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Welcome To The World Wide Mesh: Where Access Trumps Ownership

Posted: 10/07/10 07:20 AM ET

I've felt a little culpable that we entrepreneurs often invent businesses just to drive people to buy more things. And, depending on the flavor of "thing," it may well create more stress on the planet, and on ourselves. With all of our ability to connect to each other and the physical world, this is the precise moment when sharing our things could be convenient, relatively inexpensive, and painless.

Then, I discovered just how many businesses are already based on sharing things. In my book, "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing," I describe how these "Mesh" businesses--such as Zipcar, Netflix, Velib bike sharing, Profounder, swap.com, Kickstarter and many others--are using mobile and social networks to make it easy to have access to what we need, without having to own it. In our growing online Mesh community, meshing.it, there are over 2,000 Mesh businesses and organizations, most of them new, but all of them based on sharing things.

Most of the businesses, even though they use the global web, are locally based. For example, there's a guy I know not far from my home in the Bay Area who started making wine in his garage. When dozens of his neighbors stopped by to help out, he got the idea to create a business where people could make world-class wines without having to buy a vineyard in Napa. His company, Crushpad, provides access to the grapes, machinery, and expertise you need to make a really good Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc. His customers get to roll up their sleeves and help with the grape crush --and these aspiring vintners fly in from all over for the harvest. But you can also make wine from afar by using the internet and UPS; choose your grape varietal, monitor the harvest and fermentation, and even create your label and sell your own brand on the Crushpad website. In this meshy business of making wine, you get as much 'grape intimacy' as you can handle, without the overhead and headaches of owning a winery. And, after hours of tasting your own wine, biking home is probably safer than driving.

At the global level, there are a growing number of city-based bike-sharing programs, that take advantage of mobile devices to reserve your bike, keep track of it, and collect data that helps to improve the service. There are also businesses like Netflix that operate over a wide geographical area. Another service with broad reach, Local Dirt, directly connects local farmers to buyers in the U.S.

The recession has sped up the growth of Mesh lifestyles and businesses. It's provoked us to take a fresh look at our personal and work lives. And, to re-evaluate what we really value. Our ever-present mobile devices provide the immediate and convenient information necessary to make sharing things truly irresistible. By gaining access to the goods and services we need exactly when we want them--by, for example, we can use a mobile phone to reserve a bike, car or a vacation home and shed the costs of buying, maintaining, storing, and insuring more stuff.

Conversely, sharing the things we already own becomes an opportunity for extra income and less waste. In Cambridge, MA, a company called RelayRides allows people to share their cars when they're not using them, which, on average is about 22 hours a day. Their system takes care of reservations, insurance, and other logistics for making certain that the service works.

The implications of the Mesh for the Earth are, of course, enormous. Every time we share something rather than own it ourselves, we reduce the stress on the planet. That could make the critical difference as the global population continues to grow. After all, our Earth is the ultimate 'share platform'.

Lisa Gansky is a serial entrepreneur--the co-founder of Ofoto, the first digital photo sharing service, now Kodak Gallery; the co-founder and CEO of GNN, the first commercial website, which was acquired by AOL in 1995; and an investor and board member of more than twenty internet and mobile services companies.

Her new book, "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing," is available here.