Where I See The Sharing Economy Going: AirBnB

In my last post I talked about where I thought the sharing economy was going to be going. I wrote that I felt that Uber would grow up a little bit and change how they manage working with cities. This prediction has already born fruit in that Uber is taking a 3 month hiatus from Portland to allow the city to create new rules governing how the city licenses Uber and ridesharing. I think that this is an instance where both the city and Uber were acting like adults. Uber forced the issue, a bit like thugs, the city sued, so both flexed their muscle a bit then both backed down and came to the table to figure things out. We’ll see what happens in April whenever the city has completed its rule making to see how Uber responds.

AirBnB behaves in a similar fashion, moving into cities and pretty much breaking how things operate. The legacy industry wants the city to shut down the ability for people to rent out rooms from companies like AirBnB, while the cities want to collect more taxes from this newly created revenue source, and of course people want extra money from their unused rooms/spaces. So pretty much Lose-Win-Win. However, recent data argues that the hotels aren’t losing out on much of anything. Which means that AirBnB might be catering to a wholly different demographic than what typical hotels do, which might be the couch surfing crowd.

AirBnB already has plans to test turning people’s kitchens into restaurants. Which offers a pretty interesting opportunity for all those folks that you always have felt that should make a restaurant, but can’t afford to. I think that this has the unique opportunity to allow more people to eventually start food trucks and then move into a full restaurant after some time and enough demand. However, this venture has even more potential legal issues than renting or replacing cabs. This is because, there are a lot of people that are pretty much slobs and have cockroaches. It doesn’t even have to be your fault that you have them. When I lived in Pittsburgh we had tons of baby cockroaches because our neighbors next door, where we shared a wall, were dirty filthy slobs that didn’t take care of things. Personally, I found it pretty disgusting to be dealing with the roaches, so we had our land lord clean it. However, if you didn’t live there you wouldn’t know about it. My guess is that for this to be successful AirBnB will have to work with local governments to figure out the best way to address these concerns, they are valid after all. I believe that what should happen is that AirBnB either creates its own agency to do the policing or partners to enable policing of homes that want to sign up for this. AirBnB will likely have to develop some sort of background check and methodology for ensuring safety and quality at their “restaurants.”

Once AirBnB conquers the kitchen, it’s likely that they could move into Uber’s space, because after bedrooms and kitchens there’s cars. Other options could be to rent out a home or a space to host parties, where the home owners could act as cooks, wait staff, and/or a combination of both – this could depend on the price and the offer made by the home owners. AirBnB could of course move into more conventional hotelier, however, this drives down their profit margins and makes them liable for a lot more activities. I don’t see this happening in the near future, unless they begin to put the competition out of order. Another space could be managing office spaces or shared spaces, similarly to what a lot of hotels do now.

I think that AirBnB has a lot of options to innovate without pushing up against local governments, however they will still have to figure out how to manage their restaurant idea first. I think they will work with that out with a pilot city first, figure out what works for them (probably NYC), then they can more likely quickly expand into other markets with that approach. I think they will also very likely work with the governments beforehand. I’m imagining that a city like Portland might be a second or third market for them to move into since it’s great for food trucks and already has a great relationship with AirBnB.

I think that AirBnB is going to have an easier time with local governments than Uber because it has a better reputation and seems to have been working with the governments from the start. I’m interested in seeing where they go in the next few years.

Where I See The Sharing Economy Going

I’ve been beating up pretty harshly on Uber and in some of my past posts I’ve done something similarly to other members of the sharing economy. This is because there’s an attitude of entitlement in some of their behavior, that being said the incumbents pretty much the exact same way and have worked to institute laws to protect themselves. In some cases the laws that are preventing Uber and AirBnB from effectively entering new markets were put in place to protect customers FROM the incumbents. Which means that Uber needs to work to ensure that their drivers meet those same requirements, which I think is a good thing.

So that being said, where will these companies end up in the next few years. Now this, of course, is pure conjecture, but I think it’s somewhat informed. Based on the types of lawsuits we’re seeing from cities like Portland, countries like France and Spain, we’re likely going to see that Uber is going to have to work more with the governments before moving in. These lawsuits are expensive and too many of them will drain the startup’s coffers where it might negatively impact their ability to do business. So instead of just forcing themselves into a given city they will work with community leaders to effect change of policy. They will start to institute their own rules that will lead to inspections of the cars at random intervals, they will begin to add a great deal more of measures that the riders will be able to rate the drivers on. All of these will be analyzed using BIG DATA and will be used to help show that Uber meets the requirements of various governments.

