The collaborative economy is for everyone

A while ago I wrote a piece titled “Is the collaborative economy only for the privileged?” In it I posed a question: How can we create a new collaborative economy that is equally beneficial for everyone, no matter where they come from? Today this question is more timely than ever, with giants like Airbnb and Uber picking up enormous funding rounds with insane valuations while their “workers” are protesting against their conditions. Many are afraid that this new economy will turn out just like the old one, with the power in the hands of few. However, while some of the signs are indeed worrisome, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that a change for the better is on its way.

New ownership models are emerging

In May I attended the SHARE conference organized by Peers. In the event especially intrigued by the words of “Sharing economy lawyer” Janelle Orsi. She talked about a future where the big sharing economy organizations would become co-ops. Imagine Uber owned by the drivers, Airbnb owned by the hosts and TaskRabbit owned by the rabbits. This is already happening. Startups like Loconomics and Bring It Local are organizing themselves using the model that Orsi calls a “T-Corp”. Loconomics provides an online marketplace and business-management software for entrepreneurs such as bodyworkers and psychotherapists. It’s owned by these entrepreneurs, and they will own shares, receive dividends and have a voice in running the companies. Says Orsi: “It’s not a platform for the rich to get richer, it’s a platform for reversing that.” Neal Gorenflo summarizes this trend well: “The future belongs to enterprises that distribute control and wealth rather than concentrating it.”

The giants are paving the way

Another great point at the SHARE event was made by Arun Sundarajan, Professor of Information at NYU and a long time observer and researcher of the sharing economy. He noted that it’s vital at this stage that the big names get lots of traction and are funded well, because they face an enormous challenge that requires lots of capital to tackle: the pushback from traditional businesses and legislators. As always when completely new conventions emerge, there are lots of resistance, and without a hefty amount of capital it could be too much for the new initiatives to take. Whether we like it or not, the collaborative economy will need lots of lawyers and lobbyists working together with goverments and multinationals, to figure out the best ways to regulate the collaborative economy correctly. It should not be the wild west it currently is, where workers often have no access to things like insurance and minimum wage, and the consumers are not protected. But it also should not be blocked. I’m sure there’s a middle ground that can be found, but finding it will not be easy, and dedicating lots of resources to it will certainly speed up the process. The work done by the big guys will help everyone, including organizations like T-Corps, which usually don’t have similar resources in their disposal.

Technology is getting cheaper

The collaborative economy is largely powered by peer-to-peer marketplace technology. Whether it’s the makers selling their products to their peers in Etsy or Shapeways, the collaborative financers funding each other through Kickstarter or Lending Club, or the collaborative consumers distributing and sharing goods and services via Airbnb, BlaBlaCarLyft or RelayRides, all this activity is made possible by online marketplaces. The problem with building peer-to-peer marketplaces has traditionally been that you need a skilled developer team to build one. There are lots of people out there who have great collaborative economy concept ideas, but so far they have been unable to execute them because they lack the skills and monetary resources. Very often they have had to resort to raising venture capital early on, which makes collaborative ownership structures more challenging. The mission of my startup, Sharetribe, is to change that, and to bring the collaborative economy to all the people around the world. With our open source platform anyone can easily create their own peer-to-peer marketplace without knowing anything about programming. We want to do to the collaborative economy what WordPress did for publishing. We want to democratize it: to make these new tools accessible to everyone. I think this is great news for any co-op, local community or bootstrapping startup out there. Think of all the things you could achieve if technology no longer was an issue.

It’s time to grow up

The collaborative economy is living a transition period. It has now become mainstream in many countries: most people have heard at least something about it. But it’s still in a juvenile state. The coming years will show what it will really be like when it grows up. Will it be just like the old economy, where winner takes it all, or can it be something better? I believe it can, and as I outlined above, I think we are moving in the right direction. Now we just have to steer accurately.