We’re All in This Together (Right?)

As the sharing economy matures, its innovations range from car-sharing to tech-savvy butlers to simple giveaways.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Nancy Cook
Aug. 5, 2015, 5:17 a.m.

The shar­ing eco­nomy may be grow­ing up at last. Barely sev­en years have passed since the small but flour­ish­ing sec­tor came in­to its own, as the rise of smart­phones and the cre­ation of high-tech net­works such as Airb­nb made it pos­sible for people to rent out their beds, cars, and oth­er un­der­used as­sets. Lately, however, these com­pan­ies have star­ted to face polit­ic­al and reg­u­lat­ory pres­sures to com­ply with labor laws, to re­think the re­la­tion­ship with their work­ers, and to make sure that con­sumers pay taxes on goods and ser­vices — just like or­din­ary com­pan­ies do.

Yet, des­pite these pres­sures, the shar­ing eco­nomy con­tin­ues to re­shape the way Amer­ic­ans think about both the stuff they own and the stuff they buy. At its best, it blurs those lines, so that people feel com­fort­able rent­ing out their per­son­al items and trust­ing strangers to care for them.

Here are 10 in­nov­at­ive pro­grams and ideas that are thriv­ing in the shar­ing eco­nomy:

Book Thing of Bal­timore: Vis­it­ors to this free book­store in Bal­timore, open on week­ends, may help them­selves to as many free books as they like. “Are the books really free? Yup,” says the web­site. “Really? Yes.” Room after room of plain pine shelves stock everything from Thucy­dides to Dr. Seuss, all donated. This is a low-to-no-tech ver­sion of the shar­ing eco­nomy at its purest — people giv­ing away things they no longer need to people who want them.

Buy Noth­ing Pro­jectThis ven­ture began on Bain­bridge Is­land in Wash­ing­ton state in mid-2013, when a group of cit­izens tried to get along in their daily lives without buy­ing any­thing. The idea was that neigh­bors will give away, lend, or share items in­stead of buy­ing or trad­ing them — strictly a gift eco­nomy, one that en­cour­ages the re-use of what people already own. The pro­ject cre­ated such ex­cite­ment with­in the loc­al com­munity that it led to the cre­ation of a Face­book page that has at­trac­ted more than 80,000 view­ers around the world.

City Car­Share: This non­profit based in the San Fran­cisco Bay area al­lows mem­bers to share a fleet of cars, with the goals of re­du­cing traffic and bring­ing more elec­tric cars and hy­brids onto the roads — a so­cially minded com­pet­it­or of Zip­car. Foun­ded by a group of trans­port­a­tion act­iv­ists 14 years ago, long be­fore any­one coined the term “shar­ing eco­nomy,” the or­gan­iz­a­tion now has more than 15,000 act­ive mem­bers. For $60 a year — low-in­come fam­il­ies get dis­counts — mem­bers pay to use the cars by the hour. This is an­oth­er ex­ample of how the shar­ing eco­nomy can re­volve around a simple shar­ing of as­sets in­stead of build­ing the next Sil­ic­on Val­ley darling.

Freel­an­cers Uni­on: The Brook­lyn-based Freel­an­cers Uni­on boasts nearly 300,000 mem­bers, hav­ing quad­rupled in num­bers in just sev­en years. Be­sides of­fer­ing freel­an­cers a sense of ca­marader­ie, the labor uni­on of­fers: its own health-in­sur­ance plan; net­work­ing and edu­ca­tion events; free ad­vice on the freel­ance busi­ness; and dis­counts on dent­al, dis­ab­il­ity, and life in­sur­ance, through vendors vet­ted by the uni­on. For New York City mem­bers, the uni­on also runs two primary-care health clin­ics — re­quir­ing no co-pays — and com­munity spaces with free yoga classes. The in­ten­tion is to give freel­an­cers perks they’d re­ceive if they held full-time jobs, which few­er and few­er work­ers do, some­times in­vol­un­tar­ily. 

Read Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s in-depth pro­file of it here

Hello Al­fred: The shar­ing eco­nomy has ma­tured enough that a next gen­er­a­tion of star­tups has be­gun to piggy­back on its suc­cess, as middle­men between in­di­vidu­als and shar­ing-eco­nomy go­liaths. New York City-based Hello Al­fred charges busy pro­fes­sion­als $25 a week to serve as tech-savvy house­hold man­agers, mak­ing sure that oth­er shar­ing-eco­nomy com­pan­ies buy the gro­cer­ies and de­liv­er the dry clean­ing. Com­pan­ies such as Gues­thop help people get their homes ready to rent via the likes of Airb­nb. These de­riv­at­ive com­pan­ies cre­ate jobs and add new busi­ness mod­els to an eco­nomy that needs both.