As these companies mature they will begin to look more like incumbents and start to drive policy creation through lobbying while striving to use their data to support their lobbying efforts. They will start to work prevent other competitors moving into their spaces, leverage their monopolies to move into other spaces and generally mature as an organization. Through these missteps they will create internal policies focusing on how to manage their data and implement processes to prevent data abuse in the future. These startups will need to clearly become data stewards as they mature, because they live and breathe data.

I think it’s likely that Uber is going to begin experimenting more and more with other modes of transportation, for example they are partnering with Carpooling to help bring that service to the US for long distance ride sharing. With the amount of money that Uber has in the bank, it’s likely that they’ll look to acquire this company if the partnership is successful. I could see them getting into RV sharing and then potentially trying to compete head on with AirBnB – that last one is a bit of a stretch, but with a huge pocket full of cash they will definitely be able to take a great deal of risks to experiment in new markets once they have operations in major cities across the world. I’d be willing to guess they’ll continue to use the US as an experimental test bed and while deploying more mature offerings across the world.

In my next post I’ll dig into where I think AirBnB will go with their business.

Silicon valley, new tech, and how we use it

Last night as I was watching Hulu, an interesting comercial came on that was all about jabbing Silicon Valley and its love for the newest of the new. I think it was for a new Toshiba Tablet. This comercial was really self-aware of the environment in which they sell as well as the types of people they are actually trying to sell their devices to. I think that the commercial also does a great job pointing out that the Internet of Things and 3d Printing both might be part of a hype machine that is out of control. All of these technologies could do great things, but they aren’t preordained to do anything amazing. It’s up to the user to really enable that.

I think that the book I’m reading “Enchanted Objects” does a bit of this as well. I’m torn if I should love these ideas or hate them. The Smart scissors mentioned in that ad would definitely fit under the definition of Enchanted Objects because it’s something ordinary that through sensors, haptic feedback or other do-hickeys has some extra-ordinary capabilities. Many of these things seem gimicky and unlikely to catch on. Others, like the author’s Glow Pill – which is a lid for a pill container to remind people to take their pills – would be really helpful to a lot of people out there.

I also agree with the author’s sentiment that the black screens we peer into day in and day out, are somewhat ugly, unweildy and have never lifted up to their hype. Which means that they likely haven’t made our lives significantly better and mostly just incrementally. I think this is born out through the drop in sales in tablets, the saturation of the smart phone market, and the resurgance of sales in PCs. People have found the tablet ecosystem limited in someway and awkward to use and have opted to refresh their capability with a cheap laptop rather than springing for a new tablet (an exception to this trend could be a Surface 3, but we’ll see how that pans out in the long term). Another concern with all these devices is of course security and safety from prying eyes. I’ve been talking about this for a number of years, but I believe that people will actually start listening after seeing the result of the Ferguson MO police action. Your twitter feed and location is on twitter, the police can find that. What other data are you sharing out there without truly understanding it. How can it be used against you by a militarized local government?

I think much of this goes back to my questions of ethics and technology. At what point does a technology become unethical or, rather, the use of a technology become unethical? Is a smart trashcan ethical because it helps you save the environment and support local business, what happens if that impacts your taxes or gets you on an eco-terror watch list? We don’t understand how our data is being used and to me that is scary.

I think this is played out a great deal with the fact that AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, and similar sites are the biggest booming sites in Silicon Valley. These aren’t truly technological innovations, they are business model innovations, which is why they are so devastating. Sure they are leveraging technology in an appealing way, but they aren’t really technology companies. Their innovation is in the way they engage with their customers, the delivery method is the same in many cases, a room or a car, as their competitors. The competitors haven’t been able to figure out how to combine the nimbleness of the app with a dynamic business model. Based on historical evidence, it’s unlikely that they will be able to catch up and compete. Which is fine, because I’m sure their data usages will be as opaque as the new companies. We don’t know how they are collecting our data or what they are doing with it.

Startups are going to save us, relax everybody

In typical Silicon Valley Breathlessness Forbes published an article by Victor W. Hwang arguing the fact the Startup movement isn’t about startups. He argues that it’s actually a movement to free people from the chains of our current economic system. I definitely don’t buy this. Most people start a company for one of two reasons, they find a problem that they have a better solution for than anything provided (or a novel solution) or to make money. Typically it’s a combination of the two. No company in existence is out there not to make money. Companies that aren’t profitable cannot stay in business for long unless you’re lucky and funded by people that thing you will eventually make them a lot of money.

