Scott Goodson’s Uprising!!! Episode 7: The Sharing Economy
Welcome to the sharing economy, the populace movement that’s introducing us to new names like Uber, AirBNB, and others. The feel good brands. But hold on, one man is saying something that startles us. What’s the movement against the sharing movement? This week on Uprising with Tom Slee. For more ideas on Uprising and movements, cultural movements and movement marketing, follow Uprising!!! on Facebook. We’ll continue to publish brand-new columns on a regular basis. Hey, do us a favor and please give Uprising!!! a review on iTunes. Scott Goodson is the author of best-selling book ‘Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,’ available on Amazon.com. Scott has helped create and build some of the world’s most iconic brands. He is founder of StrawberryFrog the world’s first movement marketing agency.
Uprising Interview transcript
I have my offices on the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street in Manhattan. It’s late. It’s raining. I need to get to a dinner. No taxi is to be seen anywhere. I click my app and- presto! Raj arrives in a spanking new Lincoln two minutes later. Welcome to the sharing economy as I understand it; a populace movement that feels good to use. You’ve probably heard some of the fun names like Uber and Lift, AirBNB and Etsy and Taskrabbit, Snapgoods and others. Don’t we all just love this sharing movement? Apparently not. There’s a countermovement underway, led by one man who said something that startled us. He said, “No, no, no…there’s no such thing as a ‘cheerful sharing movement’. There’s a nasty side to this.”
Scott: Could you tell us a little bit about who you are?
Tom Slee: Yeah. My name is Tom Slee. And I think you’re talking to me because I wrote a book recently, about the sharing economy. It’s a book called What’s Yours Is Mine and the subtitle is Against the Sharing Economy. So I think that gives you a hint, perhaps, of where I’m coming from.
Scott: In this show today it’d be great to understand, what the monster is that you see in the sharing economy. First though, what is the sharing economy?
Tom: Well I think it is- like anything- it’s a term that gets stretched and pulled in different directions and I think its not that important that we try to be too precise about this. But roughly speaking, there are a few things that you can say about all sharing economy initiatives. First thing: is this is an Internet phenomenon. This is a phenomenon of new companies- mainly Silicon Valley Companies, mainly companies although some non-profits would count themselves part of it- who are using Internet platforms to broker exchanges between people in the real world. So some sort of see EBay as the founding member of the sharing economy family, but more recently what we’ve seen is those Internet platforms- partly because we have now have mobile internet technology, bring people together for real world exchanges. Whether that’s Uber taxi rides as you say, AirBNB’s home sharing as you say, or other exchanges that happen very much in the real world and very much, almost-face to face.
Scott: Isn’t the sharing economy preferable to, lets say, the welfare state?
Tom: [Laughing] if we’re going to talk about this, it’s important to know where we each come from. And where I come from is I grew up in the UK but now I live in Canada. But I grew up in the UK and my family is a labor party family and to some extent, I’ve absorbed the social democratic outlook. That’s kind of how I look at the world. When I first started to hear about the sharing economy, it invoked a whole set of values and concepts that I could identify with. It invoked values of community. It invoked values of sustainability. It appealed to peer-to-peer, person-to-person exchanges as opposed to exchanges through some big anonymous cooperation, right? So it had all those things, and what pulled me further and further into this was that I felt that as it evolved, it not only neglected those things but it turned against them. To some extent, it has betrayed those ideals to the extent that the people involved really held onto them. And now it’s become something really quite different to the promise that it started off with.
Scott: So you asked a question when you saw this, could this movement possibly be real and as you dug into it, what did you find?
Tom: Unfortunately, I think what has happened quite quickly is venture capital in Silicon Valley said, ‘hey, we can make a lot of money off this’. And so, quite quickly the whole landscape of sharing economy companies has narrowed down to some—it’s become a kind of “winner takes all” thing where you have companies like Uber, like AirBNB- I mean really those are the two biggest ones in this space- and these have become driven by large amounts of money. They want to be sort of simultaneously person-to-person exchanges and globe straddling beer muffs. So, it’s a tension there. I would go further than tension. I would say a complete contradiction in what they’re trying to be.
Scott: What about those happy souls who just want to make a few extra bucks?
Tom: I’m not trying to get at the individual person who’s trying to make a few bucks on Uber. I’m not trying to slam the person who’s trying to make a few bucks on AirBNB. But I think it’s also important to know, how is this going to affect society as it hits the main stream. I think there’s a difference in how it works for an individual and what happens on a large scale. And I think the downside around AirBNB is that those people are just a fragment of what’s going on. There are other parts of this problem that have downsides around affordable housing, they have downsides around gentrification, they have downsides for cities for which tourism is a mixed blessing.
Scott: Maybe you can give me one good example of this.
Tom: First is that, most of the listings on AirBNB are not spare rooms in people’s houses. Most of the listings- we’re talking 70% or so- are entire homes. So the whole person-to-person exchange thing that’s going on there is not quite the way it was done. And the other is that somewhere around 40% of AirBNB’s business done in New York- more in some cities and less in others- is from people who are renting out multiple units.
Scott: It is a real movement. I mean people from all over the world feel like this is a positive blessing that they have- both those that are looking to rent homes and those that are trying to use Uber. So there’s this mass movement of people that are switching and becoming a part of this phenomenon as you describe it. They’re obviously getting caught up in it; they’re not understanding the impact. But there’s a clear benefit for them.
