Sharing in the Outdoors – Why We Started GearCommons

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.

Happy Trails,

Mike

Airbnb – A Peer to Peer Housing Rental Marketplace

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this peer to peer housing rental company called Airbnb.  I first heard about them via this weekly email digest that I get from EscapetheCity.org (these guys are also awesome, check them out).  I thought it was a clever idea but I had no idea how enormously popular it actually was until I dug a little deeper into their website.  After looking into more I feel truly left out and I plan to get involved as soon as possible.

What is it?

Airbnb is a peer to peer marketplace for home/apartment rentals.  It’s a great idea that at first I considered to be pretty niche.  How many people in the world would really go stay at a complete stranger’s house?  Apparently, there are a lot of people.  Since the company founded in 2008 there have been over 5 million bookings in 30,000 cities in 192 countries.  Impressive to say the least.

This is the basic homescreen of Airbnb. Just search the city and the dates that you need housing.

How does it work?

As the apartment owner or lessee you can put your couch, bedroom, apartment, or entire home up for rent online.  As the traveller it is very easy to find places to stay because there are Airbnb accounts all over the world.  You can rent anything from a penthouse room in Paris, to hammocks in Hawaii, to igloos in Alaska, to treehouses in Thailand, or even Castles in Greenland.  You can also rent fairly normal places too but where’s the fun in that?

Why not stay in a tree house next time you're in Thailand?

 

This is probably my favorite booking that I've found so far. An igloo in Germany? Do it for the story (DIFTS).

Is it affordable?

If you’re simply traveling for business or going on a weekend getaway, it’s very easy to find an affordable apartment or room to rent for a few nights.  Unless you’re looking for something super exotic, the prices are far cheaper than staying in a hotel.  I think that this is a major selling point for a lot of people.  When looking around Boston I found hundreds of properties under $100/night which is far cheaper than staying in a hotel downtown.

Here's an example of a very nice place in Boston's South End that runs for $86/night. The apartment owners have had 62 five-star reviews. I'd say their trust-cred is pretty high.

What about trust?

The prices are a nobrainer but where most people get concerned when I talk to them about it is with the trust issue.  Couldn’t Airbnb be a great place for rapists, thieves, and generally bad people to hang out and stalk their prey?  Maybe, but as a 6ft tall 180lb man who doesn’t really own anything of significant value, I’m not overly concerned about theft or safety.  Rightfully, most people are concerned about those issues so Airbnb and other similar companies in the sharing economy have developed great ways to instill trust in their systems.

For example, each property listed not only includes the host’s picture and their bio but it also includes reviews and ratings from people who have stayed there in the past.  This goes both ways so the property owner can also see the profiles, ratings, and reviews of the renters themselves and can choose to deny them if they don’t like what they see.  As a renter, I am much more likely to stay in someone’s apartment who has had 100 positive reviews than someone who has had 10 positive reviews and 5 bad reviews.  This is not much different than buying something on ebay or Amazon where online reputation is either a deal maker or a deal breaker.

You can also sync your Airbnb account with your Facebook account so you can see how you’re connected to that person.  I was surprised to see how many bookings in Boston were connected to friends of mine.  You could easily then contact your friend to ask about the property owner.  Additionally, concerning the theft issue, Airbnb offers $1M in insurance in case there is an incidence of theft or vandalism.  If you’re not convinced then take a look at their Safety Page or just do your first few rentals with a friend.  Travelling alone is lame anyway.

Thiago and Niles have had 86 five-star reviews and they're actually friends with one of my friends on Facebook. After doing some due diligence I feel pretty safe about staying with these guys.

Why am I interested in Airbnb?

I am a yuppie 20-something who has high rent, likes to travel, and has student debt.  If I could rent out my room a few nights each month and offset the cost of my rent or reduce my student debt than that’s a win in my book.  Conversely, when I’m traveling I live by the mantra “Do it for the Story” or DIFTS so I would have a much better story to tell if I rented a treehouse in Thailand than if I stayed in a resort.  Also, I’m just really interested in the whole concept of peer to peer marketplaces so I’m excited to start experimenting with Airbnb.  It’s a bandwagon I should have jumped on a long time ago.

Sharing Economy Book Review – “What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption”

If Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book on the Sharing Economy then it would read and feel a lot like “What’s Mine is Yours”. This book was filled with useful anecdotes from both businesses and individuals who are taking part in the global rise of collaborative consumption.  It was a quick read and gave hundreds of examples of collaborative consumption in the web 2.0 (web 3.0?) world and how people are making money, saving money, and creating entirely new currencies.

As a car-less yuppie who lives in downtown Boston I thought I was a Sharing Economy power user of sorts because I was using RelayRides and I eat produce from a CSA (farm share). After reading this book I realized that I was pretty out of touch with an entire industry that is exploding in popularity around the world. I took pretty detailed notes as I read the book (a habit thanks to my father) and I ended up with the names of 130+ entrepreneurs who started over 100 companies in the collaborative consumption arena.  I used to think that the Sharing Economy was a rather fringe activity for yuppie hippies but I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. The Sharing Economy is a sustainable place where entrepreneurs can make a serious amount of money (Zipcar was recently bought for $500M) and “customers” can get a higher value experience, save money, and feel like they’re part of a community all at the same time.

