Can sharing economy businesses stay authentic as they grow?

Can sharing economy businesses stay authentic as they grow?

The sharing economy provides almost limitless opportunities for businesses and individuals to profit from sharing unused assets – anything from office space to power drills – with flourishing online communities. Users often trade with peers, adding a human element to the experience. So what happens when sharing companies grow? Can they retain their authenticity and appeal?

This week, ParkatmyHouse, the online marketplace for peer-to-peer parking space rental, revealed it will offer parking spaces at major hotels and car parks, as well as on people’s home driveways. The company, which has more than 500,000 members worldwide, is rebranding as Just Park and will provide cheaper parking in urban areas through partnerships with the Sheraton, the Hilton and car park giants APCOA and NCP.

“It’s all about making parking more efficient with smart technology,” says Alex Stephany, CEO of Just Park. “Collaborating with complementary partners is the next step on that journey. Drivers will have more parking options in congested city centres, and partner companies will be able to fill ‘waste’ spaces cost-effectively by sharing their availability via our platform.”

While it’s great that the sharing economy paves the way for cross-sector collaboration, reactions to change in any sharing community may be mixed, according to Benita Matofska, chief sharer at Compare & Share. “The concept of trading with other people is very powerful for some, who may see corporate partnerships as a dilution of the brand,” she says. “On the flip side, users who prioritise efficiency and price are likely to welcome a greater level of flexibility.”

From a user experience perspective, preserving the diversity, uniqueness and lack of standardisation that characterise the sharing economy will be important as sharing companies grow, according to Lauren Anderson, chief knowledge officer at Collaborative Consumption. But where developing standards can be useful is in achieving greater consistency in the way that members interact with a sharing platform, she believes.

“Striking the right balance means responding effectively to the needs of diverse user groups and offering personalised engagement and support,” says Anderson. “In order to gain scale while retaining their authenticity, sharing businesses should stay true to their original values, consult their communities along the way and be transparent about any changes.”

For example, task-outsourcing platform TaskRabbit has this monthreplaced its auction-based system with a new on-demand service focusing on practical errands and household tasks. Tried and tested in London, it allows “clients” to find “taskers” more easily, while taskers can now charge for their work by the hour rather than bidding for jobs. Importantly, the rigorous process for vetting new taskers remains the same.

Having gained 1.25 million new users in 2013, the company is on track to double that in 2014, and sees community engagement as an integral part of achieving that growth. “When we started out, we knew all our taskers and clients by their first names,” says Jamie Viggiano, senior marketing director at TaskRabbit. “Now, our challenge is to retain those close relationships as our community grows. We listen to their feedback, engage with them as we develop the product and run exclusive trials with our earliest and most active users – the people who really helped to build our business.”

Similarly, Airbnb continually explores new ways to improve the host and guest experience and places importance on holding face-to-face events to build relationships with hosts, something its founders have valued from its inception.

And with 600,000 property listings in 190 countries, Airbnb has regularly established new offices around the world. “Operationally, there’s no reason for an online company to do this,” Anderson explains. “But establishing an on-the-ground presence sends a strong message to users about the company’s level of commitment to its community.”

In contrast, Etsy, the handmade goods marketplace, came under fire in 2013 for appearing to depart from its promise of supporting hand-crafted, unique alternatives to mass manufactured goods by relaxing its definition of “handmade”. Single-person crafters were concerned about the possibility of unfair competition with larger factories, while users questioned whether the change would mean Etsy lost its key point of differentiation.

Despite this, the company continues to expand rapidly, suggesting that its initial market definition may simply have been too narrow for it to reach scale, Anderson believes. Its network now comprises 1m active online shops and it recently acquired the French digital marketplace A Little Market.

“Ultimately, sharing businesses offer a gateway to the sharing economy, no matter how their business evolves,” Matofska concludes. “The beauty of the sharing economy is its diversity – there will always be room for expansion, as long as companies stay true to their original purpose.”

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.