What’s a Corporate to do? 4 Strategies for Coping with Sharing Economy Disruption

Some of the many Corporates and sharing economy companies now collaborating

In 2011, BMW invested in JustPark. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat on why large corporates are engaging with sharing economy startups.

And in 2015, Macmillan published my new book on the sharing economy, The Business of Sharing. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Corporates” about the 4 coping strategies an incumbent can employ to make sure they’re not outflanked by a nimbler, often P2P, sharing economy challenger.

Coping strategies

What’s a corporate giant to do in the face of the sharing economy’s seismic shifts? There are four main coping strategies that can be used in tandem by those with most to lose.

1 Investing

These days, every self-respecting corporate titan has its own venture capital fund. Pharmaceuticals companies like Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche have funds. Citigroup has Citi Ventures for financial services investments. Siemens has one for engineering and healthcare investments. Above all, funds are de rigeur for any technology giant, whether its business is online advertising or hardware, software, or silicon. Witness Google Ventures, AOL Ventures, Microsoft Ventures, Intel Capital, Qualcomm Ventures, and Dell Ventures, to name but a few. Unlike the institutional money of a Sequoia Capital or an Accel Partners, these corporate funds invest for strategic reasons as much—and often more so—as they do in the hope of an outsize financial return.

Starting a fund is more than just something to do with a spare $100 million sitting on a balance sheet: it gives a company a seat at the tables of the startups who may become its competitors. Often, as in the case of BMW’s investment in JustPark, this means a literal board seat. From this vantage point, a large corporate gets a view on the shifting sands of its industry, letting it track the progress of sharing models from the inside and influence their trajectory. That is worth having, for what amounts to small change for a company of BMW’s size. JustPark is not alone in the sharing economy in having powerful corporate friends. Microsoft and CBRE, the commercial real estate group, back desk rental startup LiquidSpace. Pet retailer Petco backs peer-to-peer dog-sitting startup Rover.com. Google has dropped $258 million into Uber.

Sometimes, a large company will buy the whole business. In 2013, Groupon bought SideTour, a marketplace for travel experiences provided by locals. The year later, TripAdvisor bought a similar experiences startup, Tripbod. I used to share an office with Tripbod’s founder, Sally Davey. “At Tripbod,” she told me, “we had a built a community of engaged locals who can improve a trip by giving the right advice to the right person at the right time. It turned out that everything we were doing on a tiny scale at Tripbod matched up uncannily well with TripAdvisor’s longer-term goals.” Still, aside from the acquisitions by the major US car rental players, sharing economy acquisitions have been few and far between. This is largely because marketplaces tend to be binary. Very few will ever become worth buying. But those that are on their way to making it want to go all the way to the public markets.

2 Partnering

As with BMW’s investment in JustPark, a corporate investment often goes hand in glove with a strategic partnership. GE is an investor in Quirky, a platform that crowd-sources and develops inventions. Quirky lets people submit ideas for inventions that many of us have every so often and do nothing with. If enough people in Quirky’s million-strong community want to see a submitted idea become reality, Quirky does so via its team of designers, engineers, patent attorneys, and branding experts. Quirky’s inventors plus anyone else who materially contributes get kickbacks from sales. Its best-selling product is the “Pivot Power”: an adjustable snake-like power strip that has sold 700,000 units and made Jake Zien, its 24-year-old inventor, a millionaire.

How does this involve GE? GE has opened up a library of 1,000 of its patents to Quirky inventors. Sales of any products that use the patents generate revenue for Quirky, the inventor, and GE. With the help of aspiring inventors on a platform founded in 2009, the 19th-century conglomerate can monetize patents that were otherwise gathering dust. Quirky also works with other large corporates downstream, selling to e-tailers like Fab and Amazon and bricks and mortar stores like Target and Best Buy. Quirky helps them to stock innovative and exciting inventory. When Scott Weiss, the venture capitalist who led Quirky’s Series C investment round, interviewed its wholesale customers, he found them in awe of the products coming to market through Quirky’s wildly collaborative model. Target’s buyer told Weiss, “Nobody is innovating at the pace that Quirky is.”

Other offline retailers are seeing the wisdom in partnering with their potential sharing economy competitors. One of the fastest growing of these online players is Brooklyn-headquartered handmade goods marketplace Etsy. Through the “Etsy Wholesale” program, home-furnishing chains West Elm and Nordstrom sell Etsy goods in purpose-designed concessions in their stores. By showcasing novel and frequently changing local producers, both brands are luring in new shoppers. Meanwhile, Etsy is able to make offline sales in the West Elm and Nordstrom stores without the enormous capital expenditure and distraction of leasing, fitting-out, staffing, and operating its own retail units. At one time, West Elm and Nordstrom would have viewed the more tech-savvy Etsy as something to be feared. Now they are partnering for mutual benefit.

