November 17, 2010
Part 2: Q&A with Rachel Botsman, co-author of ‘What’s Mine Is Yours’
In September we ran the first part of our Q&A with Rachel Botsman, co-author with Roo Rodgers of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. The book outlines “a quiet but powerful revolution of collaboration” that’s flourishing online (Zipcar, CouchSurfing, et al.) and, increasingly, offline as well. In Part 1 we talked about what this mega-trend means for brands and marketers; the rest of our conversation takes a wider look at Collaborative Consumption, including some of its most recent manifestations.
Your book makes the interesting point that Collaborative Consumption is driven by self-interest—the realization that working for the collective good is the best way to help yourself. Why are people arriving at this conclusion now?
People are realizing how they can actually express their individualism as part of a community. Facebook is essentially about talking about yourself, but talking about it amongst a group. So we’re getting very used to this—“me” and “we” are sitting side by side, if you like. And linked to that, we’re also getting used to growing up sharing files and knowledge and video and ideas and our daily movements, and now those collaborative behaviors are entering other areas of our lives. So sharing a bike just makes sense to us; social lending just seems intuitive.
I do believe it’s ignorant to say, “People have a collective mind-set.” We still are self-interested. But self-interest doesn’t have to be a negative thing. People who join a food coop, for example—they’ll talk about benefits that are unique to them, like they get to eat healthier, but then they’ll also talk about how much they enjoy doing their four hours of voluntary time.
You note that Collaborative Consumption started online and is driven by technology but is now moving offline. What are some of the ways this is happening?
I want to caveat by saying that I have a real issue with the online/offline distinction. It’s something that’s getting really blurry, and it’s something I’ve given more thought to since the book was finished. What’s really interesting is online models that are realizing that people still need to meet offline. So Swaptree, for example, which is one of the largest swap/trading platforms for unwanted media, they’re realizing people want to meet and swap in the flesh, as well as online. Same with a lot of the trade bartering platforms.
People like bartering services virtually, but they also love coming together and having a photography skills session or a cooking lesson. So people experience this community virtually and then they want it in the real world as well.
Location-based technologies is another thing that’s blurring the virtual and real worlds.
I could talk about location-based till the cows come home because it’s got a few very important things. One, a huge theme in the book is trust between strangers. And within location-based services, I don’t think people think of other members as strangers—you’re essentially taking advice, whether it’s where you get your haircut or what sandwiches you’d order, from someone you don’t know, so you’re working that muscle, you’re reinforcing that behavioral dynamic.
If you think about what Foursquare is, it’s hyper-local sharing of information, and who knows where that will go. We’ll be able to pinpoint exactly where something is available to share or where someone is who can walk your dog and what they can give in return. I believe it will make products and services better because it forces a level of transparency that is probably frightening for companies. I also think it can help bring back local, independent shops, because they can customize what they’re offering through Foursquare because big brands are never going to have the radar to be able to do so.
You devote a chapter to the idea that designers will be key to driving this trend. Do you think the design community is ready for this challenge?
The conversation that’s going on in the design industry is actually more sophisticated than in the brand and advertising industries. They’re ready to go. I think it’s whether the clients are ready. I could not think of a more exciting time to be a designer than right now.
You mentioned seeing a lot of new examples of Collaborative Consumption since the book was printed. What are some of the more interesting ones?
Peer-to-peer car sharing is fascinating. If you think of the evolution, we’ve gone from traditional car ownership to car-sharing companies to ride-sharing platforms, and now we’re realizing, “Wait, that car that sits idle an average of 23 hours a day, we can make money from it, it’s an asset.” If you can create the trust between people to share probably one of their most valuable assets, nothing is off bounds. I also think it represents people looking around them and going—80 percent of the stuff we own we never use or we use less than once a month—“I could make money off that.” It seems really basic, and it’s really easy.
It makes so much sense. And the technology is now there so that you don’t even have to have the coordination of keys, because you put a device in your car and it’s a swipe system, just like on Zipcar. And if your car’s gone for more than the time it was signed up on, you can lock down that car.
The other category that really excites, and I think we are just in its pre-infancy, is virtual currencies. Virtual currencies have been around in the gaming world for a while, but I think it’s another ramification of the [downturn] that people are starting to realize, “Money was constructed as well; money was just invented as a common language to exchange.” And we’re seeing all alternatives forms of currency, whether it’s local currencies or social currencies or bartering points, and that’s really interesting because of the tax implications.
