The Sharing Economy and Me

You hear a lot these days about the sharing economy and collaborative consumption, especially if you spend time in northern California. I spent last week in San Francisco, where people told me about AirBnB, which allows people to share their homes or apartments with visitors, RelayRides, Share My Ride and getaround, which allow people to rent their cars for a few hours or days, and ThredUp, where parents buy, sell and share children's clothes, toys and books. Meantime, and Lending Club connect people who want to lend money with those who want to borrow. With peer-to-peer lending, who needs Citi or Bank of America?

Last year, Fast Company published a thoughtful and well-reported overview of the sharing economy by Danielle Sacks under the headline: "Thanks to the social web, you can now share anything with anyone anywhere in the world. Is this the end of hyperconsumption?" More than 3 million people from 235 countries have "couch-surfed," she reported, and more than 2.2 million bike-sharing trips are taken each month.

Many sharing websites, like Freecycle and Couch Surfing, are nonprofits. Seattle and Berkeley have tool libraries, where people can borrow a lawn mower, power saw or drill. But other sharing ventures are business. Some analysts expect the sharing economy to generate real money, Fast Company reported:

Gartner Group researchers estimate that the peer-to-peer financial-lending market will reach $5 billion by 2013. Frost & Sullivan projects that car-sharing revenues in North America alone will hit $3.3 billion by 2016.

I've always liked the idea of sharing -- hey, I paid attention back in kindergarten -- because of its obvious environmental benefits: The more we share, the less stuff we need to own. But I've been skeptical of the claim that the sharing economy would end -- or even slow down -- hyperconsumption. My week in San Francisco made me less of a skeptic. This idea just might spread.

Partly I've changed my thinking because of my own experience. For the first time, I stayed in an apartment that I found through AirBnB. Because I planned to spend six days in San Francisco, staying in a downtown hotel struck me as unappealing. I liked the idea of exploring a neighborhood, making my own breakfast and saving a few dollars. So I found a studio in Potrero Hill for $140/night that I rented from a woman named Kepa Askenasy. I chose it in part because Kepa was rated a "SuperHost" by Air BnB and had about 70 favorable reviews from renters on the site. It's the top floor unit, below.

I felt some trepidation as I boarded the plane for SFO -- this wasn't as predictable as staying at a Marriott, or at one of the Joie de Vivre hotels in SF, which I like a lot -- but everything worked out really well. The apartment was small but comfortable, and Kepa kindly provided maps, neighborhood guides and her own advice on local dining and shopping. I explored Potrero Hill, enjoyed a long walk to downtown for one meeting, got around on buses and the Muni, went for a run with my pal Adam Lashinsky (buy his new book!) who leaves nearby and hung out at Farley's, the local coffee shop.

The peer reviews on AirBnB took a lot of risk out of the transaction, for Kepa and me. She got paid in advance. I was reassured by her ratings. Afterwards, we rated one another, to guide future renters and lessors. She told me by email:

Airbnb emphasizes customer service, and accountability on both sides of the equation (host/ guest) through their transparent review process. It's been exceptionally easy to handle the transactions. My guests seem to be happy with their side of the deal too.

Should Marriott and Hilton be worried by AirBnB? Probably not, but it's not going to help their business.