Build Apps for the Sharing Economy

By Brian Hall on February 26, 2013 / 1 Comment

Smartphones and tablets have now overtaken PC sales, desktops and laptops. According to IDC, the market for these “smart connected devices” is dominated by Samsung, which primarily offers Android, and Apple, with its iPhone and iPad line.

The rapid rise of these new, fully mobile personal computers has likewise given us the rapid rise of the app. Already, billions of dollars have been earned by app developers.

As you enter this market, or seek to extend your presence with additional apps and related services, the question quickly becomes: what should your app do? What will make your app thrive? Consider developing an app that leverages one of the fastest growing economic trends around the world: the sharing economy.

You need a car, but probably not all the time. You need a drill for home repair, but for only a specific task. You have a empty room in your house and someone needs a room for the weekend. The “sharing economy” enables people to maximize their assets and minimize their sunk costs.

According to the Huffington Post:

“The premise (of the sharing economy) is simply that access is more important than ownership. The appeal works on many levels – cutting down on costs, adding value and becoming part of a community that is connected through sharing resources. The desire to kick back against the systems and cultures of old that caused a global recession also plays its part in the movement towards cutting out the corporate middleman in the redistribution of ‘stuff’.

Smartphones, the mobile web, real-time notifications, social media and personalized recommendations enable strangers  to rent or “share” a product or service. Companies such as AirBNB, Zipcar, TaskRabbit and others are examples of the sharing economy. Zipcar, for example, is a car sharing company. Members can reserve cars for days, for hours, for a single trip. Last month, Zipcar proved so successful that Avis purchased the company for $500 million.

FastCompany considers the sharing economy to be on par with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution:

“Spawned by a confluence of the economic crisis, environmental concerns, and the maturation of the social web, an entirely new generation of businesses is popping up. They enable the sharing of cars, clothes, couches, apartments, tools, meals, and even skills.

The basic characteristic of these you-name-it sharing marketplaces is that they extract value out of the stuff we already have. Many of these sites depend on millennials disenchanted by the housing bubble and the banking crisis, or uninterested in traditional icons of success such as house or auto ownership. But the number of people who have quietly begun tapping in is impressive: Already, more than 3 million people from 235 countries have couch-surfed, while 2.2 million bike-sharing trips are taken each month.”

According to Forbes, “over the past four years at least 100 companies have sprouted up to offer owners a tiny income stream out of dozens of types of physical assets, without needing to buy anything themselves. The sharing economy is a real trend.”

Forbes currently estimates the sharing economy at only $3.5 billion, but expects the market for sharing economy services to grow by more than 25%. As much as the market has grown, however, there are caveats. As Forbes notes, early entrants have already cashed in on homes, cars and other high-end products, such as boats and sporting goods. That said, no one can dispute the market’s potential. Consider the venture capital-backed AirBNB. Founded in 2008, AirBNB allows people to “rent unoccupied living space and other short-term lodging to guests.” The company has over 250,000 listings in over 30,000 cities and is in most countries. All properties listed include the owner (renter) profile, reviews by previous guests, a response rating system. Users can make recommendations about properties — even about the guests.

Sharing Means Caring (and Opportunity)

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That’s a critical aspect of the sharing economy: not just “sharing” of goods and services, but sharing of information — about the product, its availability, reliability, reviews from previous users, complaints and recommendations. These must all become part of your app.

Luckily, the potential is boundless. “Green” site, TreeHugger noted that the sharing economy is now mainstream:

“The sharing concept has created markets out of things that wouldn’t have been considered monetizable assets before. A few dozen square feet in a driveway can now produce income via Parking Panda. A pooch-friendly room in your house is suddenly a pet penthouse via DogVacay. On Rentoid, an outdoorsy type with a newborn who suddenly notices her camping tent never gets used can rent it out at $10 a day to a city slicker who’d otherwise have to buy one. On SnapGoods, a drill lying fallow in a garage can become a $10-a-day income source from a homeowner who just needs to put up some quick drywall. On Liquid, an unused bicycle becomes a way for a traveler to cheaply get around while visiting town for $20 a day.”

There are numerous examples to seek inspiration from. Start-up, Lyft, lets car owners offer a ride-sharing service.  Getaround offers a similar service. TaskRabbit makes it easy for people to offer their time and talents for local services. Boatbound connects boat owners with those who want to rent.

The sharing economy is a movement, a lifestyle, a response to over-consumption — and an amazing opportunity for app developers.

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