This book is a great overview for those who aren’t familiar with companies like Zipcar, Airbnb, Hub Culture, Zopa, and dozens others. It will introduce you to the Sharing Economy without going into a huge amount of detail about each company and their history. This makes it very informative yet digestible. After page 2 I was hooked, by the end of the book I was certainly drinking the collaborative coolaid, one week later I had started blogging about it and now the Sharing Economy is all I think about. I can’t recommend this book enough.

I recently came across a TEDTalk from one of the authors Rachel Botsman.  If you’re a Sharing Economy nay-sayer then this video will wake you up.  If you’re already participating in collaborative consumption as they call it, then this video will give you goosebumps and energize you, it did for me anyway. It’s about 20 minutes long but definitely worth watching.

My review on this book can also be found on my GoodReads.com account.  GoodReads is essentially Facebook meets bookshelves.  It’s a great way to maintain your bookshelf without the need for owning books.  It integrates pretty well with Facebook, posting status updates when you finish reading and cross-referencing books that your friends have read, making suggestions for you.  You still get to show off your shelf to people so they can see how extravagantly well-read you are, you just don’t have to be a “consumer” of books. Borrow one from a friend or a library, put it online when you’ve finished reading it and move on.

Lifestyle Experiments in the Sharing Economy

Over the last year I did a series of 30 day lifestyle experiments covering everything from nutrition to minimalism.  Starting fresh in 2013, I’ve decided to refocus my efforts on a new topic: the Sharing Economy.  I had trouble finding a decent definition on the internet so I’ll describe it my own way: If a local commune of hippy entrepreneurs made babies with social media platforms then it would be this phenomena we’re currently seeing called the Sharing Economy.

I have been a part of this sharing “revolution” since back in college.  In 2007 out of necessity (a mostly broke and entirely car-less student), I jumped at the chance to join Zipcar, a company that offered a car-sharing service where you could rent cars by the hour (~$7/hour) instead of owning one. Considering that I was hardly making any money at the time and that my parents weren’t going to finance one for me, having access to a car when I needed one was a huge improvement to my daily life.  It allowed me to get groceries, run errands, and all of the other things that are difficult to do via public transit.

Zipcar makes it very easy to find cars near your location. I frequently will find a car on the fly and rent it using my smartphone. It works great.

Even after graduating and attaining a decent income, I’m now car-less by choice because the car-sharing programs have been very convenient, accessible, and cost effective for me.  After accounting for monthly payments, parking ($100-200/month), auto insurance, excise tax, snow tires, repairs, and other various expenses, the math just makes it a no-brainer for me to participate in car-sharing instead of ownership.  All that money that I would be spending on owning a vehicle, I’m dumping into my student loans instead, not a bad tradeoff if you ask me.  I still do a fair amount of mooching off my friends and their vehicles but that’s only because our plans frequently line up (mostly weekend outdoorsy shenanigans).

Since Zipcar, I’ve been involved in other sharing programs like RelayRides (similar to Zipcar but peer-to-peer car-sharing instead) and organic farming programs like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA, aka farm-sharing).

The best part about not owning a car is getting to drive other peoples expensive cars, thanks @RelayRides #thanksgiving

First meal of my Enterprise Farms #CSA: penne pasta w/ tomato sauce, red kale & baby bok choi, simple and delicious

So far, these experiences have been economically viable for me which is a major driving factor to me participating in them.  Secondly, they are more environmentally sustainable than their alternatives (taking cars off the road and eating local produce).   Also, each of these platforms creates a global (ish) community but at a local level so you have access to a wide range of geographic data while still being able to operate within your neighborhood.  It’s a win-win on a lot of levels, or “We’re checkin’ a lot of boxes here” as my friends and I like to say.

Over the past 3-4 months I’ve started doing more research into the dozens of other programs and companies involved in the Sharing Economy.  My mind is continually blown not only at the number of companies and services that exist but the level of engagement throughout the world.  For example, Airbnb is an online housing rental platform that allows you to rent private rooms to/from people in 192 countries and over 30,000 cities!  It’s a fantastic idea that I feel like everyone is participating in and that I’m being left behind.  With that being said, it’s time for me to get involved.

I’m excited to dive head first into anything and everything that I can find in the sharing world and my 30 day lifestyle experiment blog will be a great mechanism to explore the topic.  I don’t think I’ll force myself into the frequency of doing a new concept every 30 days but I still have a lot of interest in the idea of lifestyle experimentation.  It has been a route toward self improvement for me so experiments in the sharing economy is certainly a logical extension of my last project.

So please feel free to suggest new topics for me to explore.  If you’ve had good/bad/indifferent experiences with the Sharing Economy please share those as well (pun intended).  My first experiment will be with Airbnb so look out for future posts in the apartment-sharing theme.  I’ll be blogging at least weekly but tweeting as often as possible/tolerable.  So if you’re Twitter-savvy check out @YoungandUrban, if you’re Facebook savvy check out My Facebook Page, and if you’re neither then wake up and get with the program or you can sign up for an email digest of my blog’s content (see right column of my website). Wish me luck as I spend 2013 doing lifestyle experiments in the Sharing Economy.