Opportunity 2013: The Sharing Economy

"Collaborative consumption" is moving beyond cars and homes into ever more niches—including business resources

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The Growing Movement to buy less and share more—a.k.a. collaborative consumption— is a concept familiar to anyone who’s used a laundromat or rented a movie. But thanks to the Internet, the shared-use model is spreading to ever more goods and services. “We’re able to do these things on a scale we’ve never seen before,” says Lauren Anderson, community director at Collaborative Labs, an Australian consultancy.

While some credit an anti-consumerist backlash or a lagging economy for the shift away from owning, others see a more basic motivation: convenience. Kevin McLaughlin, co-founder of Toronto car-sharing service AutoShare, says early car sharers were “keeners” eager to reduce their carbon footprints. Now, car shares attract many consumers who simply want access to a service without the hassle and cost of ownership.

Enabling people to share and swap is an alluring business model, as it offers vast opportunities to scale up with little capital investment. Take home-sharing service Airbnb, an online platform that lets people rent their homes to visitors. Users supply the product (rooms), post ads (marketing) and vet guests (due diligence), and Airbnb pockets 9% to 15% on each booking.

As sharing gains traction, such niches as cars and homes are spawning new permutations. U.K.-based StoreMates, for example, helps people rent basements or attics—not to visitors but to those seeking storage space. McLaughlin, meanwhile, points to peer-to-peer car sharing that enables people to borrow cars directly from their owners.

The B2B space is largely untapped terrain. Luxembourg’s FLOOW2, for example, links construction firms in need of heavy machinery with others that have it sitting idle. The principle could apply to anything from warehouses sharing loading-bay staff to offices renting empty cubicles to solopreneurs. But Anderson cautions that any sharing business needs to build trust through measures like user-rating systems.

Read more from PROFIT’s 2013 Opportunity Guide

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