Read Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s in-depth pro­file here. 

HourlyN­erd: This is ba­sic­ally is a rent-an-MBA com­pany that ar­ranges for busi­nesses, in­clud­ing small ones, to hire freel­ance busi­ness-school gradu­ates by the hour for spe­cif­ic pro­jects or con­sult­ing gigs. Un­like tra­di­tion­al con­sult­ing firms, with their in-house staffs, HourlyN­erd ar­ranges for com­pan­ies to hire skilled pro­fes­sion­als for however long a job re­quires. Busi­nesses can buy ac­cess to any par­tic­u­lar ex­pert­ise — ac­count­ing, mar­ket­ing, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment — while the MBA gains a flex­ible work sched­ule.

Read Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s in-depth pro­file here. 

The Lend­ing Club: This on­line mar­ket­place lets reg­u­lar people lend money to oth­er reg­u­lar people for per­son­al or busi­ness loans or to pay for elect­ive med­ic­al pro­ced­ures. Bor­row­ers can cir­cum­vent the need for a bank and, in many cases, can ob­tain loans even with lousy cred­it scores. 

Maine Tool Lib­rary: If you live in Port­land — Maine or Ore­gon — or in Seattle or Colum­bus, Ohio, you needn’t buy a chain­saw of your own. In­stead, you can join a tool-lend­ing lib­rary and bor­row ex­pens­ive gar­age, kit­chen, and land­scap­ing equip­ment. Tool-lend­ing lib­rar­ies are just one ex­ample of an of­ten-over­looked part of the shar­ing eco­nomy: net­works of people who share re­sources to cut down on their pur­chases and to make bet­ter use of the stuff they already own. The web­site Yerdle helps people give away used goods, as does Neigh­bor­Goods, a New York-based on­line plat­form with more than 100 com­munity groups across the coun­try.

Read Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s in-depth pro­file here. 

Man­aged by Q: Launched just 15 months ago, this shar­ing-eco­nomy com­pany de­cided early on to hire its jan­it­ori­al em­ploy­ees as salar­ied work­ers, with the same ac­cess to be­ne­fits as the com­pany’s en­gin­eers, who keep of­fice clean­ers in touch with build­ing man­agers. Man­aged by Q — named for the char­ac­ter in the James Bond ad­ven­tures who helps spy mis­sions from be­hind the scenes — has raised more than $17 mil­lion in star­tup funds. It cleans and main­tains build­ings in New York City, Chica­go, and San Fran­cisco.

Read Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s in-depth pro­file here. 

Peers.org: This on­line, not-for-profit plat­form re­ceives sup­port from shar­ing-eco­nomy com­pan­ies as a sort of em­ploy­ment coun­selor for their work­forces. It tries to con­nect the sec­tor’s cur­rent and pro­spect­ive work­ers with avail­able jobs, dis­penses ad­vice on how to get star­ted and on how much in­come to ex­pect, and puts freel­an­cers in touch through its on­line for­ums. “It’s about what work­ers can do or buy to make their work as non-em­ploy­ees bet­ter,” Fast Com­pany ex­plained last fall, “not how the sys­tem could be changed to make that work bet­ter.”

What We're Following See More »
Russia Accidentally Bombs U.S.-Backed Syrian Forces
8 minutes ago
Zinke Confirmed As Interior Secretary
2 hours ago
House GOP Blocks Dems on Trump Ethics
3 hours ago

On a party-line vote, "the House Judiciary Committee defeated a Democratic effort Tuesday to obtain any information the Justice Department has on possible conflicts, ethical violations or improper connections to Russia by President Donald Trump and his associates. The committee’s Republican chairman, Bob Goodlatte, opposed the resolution, even as he acknowledged the Justice Department hasn’t acted on his own request for a briefing on alleged Russian interference with the U.S. election and potential ties to the Trump campaign." He said he'll be sending a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting him to pursue "all legitimate investigative leads" into those matters.

Trump Holds Off on New Travel Ban
3 hours ago

"President Donald Trump won’t sign a revised travel ban on Wednesday as had been anticipated, two senior administration officials confirmed. One of the officials indicated that the delay was due to the busy news cycle, and that when Trump does sign the revised order, he wanted it to get plenty of attention."

Donald Trump Affirms Support For NATO
15 hours ago

Near the end of his speech Tuesday, Donald Trump made a firm proclamation affirming his support for NATO. "We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism," Trump said. However, he continued on, "our partners must meet their financial obligations."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.