Reflections on Life in the Sharing Economy | Episode 2

by Maria Paula Oliveira

Reflections on life in the sharing economy | Episode 2

On Episode 1 of this series, I contextualized some key elements of the sharing economy and why this is an important economic and social movement. In this episode, I’ll share with you my experience living & breathing the newly born sharing economy, right at its source, the Silicon Valley.

Starting with a trip down memory lane, and then moving to the recent experiment, we will discuss the critical factors that made the sharing economy possible at this point in time.

Critical elements to make “sharing” happen

Not too long ago, back in the early 2000’s in Brazil, I started promoting among my girlfriends what came to be known as “The Girls’ Bazaar.” Every few months, we would get together and exchange our used goods – clothes, shoes, accessories…stuff.

After a night full of laughter, we all would go home having uncluttered our wardrobes and happy with our new acquisitions – metaphorically speaking, because there was no monetary exchange, and all items that didn’t find a new owner were donated to low income families.

Of course, it was easy doing that with my girlfriends. We were closely connected, most of us working for the same company, and we trusted each other.

A “detachment experience” - and also a very economical way of getting a new pair of shoes! A “detachment experience” – and also a very economical way of getting a new pair of shoes!

Around the same time, I witnessed some entrepreneurs trying to promote similar bazaars as a business venture. Most of these initiatives failed after the few initial editions, as they proved to be hard to scale to an amount of participants and transactions that would justify the structure and logistics required to put up these bazaars in real life in a professional manner.

Fast forwarding a decade or so, I found myself in San Francisco, connecting with and trusting total strangers with whom I was making all sort of “transactions:” dining at their homes, cooking for them, hosting them, borrowing from them, buying from and selling to them. All thanks to the platforms of the sharing economy. Something fundamental had changed.

The same two key factors that made my girls’ bazaar possible in the physical world, connection and trust, were now made available in the digital world in a complete new scale thanks to technological advances:

internet based marketplaces + mobile payment technologies + mobile apps + social media + wide adoption of smartphones

With each of those forces enabling and reinforcing one another, the stage was set for the blossoming of the a new economic model. And I was ready to experiment living inside it.

With our couchsurfing guests, and dear friends, Tiago and Riq With our couchsurfing guests, and dear friends, Tiago and Riq

The Share Experiment

I picked a random day in October 2013 to start “The Share Experiment” – a personal commitment to live inside the sharing economy, resourcing from it whatever I needed within the following 75 days, and blogging about it. Being a food lover, I’d start by trying a shared meal.

On that same random day, my husband and I went to a dinner organized via Feastly, the platform that connects chefs (professionals and amateurs) who want to serve a meal at their home to people willing to have a meal at another person’s place rather than in a restaurant. In our case, the home of Amanda - a complete unknown. And off we went, not knowing what to expect.

Dinner at Amanda’s, organized via Feastly Dinner at Amanda’s, organized via Feastly

Two hours later, we returned home: full belly, smile on our faces, the result of a very pleasant evening drenched in Californian wine and new connections - with Amanda and her other guests. We talked about work, travels, passions. We also spoke about the sharing economy and how being there was a new (and a bit scary) experience for everyone, that was only made possible thanks to Feastly.

With systems based on cloud computing and mobile applications, the new economy’s platforms are mostly structured as marketplaces, connecting people who want to offer a good or service to people who want to access that good or service.

Seeking to reverse the characteristic lifestyle of the large urban centers, which isolates the individual in the crowd, discourages personal interactions and focuses on the relationship between consumers and corporations, the collaborative economy companies use their platforms to bring closer people who would, otherwise, probably never meet. The platform of Craigslist, for example, in the US only, not considering the other 70 countries where the company operates, connects, monthly, over 60 million people for a variety of transactions originated through 80 million ads.

Craiglist, one of the first platforms that leveraged technology to enable sharing Craiglist, one of the first platforms that leveraged technology to enable sharing

The second major barrier that technology advancements have allowed to be overcome while promoting interpersonal relationships - the basis of the sharing economy - is distrust, another symptom of the modern life that created human groups, but disrupted the sense of community.

How can you trust a Lyft’s driver, who is not a registered taxi driver? How to know if the room rented via Airbnb will be as nice as in the photos? How to open your home to offer dinner to strangers? The latter was one of my first challenges in “The Share Experiment.”

Embracing the innovation spirit to experiment in real-life the new business models Embracing the innovation spirit to experiment in real-life the new business models

No chairs

Soon after the experience at Amanda’s, I organized a dinner at our house. Thanks to Feastly’s process to curate both chefs and diners, I felt reasonably comfortable to open my home to unknown people. They, on their side, trusted that I’d be a reasonably decent chef for the night.

In two days, all available seats were sold. To my joy… and despair. I did not have enough chairs! Overcoming the first impulse to resource to the easy solution of purchasing new chairs, I turned to the sharing economy to solve my problem.

Via Nextdoor, a social network focused on connecting neighbors, I managed, in less than four hours, to find someone to lend me three chairs. Not sell, not rent, just plain old lend. Like neighbors do. Except those were neighbors that would not likely have met and related to each other, if not for the connection and trust provided by Nextdoor.

Lending chairs via sharing platforms to promote a dinner to strangers! Lending chairs via sharing platforms to promote a dinner to strangers!

Again, technology was essential to enable the resolution of the challenges for the new economy. With curation processes, scores and reviews of the members on both sides of communities, the platforms seek to ensure a positive experience to both those who provide as those that access the products and services. The online reputation is the key to the interpersonal relationship. Thus, knowledge and power, that since the industrial revolution were concentrated in the hands of companies, started now to be shared with and by people in collaborative marketplaces.

Key takeaways from this episode:

  • Technology has been the key enabler of the sharing economy as a scalable business model
  • The sharing economy bridges traditional concepts of friendship and neighborhood with the impersonal capitalism, in a new proposition to life in a connected community

Next episode: How my shared dinner unfolded and what lessons you learn when you cook for strangers

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Maria Paula Oliveira is a business executive with experience in corporations and startups, in Asia Pacific, Latin America and the USA. Her work spans strategy, research, M&A, and innovation management. In Brazil, she led Experian to TOP 3 most innovative companies, and had founding roles in two Silicon Valley startups. She writes on strategic innovation, creative ways for business growth, and shares insights with a personal touch about ideas, technologies and business models that are shaping the world. Follow @mpaulaoliveira

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