Zipcar was the first company to convince me that access was more important than ownership. When I moved to Boston for graduate school in 2007, I was mostly broke and couldn’t afford the monthly payments, taxes, repairs, and insurance that came with car ownership. Also, I was mostly confined to the engineering lab anyway so I really only needed a car a few times each month. This is when I joined Zipcar.
Over the next several years, I used Zipcars to get groceries, go to the climbing gym, and travel all around New England hiking, climbing, racing, and visiting family. Since my early days of carsharing, I’ve become a frequent user of other sharing businesses as well. I’ve traveled while sleeping on couches via Couchsurfing, I’ve been both a host and a guest on Airbnb, I’ve borrowed my neighbor’s cars on RelayRides, I’ve shared cabs on Lyft, I’ve crowdfunded projects on Kickstarter, I’ve lived in entrepreneur cohousing at Krashpad, I’ve made money by becoming a TaskRabbit, I’ve hosted open data Hackathon events, and I’ve bartered skills on Bartercard. In each case, I started using the service because it solved a real problem that I had. I continued to use these services over time because I was drawn to their ability to involve real people to create new and authentic experiences. I just couldn’t find the same level of satisfaction with the more traditional businesses in the same industries.
Opportunity in the Sharing Economy
Participating in the sharing movement in a variety of industries has been very helpful and exciting for me. Collectively, they helped me to pay down over $50,000 in college debt while leading to fun social experiences.
However, it wasn’t until I started writing for Shareable last year that the light bulb turned on: Why wasn’t anyone “sharing” in the outdoor industry? I’ve been an avid outdoorsman all my life, spending virtually all my free time hiking, rock and ice climbing, camping, running, cycling, and literally anything that involves fresh air and adventure. When I moved apartments this past summer and did an inventory of all my possessions and found that 50% of what I own is meant for outdoor recreation. This proved to me what I already knew; outdoor recreation is one of the most important things in my life. So I set out to find what resources existed for sharing in the outdoors.
As any good engineer or aspiring entrepreneur would do, I opened up a spreadsheet and got to work researching companies who fit the theme of “Access over Ownership” and “Collaborative Consumption”. I found well over 300 companies around the world in various industries. The carsharing market is exploding and represents around 25% of Sharing Economy companies. The rest of the Sharing Economy is a mixed bag of industries and services like rentals (21%), bartering (4%), and food (4%). Despite the massive success of Airbnb, there are actually very few copycats in the housing market. Still, what surprised me the most was that except for one or two examples, the outdoor industry was largely unrepresented in the Sharing Economy.
Access and Ownership of Outdoor Gear
After more research specific to the outdoor industry, I found that the #2 reason people say that they don’t go outside is that they lack access to the right gear (#1 reason is lack of time). In contrast, the outdoor gear industry represents $120 Billion annually, so clearly there is no shortage of outdoor gear in American homes. However, the data still shows that access to gear continues to be a main barrier for people who want to recreate outside. This is a classic situation that you see in the Sharing Economy; assets that are underutilized or not distributed very well among the community.
Unlike carsharing, crowdfunding or other sharing industries, the outdoor industry has had an identifiable and solid community foundation for decades. When I joined Zipcar, I became a “Zipster”, a term they created to help me identify with the carsharing movement. The outdoor community already has this innate connection between people. Friends have been sharing, borrowing, and buying outdoor gear for a long time, there just aren’t many services to help us do this in a modern and more socially connected way. I think that if the outdoor industry were to adopt best practices from the Sharing Economy we could help more people enjoy the outdoors. One immediate way to do this is to provide better access to outdoor equipment in a social online platform.
Sharing in the Outdoors with GearCommons
After chewing on this concept with my old friends from the Tufts Mountain Club, I teamed up with an outdoorsy friend and talented web developer to create GearCommons, a peer-to-peer network for renting outdoor gear. We launched in the end of August and since then we have been growing our community in the Boston area. If you own gear, you can upload it to GearCommons and make money by renting it out to people nearby. Alternatively, if you or a friend needs outdoor gear for an upcoming trip, you can browse GearCommons to find a neighbor who already owns it.
The gear owner can set his or her own rental price for each item of gear. This helps people get access to gear at a price that even a broke college kid can afford. Buying all of the necessary gear up front can cost thousands of dollars. I was lucky enough to have the Tufts Mountain Club to help me acquire gear throughout college but not everyone has had that same privilege.
We’ve also adopted other best practices from the Sharing Economy such as a renter/owner rating system, security deposits in the event of damaged gear, and the ability to approve or deny rental requests. All the gear exchanges between renters and owners are done locally so as to preserve the community element of GearCommons.
I first started using the Sharing Economy six years ago out of financial necessity but I continued to participate in various services because of the ever-present human element. I hope that years from now, people can say the same thing about GearCommons. It started by solving a real need for people and then continued by providing authentic human experiences. Ultimately, we just want to share our enthusiasm for the outdoors and get more people outside. We think that GearCommons is a great step in that direction.