in privately owned garages in more than 25 cities across the U.S, including Phialdelphia.
"Parking is a pain point for everyone," explains Miller. "We solve a problem that so many people have."
From the driver's perspective, the process is a simple one. Say you're running late and need a spot close to a specific location Center City. First, visit Parking Panda and create an account or connect your Facebook account. Then fills in the address and Parking Panda pulls up a list of available spots in map and list form. Each spot comes with a price tag attached, and clicking on one reveals the specifics. Pick the one closest to your meeting, click a button and receive confirmation of the reservation.
When you arrive, all you need is a confirmation code. No circling, no scrounging for change, no stress.
Parking Panda takes a percentage-based commission. It’s a fee that its partners, including large sports arenas, convention centers and theater operators, seem willing to pay. The company has experienced steady growth over the past two years.
"We currently have 18 full-time employees, up from two," says Miller. That growth, coupled with the expansion from one market to more than 25, indicates that Parking Panda is a force to be reckoned with.