Tom: And you’re right to challenge me on this because that certainly is one part of this picture. That is in assent the pull-part for these services. That’s what’s pulling them along, is individual consumers who say this is a better path for me, right. So what’s made Uber successful is partly its success with its consumer base. The other part is it has 8 billion dollars to play with. So I think to present it as a populace movement, for example, of people just trying to get by, that’s on one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that its being pushed very much by big money interests in many different ways. Who are reckoning that they can make a lot of money- you know, they’re investors, they’re looking for a return- they can make a lot of money by getting cities around the world to change their rules. And that’s a different kind of movement I think. That’s a movement for deregulation. That’s a movement of big money trying to say ‘we want to carve out space for ourselves here’. And I think the original rhetoric was very much to appeal to us as a part of a community, and AirBNB loves to talk about its community. It’s user base as a community. But I think there’s more that’s appealing to us as consumers. And I don’t know- if it’s a consumer appeal, does it make sense to talk about a movement of consumers?
Scott: Movements are philosophies. Movements are value based. So, I think they see a bigger contribution that they’re making other than just renting a home. I mean, there’s that basic community, but beyond that I think they say ‘wow, you know I’m a part of this thing, this is a much bigger thing than just renting a home’. It’s a movement in that respect, and it feels like it’s also at the cutting-edge of where culture is going.
Tom: I think you put your finger on something there. I mean there’s certainly the notion of this being a movement is tied to being a part of something.
Tom: Uber certainly knows. AirBNB certainly knows how to use that aspect of their customer base. Here I am, I’m in waterloo in Ontario, which is near to Toronto. There’s a big debate going on that’s regional council right now about Uber- should it be licensed and if so how? If you get the Uber app on your phone, it’s pushing through messages, ‘hey, click this button’ or ‘tap this to send a message to your counselors.’ It’s making it very easy for its customers to see themselves as a part of a movement, to lobby councilors through the app so their invoking those kinds of things. When you have the kind of market valuations that they do, I think to claim to be speaking for the little guy against the big guy is stretching the truth. AirBNB’s valuation right now is up there with Hilton Hotel’s. So to what extent can it say we’re an alternative to this big, corporate entity? They are a big corporate entity, whether they like it or not.
Scott: So that’s really the big sort of insight there, is that its not really about the individuals, it’s really about the corporate entity. We forget, for example, that there are lot of hardworking men and women who have spent many, many years following the rules. Buying expensive taxi medallions, having insurance, following all the governmental restrictions. Only to be told that that guy with a car over there, can pick up your passengers. Or if you’re a small business owner that owns a small motel in Waterloo, Ontario you’re being told ‘oh hold on a second, all those other people over there can have a room for rent and compete with you, even though you’re following all the government restrictions.’ In every economy, economic change has winners and losers and in this case there are obviously people are deeply upset. Have you met any of those people?
Tom: I get emails regularly throughout the week from people in different cities who are saying ‘here I am in Lisbon’ or ‘here I am in Bordeaux’ or ‘here I am in Barcelona and this neighborhood is just getting overrun with AirBNB’s and we don’t know what to do about it. And we’re getting to the point where we can’t afford to stay here anymore, and what’s going to happen?’ So I think some people do see it- it’s interesting that you say- some people feel part of it, other people do feel very threatened by it. I think you’re absolutely right, that side of the thing is there.
Scott: These people obviously who-I guess in a sense are the opposite of the pro-movement, they’re obviously fearful of the changes- what are they saying? What are they worried about?
Tom: I think in a lot of the tourist destinations, people are worried about the influx- and AirBNB is not the only source of new tourism right, tourism has grown massively over the last decade. What they’re worried about is turning into a sort of a Disney world city, where it’s no longer a place you can live; it’s just a place that people come to visit. And that tourism is in fact eating what is was that made their city worth visiting. Outside of these tourist hotspots, there’s a lot of concern around affordable housing. And that’s a big debate-to what extent do things like AirBNB affect the supply of affordable housing? To me, it does affect it. In certain hotspots in a lot of places, it has no affect whatsoever. When it comes to Uber, obviously you’re right, that what we hear from the Taxi industry, that is not an industry that I have any connection to. And is not an industry in many cities that has as good reputation over the years. It is getting shaken up, and maybe that’s not a bad thing…because its known as an industry where large numbers of immigrant men with not a lot of other skills to make money, have had to work very long hours in very bad conditions, for very little money. So, there’s a challenge there. What happens when you’re torn between keeping the values of the community and making money? And, silicone valley has a long history of believing that there’s really no contradiction here, and I think that’s because they don’t ask themselves the hard questions when it comes to: are they staying true to the vision that they started off with.
Scott: We’re seeing protests in, and new regulations against the sharing economy like for example Uber in Canada and other places. Do you think perception is changing in society about this new sharing economy?
Tom: I will predict in 12 months, we won’t really be talking about the sharing economy anymore. The discussion will have moved on into something else. I think the successful companies who have managed to find a way, who are persisting in this space will be so far from the original model, that it won’t really make any sense. There’s already a lot of debate about whether you should call it a sharing economy. As I said, I don’t care too much about that, what we call it, but I do think the debate will move past that.
Scott: Tom Slee, thank you very much for your time today. Tom Slee is an author, and I wouldn’t say a critic, but definitely has a strong point of view about sharing economy. It’s been fascinating to hear your thoughts, and I appreciate your time. Thank you for being on Uprising.
Tom: Thank you Scott, thank you for your interest. Thanks for the opportunity, and I enjoyed the conversation very much.