Any other new directions you see this trend evolving right now?
The other one that’s just this year—have you heard of social objects like Stickybits and Itizen? It’s the whole idea of socially tagging or tracking your things and attaching a story to them. That’s where you can start seeing the ancillary services come in—I think those communities that start to form around objects become the next Flickr, the next Facebook. It comes back down to the shared experiences we can have around an object that become far more fascinating than the object itself, in most instances.
You feel like it’s OK to be attached to material things when there’s an emotional connection there?
Well, people have said to me, “Well, you own stuff.” And I say, Yeah, but I own very few clothes—I buy beautiful, well-made clothes that are going to last for years. We own very little furniture, but it either has utility or it’s what I call a “one for life” product. I think it’s really interesting—brands like Rolex, Montblanc are doing phenomenally well. Because luxury now has a “one for life” meaning to it.
Durability may be the next luxury. Look at the number of young people wearing their grandfather’s watch or carrying that old piece of luggage. Again, it’s becoming very attached to things with a history or nostalgia, versus being new.
Do you think the next luxury item or status symbol will be sustainable products like electric vehicles?
I have a real issue with the term sustainable or greener products. Arguably, they are very important, like the electric car, but they are still dependent on the same consumer model. Seventh Generation is still about selling more units of Seventh Generation. It hasn’t fundamentally changed the way we think about consumerism. The Prius will still sit outside your house 23 hours a day. Where it gets exciting to me is when Toyota actually sells their Prius with a peer-to-peer car-sharing scheme. That’s what truly sustainable brands should be doing right now.
Solar panels are great examples of Collaborative Consumption. One, they are realizing that a rental model is far more appealing to people because the idea of owning these $50,000 cells feels like a responsibility. The other thing is a very good idea—there’s a company called 1BOG (One Block Off the Grid) that goes into neighborhoods and gets people to aggregate together and buy in economies of scale, in bulk.
You talk to 1BOG and what they say is, the power of their business model is not selling the solar panels, it’s that they have pods of people that have already committed that “We will do things together to buy things.” If I was the electric car companies, I would go into those same neighborhoods and say “You could buy three electric cars between you for 70 percent less, and then here’s the platform to share them.”
Any particularly unique or surprising examples of Collaborative Consumption you’ve seen lately?
It’s really simple ones that blow me away. Like the parking spots ones. There’s loads of them emerging where people are realizing, “The parking space in my garage is an unused asset, why don’t I rent it out?” There’s a wonderful story of a church in Islington [London] that signed up to ParkatMyHouse, and because they’re right by Islington station, they’re now making 50,000 pounds a year and they don’t have to do any other fundraising.
And the other ones that are just getting started are shared studio spaces, like TechShop, where you’ve got the renaissance concept of artists and makers all coming together in these big workshops and saying, “If we group together, we can have robot-making machines, and that’s a lot better than the saw in my garage. And I didn’t know nanoscience, but the guy sitting next to me does.” I think big companies that rely on R&D as their point of uniqueness should be—not scared, but they’ve got to change their model because innovations are going to come out of these collective forms. Even if you look at the way companies do open innovation, it’s still very much through virtual channels.
What are your personal favorite forms of Collaborative Consumption?
I am officially an AirBnB addict. I’m doing my book tour on AirBnB out of choice. I spent a lot of time on the road as a consultant and a lot of time in hotels, and I always had an issue that I’d be in the most amazing country relying on the concierge to tell me where to go for dinner and the rooms were all the same. What’s amazing with AirBnB is not just the people you meet but the places you get access to—I can stay in homes for $150 a night that I could never afford. And the thing we’ve started to enjoy doing is we rent out our place when we go away, so our holidays are net neutral. We’re making money off ours to pay for the places we’re staying in.
And finally, name one person, place or product not related to your business that we should keep an eye on in the near future?
As far as sectors that I think are really hot that are related to this space—if I was an investor, I’d be totally looking at social lending, I’d be looking at crowd-funding models. But they do relate to what I’m doing.
I think it’s a very exciting time to be involved in what luxury means. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I think there’s going to be brands that really break through by making luxury that [taps into] that nostalgia, that durability. Yesterday I bought an $800 pair of glasses because these glasses are going to last me five years; they’re made with the very best materials. And I hope those brands do become mores sustainable as well because they have the budgets and the design talent and the scale to fix their value chains and really lead the way. So the category to watch is luxury sustainable brands.