When was the last time you considered a purchase — say, folding chairs or an upholstery cleaner — and thought, "What a waste to buy, store and maintain this purchase just to use it this one time"?
The startup Tulu is working to change the bias for ownership. It provides modular rental units for buildings, offering household items such as vacuum cleaners, home theater projectors and waffle makers. The company seeks to reshape consumption habits, particularly in cities where space and financial constraints make many purchases wasteful and unnecessary.
Launched in 2018 by architect Yishai Lehavi and environmental entrepreneur Yael Shemer, Tulu operates across 26 cities in the U.S., Europe and the U.K. Student housing, including at Columbia and Emory universities, and residential buildings are its go-to properties, and it launched in offices and hotels earlier this year, but Tulu sees a fit anywhere communities gather.
If you’ve lived in a college dorm or apartment complex, you may be familiar with a front desk that offers vacuums, board games, pingpong paddles and other items for resident use. Tulu brings this model to scale, providing access to 70,000 households across nearly 200 buildings and facilitating 130,000 transactions per month. It also provides fleets of scooters and bikes for rent. Shemer says that printers are popular, as is anything for cleaning, such as vacuum cleaners, robot mops and upholstery cleaners, as well as fun stuff such as virtual reality headsets and the Sony PlayStation 5.
A virtuous cycle
Tulu’s business model embraces the fundamental goal of circularity to keep materials in use for as long as possible as it meets a growing demand for product access over ownership. Given that each item will be used again and again, repair is built into the culture at Tulu. "We've gotten good at replacing just the broken parts, hoses and such for vacuums or upholstery cleaners, instead of replacing the whole thing," said Shemer.
Benefits to the consumer are obvious: reduced material consumption, reduced cost and increased convenience. But what really piqued my interest about Tulu’s model is the potential for a virtuous cycle of information that can reinforce circularity.
Tulu partners with companies including Hoover, Bosch and Dremel to provide tools for rental. Large groups of users repeatedly engage with the products, building brand recognition and loyalty for the product makers. Suppliers can enroll in a strategic partnership with Tulu, which provides a unique dashboard and monthly reports about product usage data. This analysis includes user feedback from Tulu’s consumer app about each product, with information on use time and frequency, as well as failure rates and longevity.
This data provides brands with timely, unbiased user feedback to improve their products, Shemer said. This direct channel has empowered some of Tulu’s partners "to reevaluate their product designs, enhance durability and embrace repairability, aligning with the overarching ethos of sustainability and longevity," she added. This practice of a product-as-a-service (PaaS) provider sharing usage data directly to brands should serve as a model for similar providers who can collect product usage data and use it to advance circular design.
Advancing circular design
The second important piece of this cycle of information is the way Tulu can financially incentivize the brands it partners with to prioritize circular design. Shemer said Tulu’s selection process for new items in its rental units is based on "curating brands that align with our mission of seamless user experiences."
She acknowledged that it can be a complicated process to assess an item’s performance over its lifecycle. However, if Tulu can collect consistent data on the number of uses each item achieves over its lifetime, as well as its repairability and durability, this should factor into the way companies are compensated for products. By paying more for products that are durable, long-lasting and easily repairable, Tulu (and other PaaS providers) can incentivize circularity, and potentially improve its own bottom line.
Rather than maximizing profit by maximizing the number of items sold, companies should be incentivized to provide repairable products that demonstrably achieve more uses. This would change the economic picture for brands supplying products to Tulu units, motivating designers and manufacturers to innovate and build more durable products.
Tulu’s service and platform are inherently circular. But as the word gets out and more PaaS models take off, companies should acknowledge this virtuous cycle of information as a substantial way to facilitate and incentivize circular design.
Brands should leverage usage data from the providers of rental products and services to iterate and improve their products. PaaS providers should, in turn, reinforce circularity by paying a premium for items with proven longevity and repairability. If adopted at scale, these uses of data can help the providers of rentable goods and equipment establish themselves as enduring and necessary stakeholders in the transition to the circular economy.