Thomas L. Friedman / The sharing economy is powered by the people
July 21, 2014 12:00 AM
From Ukraine to the Middle East, some bad actors — Hamas, Vladimir Putin and Israeli settlers to name but a few — are trying to bury the future with the past and divide people. Instead of focusing on them even more, I prefer to write about a company that is burying the past with the future, and actually bringing strangers together.
Last year, I interviewed Brian Chesky, one of the co-founders of Airbnb.com, about the emerging sharing economy, led by companies like the on-demand taxi app Uber and Airbnb, which provides a platform for people to rent their spare rooms, homes, castles and yurts to strangers with the same ease you can book a room at Marriott.
We just got together again, and Mr. Chesky laid out the growth spurt his company has experienced in the last 12 months — a spurt so fast that it’s telling you this new sharing economy is the real deal and will increasingly be a source of income for more and more people.
Mr. Chesky offered this sample of Airbnb’s latest metrics:
“We have over 3,000 castles, 2,000 treehouses, 900 islands and 400 lighthouses available to book on the site. On a recent night, over 100 people were staying in yurts.”
“Fifty-six percent of guests staying on Airbnb on a recent weekend were doing so for their first time. Last week, guests left reviews for hosts in 42 different languages. Over 17 million total guests have stayed on Airbnb. It took Airbnb nearly four years to get its first million guests. Now 1 million guests stay on Airbnb every month.”
“Roughly 120,000 people stayed in Brazil in Airbnb-rented rooms for the World Cup, including travelers from over 150 different countries. Airbnb hosts in Brazil earned roughly $38 million from reservations during the World Cup. The average host in Rio earned roughly $4,000 during the monthlong tournament — about four times the average monthly salary in Rio. And 189 German guests stayed with Brazilians on the night of the Brazil/Germany World Cup semifinal match.”
July 5, 2014, was Airbnb’s biggest night ever. “Its platform hosted over 330,000 total guests staying around the world — in thousands of cities and over 160 different countries,” said Mr. Chesky. In Paris, nearly 20,000 people were staying in Airbnb rooms on July 5. In 2012, that number was under 4,000.
What’s the secret? Who knew so many people would rent out rooms in their homes to strangers and that so many strangers would want to stay in other people’s spare bedrooms?
The short answer is that Airbnb understood that the world was becoming hyperconnected — meaning the technology was there to connect any renter to any tourist or businessperson anywhere on the planet. And if someone created the trust platform to bring them together, huge value could be created for both parties. That was Airbnb’s real innovation — a platform of “trust” — where everyone could not only see everyone else’s identity but also rate them as good, bad or indifferent hosts or guests. This meant everyone using the system would pretty quickly develop a relevant “reputation” visible to everyone else in the system.
Take trusted identities and relevant reputations and put them together with the Internet and suddenly you have 120,000 people staying in Brazilians’ homes instead of hotels at the World Cup. Obviously, there are exceptions and bad apples, and Airbnb provides $1 million in damage coverage for such cases, but the numbers say the system is working for a lot of people.
“I think we’re going to move back to a place where the world is a village again — a place where a lot of people know each other and trust each other … and where everyone has a reputation that everyone else knows,” said Mr. Chesky, 32. “On Airbnb, everyone has an identity.”
You can’t rent a room from someone or to someone unless you create a profile. And the more information you put into your profile — license, passport, Facebook page and reviews of people who have stayed with you — the more customers are likely to come. And the better reputation you earn from reviews, “the more other people want to work with you,” Mr. Chesky added. “All the social friction because of a lack of trust gets removed.” In the process, “you unlock all this value and the world starts to feel like a community again.”
But what happens to “ownership”?
“There used to be a romanticism about ownership, because it meant you were free, you were empowered,” Mr. Chesky answered. “I think now, for the younger generation, ownership is viewed as a burden. Young people will only want to own what they want responsibility for. And a lot of people my age don’t want responsibility for a car and a house and to have a lot of stuff everywhere. What I want to own is my reputation, because in this hyperconnected world, reputation will give you access to all kinds of things now. … Your reputation now is like having a giant key that will allow you to open more and more doors. (Young people) today don’t want to own those doors, but they will want the key that unlocks them” — in order to rent a spare room, teach a skill, drive people or be driven.
But what will this mean for traditional jobs?
Today, said Mr. Chesky, “you may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people. … You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.” Just as Airbnb was “able to find use for that space you never found use for, it will be the same for people. That skill, that hobby that you knew was there but never used it,” the sharing economy will be able to monetize it.
How fast that happens will depend, in part, on regulators and tax collectors in different cities — not all of whom like people turning their spare bedrooms into hotels or their kitchens into pop-up restaurants. The sharing economy can complement the existing one, and make the pie bigger. But the bigger the Ubers and Airbnbs get, the more incumbents will resist them. This will be a struggle between the 20th-century economy and the 21st’s.
The 20th-century economy was powered by big corporations that standardized everything because they never really knew their customers, argued Mr. Chesky. “The 21st-century economy will be powered by people” — where the buyers all have identities and the producers all have personal reputations — “so I will be able to sell something directly to you and delight you and surprise you, and the selection you’ll be able to choose from won’t be four but 4 million.”
I don’t know if that’s how it will play out, but given Airbnb’s rapid growth, Mr. Chesky’s argument definitely has my attention.
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.