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.

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.