Adam Werbach has déjà vu when talking about the sharing economy. It reminds him of discussions about corporate sustainability that occurred in 2005 when people didn’t really get it yet. Fast forward to 2013 and corporate sustainability is a natural part of the conversation in the business world, at least at the GreenBiz forum, where he spoke last month. Now, the sharing economy is the new concept that people have hard time understanding.
yerdle, the new sharing platform that he co-founded with Andy Ruben, is poised to drive the sharing economy forward and bring that conversation to the mainstream. yerdle lets people browse and claim items that their friends are sharing or giving away for free. We met on the same day yerdle launched in New York to talk about Werbach’s latest challenge. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
TriplePundit: First, what brought you to the world of the sharing economy?
Adam Werbach: It’s been a great pleasure for me to work with big companies on improving their performance, but in the end that work is important but it is not enough. Things aren't moving quickly enough. What I found working with big companies like Walmart or product manufacturers is that they are stuck in a retail system where they make slightly better products but still have to sell many, many more of them to become profitable.
So what’s exciting about the sharing economy is if gives companies a model for making more durable goods. They can sell them at a higher price, but consumers benefit because they last longer. If they are shared among a group of people, that means fewer products overall.
3p: So is there’s a possibility here to move the needle on both the supply of and the demand for material goods?
AW: Yes. We’re starting with the demand side because there’s almost endless supply of stuff already. People have unwanted goods in their closets, and cars and self-storage units, on their floors and in their cabinets… there’s just a lot of supply that hasn’t been moved through the system. yerdle helps people sort through that.
But in terms of supply, we’re already seeing that the things that move more quickly on yerdle are things that are more durable, which we use for a while and then pass along. And as people begin to get into the mentality that when I buy something, I’m just holding it for a while and eventually giving it to someone else who can use it. This is a big shift from the "buy it, break it throw it away" mentality. The option to share will change the way we buy things.
3p: Why do you think yerdle will succeed where other sharing platforms have not?
AW: We think that there are certain aspects we cracked that make it much easier for customers. One is making things very easy to give away through a well-designed application. Second, the connection to the social networks of your friends solves the real challenge that people feel - a fear of strangers. There are a lot of folks who are interested in sharing, but the personal interactions with strangers deter them. Our model only shows goods to people in your network, so it takes away the unknown part of the calculation.
3p: What feedback have you received so far?
AW: It is robust which is great. On a performance level we have 10,000 members in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the average person who logs on finds about 300 free items. We find an increasing level and percentage of transactions, that people are actually getting things, moving things and connecting to people so these are all good signs.
One of the most interesting things we’re seeing is that people are very concerned with and excited by the relationships. In fact, more than the thing, they’re interested in the person behind the thing. So I might want to get a bike lock from someone because I need a bike lock but I’m as interested who that person is, whether it is an old friend I want to see again or a friend of a friend whom I haven’t met yet but I’d like to. yerdle becomes an excuse to make that connection. And, similarly, I might put this bike lock up because I want to reconnect with someone.
3p: What would you consider as a success for yerdle?
AW: We want to see sharing become the new shopping. If the first step in acquiring things became checking to see if your friend has one first. I think it’s completely achievable because it’s what everyone has always done in the past. It’s only the last 75 years or so in the U.S. where the industrial revolution, modern mechanization and access to credit have allowed us to buy things for ourselves instead of checking with our neighbors, friends and family first.
The change is from a mindset which says "My autonomy is my security" to one saying "My connections with other people are what make me secure."
3p: When do you think companies will begin designing products for sharing?
AW: Soon. We’re working with Bill McDonough as an advisor and this is the question we’re wrestling with – what is the product system to do it? What we need to demonstrate is demand for those, but I think that by next year we’ll be in a product system that can do that.
3p: How does your challenge here compare to challenges you had at the Sierra Club, or in your work with Walmart?
AW: The stage is smaller here. When I worked at the Sierra Club, for example, we tried to pass the California Desert Protection Act and if we didn’t pass it then for generations we would not be able to have a Joshua Tree National Park, so there was pressure and it was very public. When I started working with Walmart it was also very public and very pressuring. This one truthfully is not.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.