Imagine waking up in the room of someone you've never met. A stranger delivers your morning coffee, fixed just the way you like it. Then a personal tour guide arrives, another stranger ready to show you around her city. You both hop into a car borrowed from a neighbor, another person you've only ever "met" online.
The tour begins at a co-working space, where you meet entrepreneurs all focused on different types of social and environmental change, typing furiously into sleek laptops. Over lunch, you start feeling entrepreneurial yourself and invest money online to help someone get out of debt, or to kickstart a small business, or even to fund a nearby solar project. Then following the advice of one of your new friends, you decide to sell off some old clothes that your children have long outgrown. You end your day with an evening kayak ride, rented from yet another online peer-to-peer marketplace.
Far-fetched as this might sound, this "sharing economy" already exists and the sharing lifestyle isn't nearly as philanthropic and risky as it might appear.
Last Thursday, pioneers of the sharing economy gathered for an evening of discussion and collaboration at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, kicked off the panel by explaining how the economic recession, increased environmental awareness and Web 2.0 technologies have led us to a world where access to goods is trumping ownership of those goods. For example, when the average person in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe uses his or her car only 8 percent of the time, why do we all need to own cars when we could just borrow a car from a neighbor for far cheaper?
If the idea of lending your car or home to a total stranger makes you nervous, you're not alone. That's why companies like RelayRides and Airbnb have put into place hefty insurance policies to cover any damages. TaskRabbit, an errand service where you can get a stranger to do anything from deliver your morning coffee to plan your holiday party runs each of their "TaskRabbits" through extensive background checks and video interviews.
But perhaps one of the most trust-building factors is reputational. Companies within the sharing economy are essentially communities, and just as you wouldn't ask the teenage delinquent down the street to take care of your precious Fluffy, you can easily learn how people treated the last car they borrowed, place they rented or loan they received.
While a community built on trust and sharing might sound more like a hippie fantasy than a profitable business venture, share economy startups have attracted the attention of Silicon Valley tycoons such as Google Ventures and Sequoia Capital as well as individual entrepreneurs who utilize the marketplaces as a source of income.
Airbnb hosts average $6,000 per year for renting out their homes, RelayRides car renters generally earn enough to cover their monthly car payments and a few TaskRabbits are making $5,000 per month just from completing tasks.
In the investing space, Gartner Group researchers estimate that the peer-to-peer financial lending market will reach $5 billion by 2013 led by companies like Lending Club and Prosper. My company, Solar Mosaic, will be launching an exciting new community marketplace to create clean energy soon.
Sharing might be caring, but it's certainly not for just for the altruistic anymore. Greed got us into our economic and environmental crises; sharing might just get us out of them.