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
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.”

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