Why build new hotels when millions of rooms in private homes around the world are left empty? This simple question led Brian Chesky to found Airbnb, a service that matches people seeking short-term accommodations with private hosts who have unused space to rent.
In four short years, Airbnb has become the most successful of a bevy of companies that comprise a new movement known as "the sharing economy." Across the world, entrepreneurs are embracing the concept of the sharing economy, starting business that use resources that already exist instead of depleting increasingly scare reserves.
In the process, practitioners of the sharing economy are challenging traditional capitalist assumptions, preserving the environment while creating platforms for communities to become more connected.
"I think there is a larger trend of people online going offline and connecting together," Chesky told an interviewer last year. "The idea of people sharing food and other types of natural resources is really interesting. People sharing idle time, their skills, or their knowledge... It is truly a movement in the global economy."
Airbnb has become something of a darling in the Silicon Valley startup community, recently completing a Series B funding round that valued the company at a whopping $2.5 billion. The model has been so successful, that Airbnb's CEO claims that the company will fill more room nights than all Hilton hotels by the end of the year.
Another interesting example is ParkatmyHouse.com. The UK-based startup has built an online platform that allows people to rent out their driveway or parking spot to others looking for an ideal place to park, reducing the need to level trees and consume energy in the construction of new parking lots.
"Our users are making money from assets they already have: their off-road parking spaces," said Anthony Eskinazi, founder of ParkatmyHouse.com. "Renting out your driveway requires minimal effort and is a great cash generator."
While companies like Airbnb and ParkatmyHouse have enjoyed steady growth, advocates of the sharing economy argue that the movement is not limited to savvy entrepreneurs. A new guide from Shareable.net and non-profit New Dream suggests ways that ordinary people can build sharing communities from the ground up.
"The average American uses his or her car only 8 percent of the time, while the average power drill is used only 6 to 13 minutes in its lifetime," states the guide, which points out that the sharing economy is a $110 billion-plus market worldwide.
The guide explains how to organize a community swap, create local lending libraries for goods like clothes and tools, build a network to exchange skills and services, or set up a co-op. In just 15 short pages, the guide sets out a few simple steps that anyone can follow to begin participating in the sharing economy.
"Even if you can rationally come to the conclusion that sharing is a good idea, actually doing it is still really hard,” Janelle Orsi, the author of The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community, told Fast Company’s Eric Smillie in a recent interview. "And part of the barrier is the feeling that if you approach someone about sharing they’re probably going to think you’re kind of weird."
Orsi has published a set of sample agreements for sharing cars, offices, yards and other resources, which she hopes will encourage people to share "because it won’t seem like such an uncharted area."
The time for adoption of the sharing economy is ripe. As wallets become thinner because of economic downturns while people become more connected through new networking technologies, building a shareable company has never been easier.