An opinion piece in the NY Times from 1/2/2014 pretty much sums this fact up. You’re replaceable at a startup and likely even more so than any time in the ¬†future of the company. It’s really easy to fire people when you have no money, especially if you are open and honest about how you go about letting people go.

Furthermore, if the startup movement was in fact about bettering the plight of people we wouldn’t be seeing the social stratification that we’re seeing in cities like San Francisco, ground zero for the startup movement. In SF some of the neo-techno-libertarian-elite are upset that they even see the poor people on their streets rather than out of the way like in cities like NYC (he issued an apology not unlike Tiger Wood’s for being a sex addict). Not only are these the people that are involved in the startup movement, but they are funding it. Yes, I know that this is only one person and on the other side you can point to Alexis Ohanian of Reddit fame, which really is doing a lot of social good.

In some ways the startup movement has made it easier for people to be cogs in the wheel. They work long hard hours, large companies like Facebook and Google push and push to get more for less. In many cases this can cause depression and the exact opposite of what the Startup movement is striving for. In fact, the goal of the Lean Startup is to make it extremely easy to ramp up new employees and ensure full coverage if something goes wrong. These companies and products are designed around the idea of building in quality rather than testing or patching it in. Of course, there’s a benefit to the employee in these cases too – they’re free to really explore new problems and create new things without needing to worry about reoccurring problems.

I do believe there are many startup founders are genuinely trying to change our society for the better, but it hasn’t been a frictionless process and will likely only get worse as we move forward. The Sharing Economy, for example, has come under fire from traditional companies, neighbors, politicians, and even members of the sharing economy. While in other cases, such as Zynga, we see companies that are essentially parasites that thrive through creating addicting games and clogging a platform with their notifications (those notifications stopped and Zynga basically died).

It’s important to be skeptical of statements that glorify any portion of our culture. The article that spurred me to write this has a similar tone as many of Thomas Freeman’s, of the NYTimes, articles, fully optimistic, but missing a broader portion of the population and the long term impact. We should be wary of these articles because we’ll end up believing that it’s more complicated to calculate a median value than an average. The startup movement is to help people start companies, some founders are dreamers, some truly try to change how work is done, but they most aren’t truly changing the world in amazing ways. We’ll be fine if reddit, AirBnB, or some other services vanishes. We were when Digg, Google Reader, Palm and any other influential company vanished.

New Economy vs. Old Economy – Creative Destruction

My last post on this the New Vs. Old triggered a far to brief conversation at work about creative destruction and when it’s “right” for creative destruction to occur. I felt that this was an interesting tact for approaching this sort of conversation. My colleague pointed out that when new businesses challenge laws that are in place just because you have to question if that’s “right” or not.

First, what is creative destruction? I wrote about this over two years ago, so I’ll forgive you not remembering. Essentially, it’s whenever new businesses figure out new innovative ways to provide a service or technology that causes the previous service to be obsolete. Today, it’s more popularly described as “disrupting a market.”

So, looking at creative destruction and the laws that spring up around a given industry I believe that on the extreme there are only two types of laws. Those that protect the consumer/public/end user/employee and those that protect the industry. That’s not to say that this isn’t a gradient where the impact of a given law flows from protecting the public to the industry or in fact does both.

For example, Copyright used to protect both the people that produce music and the public. It did this by guaranteeing a state sanctioned monopoly for a short time period and upon expiration the public would then own the work. This enable the creation of the music industry and helped artists grow and make money. It wasn’t perfect for either party, but it worked fairly well. We all know of stories of starving artists that died and then their works became popular. Well, currently those works still make someone money and that isn’t good for the public. Now copyright lasts as long as 70 years past the death of the original artist. This clearly is no longer protecting the public but is protecting the industry. I would argue that with how far the pendulum has shifted it’d be moral to try to push the boundaries of these laws and creatively destroy the industry. This is currently happening with the copyleft movement.

In the last blog I wrote about AirBnB and discussed Uber in the one before that. These are very different than the music industry. Most cab companies have something called a medallion, which is something like a certification of quality for the vehicle and the cab driver. These are very expensive and have essentially a dual function of protecting both the public and the taxi industry. Uber is challenging these laws because it is a “ride sharing” program where you hail a person going in the direction you are, pay them some money and move on. The purpose of the company is to reduce expense of moving around a big city like San Francisco, increase the competition of the market, reduce the number of cars on the road, and to make money a different way. Depending on your point of view it’s breaking the law. It’s being sued and will likely continue to be sued.

