The sharing economy. It’s not, is it? Sharing, that is. The billionaire owner of Uber isn’t doling out dollars on the street. The chief of Airbnb isn’t housing the homeless. The sharing economy is not run by the Pope, it’s not owned by the people doing the exchanging, and none of us are getting in on the initial public offerings.
So, what about the collaborative economy? That sounds more realistic but it’s the sort of expression that a few guys working on a killer app in mum’s spare bedroom would use to impress a venture capitalist for a few million dollars of seed finance.
Peer to peer? Well, that’s what these businesses do, isn’t it? They redistribute economic activity between peers. You have something you can sell, others want to buy it and somewhere in the middle an industry goes broke and an app makes a motza.
We could go on. If you search long enough in the breathless blogs about digital disruption, you come across a thesaurus of expressions: shared capitalism, access economy, the gig economy, circular economy and, my favourite, hippienomics.
Which is a roundabout way of saying we’re having trouble describing what this new way of doing business is all about.
It’s as if aliens have landed in our midst and we’re trying to describe them to the cops. Officer, it had a big head — like Mark Zuckerberg; it had ears like Skullcandy headphones and when it spoke, it sounded like that noise that computers used to make on dial-up lines.
But we should not be alarmed. Our inability to nail this new economic force with an appropriate title simply reflects the fact that it is so alien. It’s so radical that it’s mucking up our MBA lexicon. It’s so next century that spellcheck doesn’t yet recognise the words.
So, we improvise. We use expressions such as: this business is the Airbnb of office space, or the Airbnb for live music. Or we describe new operations as the Uber for boat owners, the Uber for pets or the Uber for pot (a delivery system linking dope smokers with suppliers). Or we say Hipchat will do to email what the internet did to the post office. Or the GoPro drone will be the selfie for estate owners. Or simply, get Netflixed.
We make the early innovators the generic expression for a whole industry, as we did when newfangled products began appearing in shops last century. Hoover, Band-Aid, Kleenex and Google became the common name for a whole product range. But now company names are becoming expressions for entire industries.
It’s handy to use known items to identify unknown ones but there’s more to this annexation of nomenclature. First, it’s something incumbents can’t claim. ANZ would find it hard to say it’s the Uber for bond traders. The Hilton chain is never going to be the Airbnb of bedrooms. A suburban shop can’t claim eBay status.
Second, it’s about riding on coat-tails. Anyone can Kickstart a half-baked idea. If you call your new app the Uber for pets, you’re more likely to get capital than if you claim you’ve got a way of putting pet owners in contact with pet sitters (it’s too late for that IPO, by the way).
But the great appeal of these expressions is that they sound human. They are more social than economic. Experts say the currency of the new economy is trust. The infrastructure is transparency. The relationships are equal. The by-products are good for the environment and the savings are great for the economy. It’s all about trust, transparency and sharing.
And in the beginning it felt like sharing. It felt like a socialist utopia. It felt fresh and revolutionary and a little big naughty.
We didn’t want to pay exorbitant credit card fees in taxis; we wanted to bypass sterile hotel experiences; we didn’t want to pay for music when we could rent. We liked going straight to the source — and shaking hands with them.
Sharing is how it felt. Commerce is how it will pan out. But it’s a lot of fun along the way — if you’re not a legacy business with a big building, a wage roll and an attractive profit margin.