How Small Businesses Benefit from the Sharing Economy

by Susan Johnston on April 8, 2011
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With spring cleaning in full swing, small business owners across the country are scratching their heads wondering how they accumulated so many printer cartridges or why they still have a fax machine they never use.

According to Lisa Gansky, a serial entrepreneur and author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, unused resources may soon be a thing of the past (just like that fax machine gathering dust). Thanks to the infrastructure built over the last several years, business owners and consumers can tap into the sharing economy (or “the mesh,” as Gansky calls it) to pool resources instead of buying them.

While neighbors shared with each other informally in the past, technology has now enabled sharing on a much larger scale. Here’s how businesses are tapping into this phenomenon, and you can too.

  1. Sharing space. Instead of camping out in a coffee shop, jet-setting entrepreneurs can find temporary workplaces on the go through sites like LiquidSpace.com (which launched at this year’s SXSW conference). Photographers share or seek out studio space through StudioShare.org, while audio engineers search for space on the audio version of StudioShare.org.
  2. Sharing goods. Need an oversized printer or other item for a presentation? Sites like ShareSomeSugar.com and Rentalic.com facilitate the sharing of everything from label makers to laser printers to projection screens. Specialty sites like StudioShare.org (see above) also share photography or audio equipment. The site’s founder, Andreas Randow, says sharing makes sense because it allows users to select the right equipment for each project, rather than trying to adapt the equipment to the project each time. Plus, he adds, “you basically never have idle resources.”
  3. Sharing funds. Sharing sites are also democratizing the way artists and entrepreneurs seek out funding. Crowdsourced funding platforms including Profounder.com and Kickstarter.com allow users to support the projects they believe in and offer entrepreneurs an alternative to venture capital.
  4. Sharing knowledge. Gone are the days when intellectual property languished in some top secret filing cabinet, carefully guarded against outsiders. Now businesses are actually sharing some of their research to help advance technology. Gansky points to projects out of universities like MIT, as well as the GreenXchange. “Nike spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing research on sustainable materials and realized they learned a whole lot of stuff they’re never gonna use, so they put a Creative Commons license around their research and shared it,” she explains. Other GreenXchnage partners include Yahoo and Best Buy.
  5. Sharing as a business model. Another byproduct of the sharing economy is that entrepreneurs are constantly finding new twists on this theme. We’ve previously covered Airbnb.com, which allows people to rent out their couch or spare bedroom for short periods of time. But that’s just the tip of this digital iceberg. Thredup.com gives parents an outlet for swapping kids’ clothes and toys. Parkcirca.com lets people monetize their unused parking spaces by renting them out. Lifesta.com provides a secondary marketplace for buying and selling unused daily deals. As consumers become more budget and eco-conscious, demand for these sharing sites is likely to grow — and that’s something you can use if you’re starting up a new venture. “The choice of access is beating the choice of ownership,” concludes Gansky.
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