Is it “right” for this company to operate this way? Well, there’s the argument that you don’t have to use Uber at all, so if you’re concerned about the safety aspect you’re mostly covered. Since it’s a personal vehicle the general public is at no more risk than if the car was driving around with one person rather than two. The person is already on the road and likely would have been anyway, so if they suck at driving you’re no more or less safe. However, it’s still possibly in conflict with the law. It’s a new way to hail a “cab” and the taxi companies are having problems adapting to the competition. So is it right or wrong? In this case, I don’t really know. I think that it’s “Right” that a company is forcing taxi companies to evaluate how they do business and to challenge the laws that are in place to protect the taxi industry. I think there could be risks to the public, but they aren’t huge.

There’s another aspect that I haven’t talked about in this model though. A company like Yellow cab has subsidiaries in many different cities. While Uber is an application and it’s “cabs” are in any city where a person is a member. There’s a huge network effect benefit for Uber, they need to do little to no extra work and they can grow into new markets. Uber doesn’t control which markets they enter to some extent or how quickly they grow in a given market, they can grow as fast as the market can support the growth. Yellow Cab has a much different growth potential and can’t enter new markets as easily. If Uber is able to service an under serviced area shouldn’t we support that? Isn’t that “right.” Furthermore, with this rapid growth model it’s nearly impossible to know what laws they are going to be in conflict with until it’s already in the market. Ignorance of course is no defense, but it removes some of the intentional aspects of the creative destruction.

I think that there are certainly moral questions that need to be asked around new businesses and business models. We should continue to ask them and work to make sure that if a new company is disrupting and industry the result is equal or greater protection to the public and a balance between changing laws that protect incumbent industry and the new entrant.

New economy vs. old economy

With the rise of the so-called “Sharing Culture” there’s been a recent upswing in the types of business that focus on connecting people point to point with others that can provide services that people need without a lot of the fuss of other intermediaries. There are, of course, a few pioneers in this type of activity, Napster, Kazaa, but also more “Legitimate” companies, such as eBay, PayPal, and Craigslist. These caused disruption, but not on a seriously massive level. eBay expanded the amount of people that could or would auction off their goods. It more likely impacted the amount of garage sales or donations to Goodwill. Craigslist did have a negative impact on newspaper’s income – however newspapers were having other issues because people just weren’t buying them, so it was somewhat moot. Now, however, there are companies springing up that are impacting much larger less “fringe” portions of our economy.

I first heard of companies like this while in the Netherlands where some of my friends were using Couchsurfing. Which connected people that were passing through an area for a night to two to crash on someone’s couch. I don’t think any money was exchanging hands. I believe that this site was a natural precursor for AirBnB, which has gotten in a lot of hot water lately. This site, for those unaware, allows people to rent out rooms of their house or their entire house for short periods of time. The idea is that the renters can use the stuff in the house and have a cheaper place to stay compared to a hotel. While the owners are able to rent out unused space. For instance, I could rent out my third bedroom if I wanted too.

A lot of people aren’t happy with this notion. For one, it does violate a lot of zoning laws and people are pissed about their neighbors renting out rooms to god knows who. Secondly, it does violate those laws and New York City has decided to do something about that. They’ve asked for information on 15k users in the city. This will likely be a large blow to membership there. If users feel that they are likely to be hit by a law suit or forced to pay licenses to rent out the rooms, renting the rooms will be much less appealing. This of course will thrill hotels as they can continue to enjoy a higher cost.

Part of this stems from the fact that this is new and scary. People don’t understand the change. Part of it comes from the fact that the city doesn’t want people to do this instead of normal rental agreements which “protect” both parties in different ways. An AirBnB arrangement is very different and likely has a lower level of protection (mostly social norm based rather than legal based). Part of it probably has to do with money. The city likely earns less taxes from people renting rooms this way than from Hotels.

These types of differences are going to be occurring on a more frequent basis. We need to help steer the conversation as internet savvy folks and look into how we can create accommodations for both sides. I’m not saying for the hotels, I’m talking about for your neighbors and community. Work with them to help them explain what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what they can do to help develop the social norms for websites like AirBnB rather than destroying it before it has a chance to be successful.

I’m hoping there will be a lot more experimentation in these types of sites even if I never use them. I firmly believe that it’s your house you should be able to use it as you see fit as long as it doesn’t cause harm to other people. Having a two way conversation and educating the different stakeholders involved is crucial to ensuring the survival and continued experimentation in these spaces.