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The next Airbnb? From sculpture gyms to Parking Panda, it's a national movement

The Parking Panda car
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From bikeshares to spare couches, from swapping clothing to trading tools, the sharing economy has picked up steam in the past five years. Some trend watchers point to Millennials as the source of the national uptick. Others say that a renewed interest in all things green as well as a new brand of thriftiness that started in the recession has led to the growth in collaborative consumption.  

Whatever the reason, the most successful examples of the sharing economy in action have all come from individuals who saw a system or industry ripe for disruption and pioneered an innovative idea that spurred change. Such recent startups in Pittsburgh as ShareCloset exemplify the trend -- as does one of their national competitors, described below. Entrepreneurs that have found ways to monetize their disruptions, while at the same time working to improve the system they are disrupting, are the ones who are turning the profits.  

Airbnb, the site that matches travelers with empty couches or beds in their destinations, is often held up as the "granddaddy" of the sharing economy movement. It was founded in 2008 by three roommates in San Francisco, and one year later, Airbnb listings could be found in more than 1,100 cities in 77 different countries around the world. Today, its reach is everywhere—literally, as over nine million people have used its services, and figuratively, as its business model has spawned copycats in many spheres.

While the sharing economy is exciting in terms of development and innovation, it has presented issues for regulators. Airbnb faces ongoing legality issues in New York and the e-hail taxi alternative Uber very publicly battled the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Some critics argue that rideshare services like Uber will rob cities of potential income streams and cause division along socioeconomic lines, especially as successful startups pursue lucrative exit strategies and are bought out by major corporations.

It’s too early to see get a clear sense of the effect of the sharing economy writ large, though some are trying. Most companies are still in the startup stage. What is clear is that thousands of entrepreneurs are finding ways to capitalize on the sharing economy. And one of them might just be the next Airbnb.

Being Neighborly in D.C.

It only took about 50 years, but someone finally found a way to monetize Herb borrowing Dagwood's garden tools. GoodShuffle is a startup in the peer-to-peer sphere that launched in Washington D.C. this year. Built by entrepreneurs Erik Dreyer and Andrew Garcia, the firm helps users make money from unused stuff that's lying around in their closets by lending it to their neighbors for a small fee.

The concept is simple enough. Dagwood has a power drill he's not using, so he posts it on GoodShuffle and sets two prices—a daily rental fee and a deposit (usually equal to the cost of replacing the item). Herb, who is sick of hearing about the broken porch railing from Tootsie, knows he needs a power drill to get the job done. Rather than spend the time and money researching and purchasing a power drill that will likely sit in his closet or garage once he finally makes the repair, Herb hops on GoodShuffle.

He finds a plethora of power drills to choose from. He chooses Dagwood's drill, and the shuffle begins, with Dreyer and Garcia's platform holding the rental and deposit fees until the exchanges are made and the drill is returned. GoodShuffle keeps 5 percent of the owner's cut of each transaction for its trouble.

"Our vision is to foster the local economy by putting things you own but you don't use very often [to work for you],” Dreyer says. In the process, he continues, GoodShufflers become microentrepreneurs, contributing to a sharing economy that’s often invisible but definitely a larger force to be reckoned with.

Pooling Resources in Philly

Sharing cars, books and tools can save money and help the environment. Yet sometimes it's the sharing of space that creates a collaborative community and allows for cross-pollination among creative minds.

Hackerspaces are community-operated spaces for makers or tinkerers to work on science, engineering or technical projects. They’ve been popping up in cities around the world over the past four years or so. The Philadelphia Sculpture Gym (PSG), which opened in June, touts itself as a makerspace for artists of all stripes; cross-pollination between artists and genres is a given, says Darla Jackson, PSG’s manager.

PSG provides workspace for amateurs and established artists and gives them access to a wood shop, metal shop, foundry and modeling studio. "We get a variety of people—furniture makers, jewelry makers, crafters, sculptors,” says Jackson. “People inspire each other and can see new possibilities in different media.” She herself sculpts in clay, plaster and resin, but says that she has recently been inspired by the metallurgists she meets at PSG. "I'm learning how to weld. It's really exciting!"

PSG follows a gym membership model: members pay a monthly fee of $225 for unlimited access to the space, or they can start small and buy one-day-per-month access for $25. Membership allows access to the space, storage lockers, classes and "personal training sessions," or one-on-one help with a project.

Jackson attributes the growth in makerspaces, whether artistic in nature or not, to "people wanting to do things for themselves and to get back to craftsmanship." The growth of Etsy, an online marketplace for makers, has supported artists' decisions to sell their work on the side or work full-time as an artist.

"There have been so many Etsy success stories of people quitting their full-time jobs,” Jackson explains.

Swapping Closets, Searching for Chanel

The trendy, green-minded thrift store and old-fashioned clothes swap have moved online. For Snobswap co-founder Elise Whang, the genesis of her piece of the sharing economy started with a Chanel handbag.

"I was pregnant with our first child and looking for a used Chanel," she explains. "I didn't want the guilt of spending money on a luxury bag – but I also didn't want to feel like I was shopping at a garage sale."

Whang and her sister, Emily Dang, used to hit consignment sales together. When Dang moved away, Whang missed her companionship, as well as her closet. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have virtual closets, so I could swap with her?'" That’s how the two founded Snobswap in April 2012.

Snobswap shoppers create virtual closets online that they fill with "pre-loved" items. The list of items on the site grows daily and includes clothing, bags, shoes and accessories for men, women and children.  Swappers can search by designer or by type of item, and narrow by price and color. They don't have to "swap," either. They can purchase items outright, or make offers on items in others' closets they like.

Swaps on the site are free for buyers. Sales generate a 10 percent commission, which covers transaction costs. For busy swappers who don't have time to take pictures of their items and list them in the system, Snobswap offers a Closet Concierge at a 30 percent commission. "It's for people who are too busy to list their own clothes. A lot of people say they would use our service but don't have time to list their items."

The company was built in Washington, D.C., but has generated national interest due to its virtual format and strategic partnerships with upscale consignment boutiques in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C. and St. Louis. Giving fashionistas the ability to shop and sell consignment online—and become micro-entrepreneurs in the process—has generated a groundswell of interest.

Making Space in Baltimore

Cars have been at the forefront of the sharing economy since Uber launched. But did you know you can become micro-entrepreneur by selling the unused space in your driveway? Nick Miller launched Parking Panda in Baltimore in 2011 as a matchmaker app for empty parking spaces and drivers who need places to park. Initially, the company used a peer-to-peer model, allowing people to sell driveway space. Now it’s grown to include unused spaces in privately owned garages in more than 25 cities across the U.S.

"Parking is a pain point for everyone," Miller explains. "We solve a problem that so many people have."

From the driver's perspective, the process is a simple one. Bridget is running late and needs a spot close to where she is interviewing downtown. She visits Parking Panda and creates an account or connects her Facebook account. She fills in the address and Parking Panda pulls up a list of available spots in map and list form. Each spot comes with a price tag attached, and clicking on one reveals the specifics. Bridget picks the one closest to her meeting, clicks a button and receives confirmation of her reservation.

When she arrives, all she needs is a confirmation code. No circling, no scrounging for change, no stress.

Parking Panda typically takes a percentage-based commission. It’s a fee that its partners, including large sports arenas, convention centers and theater operators, seem willing to pay. The company has experienced steady growth over the past two years. "We currently have 18 full-time employees, up from two," says Miller. His cofounder Adam Zilberbaum launched Parking Panda in 2011. That growth, coupled with the expansion from one market to more than 25, indicate that Parking Panda is a force to be reckoned with.
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