The sharing economy

Review: The Business of Sharing

By Guy Levin 5 May 2015

Unashamedly a business book, Alex Stephany’s The Business of Sharing nails the basics, but leaves some difficult questions unanswered.

Written by the CEO of digital firm JustPark, Alex Stephany’s The Business of Sharing: Making it in the New Sharing Economy is a fantastic exploration of the companies, people and issues of the so-called sharing economy.

The sharing economy—which Stephany endeavours to unpack—is a catch-all term referring to a new wave of businesses like Airbnb, Uber and JustPark that let you profit from unused assets, like renting out your spare room or a spare parking space.

Nothing new about sharing?

Stephany—whose company JustPark lets you rent parking spots—starts by recounting an anecdote of when Airbnb founder Brian Chesky tried to explain the concept of his new business to his mother.

“Are you crazy” was her first reaction to the idea that people would open their homes to strangers via Airbnb. But on the other hand his grandfather instantly understood and said “That’s how I used to travel as a boy”.

In other words, there’s nothing new about sharing, indeed it often harks back to older norms of community and collaboration.

Building the sharing economy

But the world has changed since 2007 and the proliferation of mobile internet, social networking, urbanisation and economic uncertainty is what has enabled the small digital businesses of the sharing economy.

Alex Stephany explains these trends and then explores each of the major groups involved in this economy, the users, founders, investors and finally the regulators.

Injecting (often funny) personal anecdotes and interviews with a fantastic array of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and experts helps Stephany traverse a great amount of ground. And the chiming in of some big hitters like Martin Varsavsky (founder of global wifi network Fon), Fred Wilson (co-founder of Union Square Ventures) and Alfred Lin (a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital) helps keep things interesting.

A handful of sharing economy businesses that let you profit from unused assets.

The darker side of sharing

I felt one downside of the breadth of topics being covered is that sometimes they don’t feel as though they’ve been explored to satisfaction.

For example, I found the book’s look at the new generation of workers who build ‘portfolio careers’ juggling Airbnb listings and Taskrabbit postings somewhat lacking. While the downsides are briefly mentioned, this feels like something that could have been explored in greater depth.

As we’re seeing with a number of lawsuits in the US against sharing economy firms, issues of how companies classify and treat their workers, are increasingly coming to the fore.

Rather than advocating solutions, Stephany appears to kick the issue into the long-grass noting that it’s an area where platforms will clash with regulators in the future.

One to borrow?

There is a palpable optimism in Stephany’s writing, and I think he’s right. An idyllic sense that we’re on the cusp of a new world in which assets aren’t wasted, there’s more trust online, and communities are strengthened.

In his conclusion, Stephany surveys the landscape and concludes that things are “80% good, 20% bad” and that’s as good as you can hope for. At the same time, this is unapologetically a business book and contains great insights for would-be entrepreneurs and investors, but somewhat less for those purely interested in the social impact.

It’s hard to imagine any young CEO finding time to write a book, let alone one of this quality. But Stephany has pulled it off and delivered the comprehensive look at this nascent and burgeoning new movement.

If you’re interested in the business of the sharing economy, go and read it now (ideally borrowing it from a friend).