Large companies are slotting the crowd into their business models. This can be through community-based customer support. Swiss telecoms provider Swisscom partnered with Mila, the Zurich-headquartered task marketplace, to launch “Swisscom Neighborhood.” Swisscom uses Mila to undertake peer-to-peer customer service. Instead of summoning a highly paid engineer, Swisscom’s customers can summon a Mila task provider. GiffGaff, a low-cost UK mobile network, lets its own customers answer other customer support queries, rewarding the most effective ones with freebies. Sometimes, incumbents are looking to complement their own offerings. Kelly Services, the global employment agency, uses oDesk’s network of 4.5 million freelancers to meet its clients’ needs for short-term project work. Microsoft has built LiquidSpace into its Office 2013 software, making the startup’s flexible desks bookable straight from the Outlook email client.

JustPark takes bookings at the parking lots of Europe’s four biggest parking companies and the world’s largest hotel groups. As with our own partnerships, many between sharing economy startups and corporates exist in the mobility sector. Zipcar partners with Regus, the London-listed serviced office provider, to promote the idea of small businesses only paying for what they use—cars or offices—when they need them. Zipcar for Business members get annual Regus membership while Regus customers get money off Zipcar. Ridesharing is a common area of collaboration. IKEA has encouraged ridesharing to its shops in France via a partnership with BlaBlaCar. UK-based Liftshare provides white-labelled car-sharing platforms to many large corporates like Cable & Wireless and Sky. Indeed, Liftshare’s scheme at Tesco involves about 20% of Tesco’s 10,000 UK staff across 15 sites. Liftshare’s schemes provides extra incentives to car-share, including reserved parking bays for shared cars.

3 Expanding

Why partner and share the upside? Very often, the attitude of big company management is that if an opportunity is sufficiently interesting, they should be in that business themselves. After all, they have the brand awareness. They have the customer reach. They—despite the billions that have been invested in sharing economy businesses—can outgun these wannabees. Expansion sees a corporate move into an adjacent space in order to acquire customers that it will own outright. Without question, these are customers worth owning. Research from consultancy Crowd Companies involving over 90,000 respondents highlighted the affluence of users of shared services. Around 35% of Americans with earnings over $100,000 are so-called “neo-sharers”: users of new sharing services like Zopa or Kickstarter rather than old ones like eBay.  This is not surprising. The middle classes are historically more receptive to new ideas, especially those that get greater coverage in the quality rather than tabloid press.

The Home Depot is one company that has much to lose in a world where people share items like power drills and ladders for the odd time that they need them rather than buy them new. Taking a leaf out of a peer-to-peer tool rental marketplace like 1000tools, The Home Depot now has a tool and truck rental unit that operates in half its 2,000 stores. Michael Jones, The Home Depot’s director of tool rental, emphasizes that the maintenance of its rental stock in top condition is a key advantage over its peer-to-peer competitors. Some corporates are stepping further out of their comfort zones. Eni, the Italian oil and gas conglomerate, runs a car-sharing scheme in Milan, Enjoy Eni, with a fleet of over 400 Fiats. German enterprise software giant SAP has a carpooling platform, TwoGo. Built originally as an app for SAP’s employees by two of its engineers, TwoGo is an enterprise carpooling app that helps companies get their staff to work sustainably and cheaply. It creates safety by only allowing users to register with their corporate email account.

Next up is distribution. Adopting the strategy of a peer-to-peer delivery network like New York’s Zipments, Walmart is to start testing a radical strategy of getting in-store customers to deliver the goods bought by online customers in return for a discount. With tens of millions of Americans visiting its stores each week and driving home with partly empty trunks, the distribution opportunity is compelling. “I see a path to where [delivery] is crowd-sourced,” says Joel Anderson, CEO of Walmart.com. Google is also working on distribution, knowing that if it does not offer it, the crowd could step into that market. Active in only seven US metropolitan areas for now, Google Shopping Express offers same-day delivery from local retailers. Above all, Google knows that by not offering distribution, it will be losing even more ground in e-commerce to its undisputed king: Amazon.

Indeed, when it comes to leveraging the crowd and access over ownership, Amazon is ahead of the game. On its “Marketplace,” individuals can open up their own eBay-like online shop. Amazon’s crowd-sourced labor marketplace, Mechanical Turk, has been running since 2005. With its witty tagline “Artificial artificial Intelligence,” Mechanical Turk offers hundreds of thousands of tiny tasks, often worth only a few cents each, that anyone with an Internet connection can complete. Half a million so-called “clickworkers,” usually those in the developing world, earn through the platform. Then there is Kindle. Since its launch in 2007, Kindle has almost single-handedly transformed the old paradigm of book ownership into one of book access. By 2010, Amazon was selling more e-books than paperbacks. Just as Kindle is about access over ownership, so too are its music and movie streaming offerings. Finally, Amazon plays in the recommerce space with “Amazon Trade-in.” Send Amazon your old electronics and books to receive payment in Amazon Gift Cards.

Mobile operators like T-Mobile and AT&T run trade-in programs for handsets and trade-ins have long been popular with DVD and video game merchants like Target and Best Buy. However, some of the most exciting trade-in programmes are now taking place in the fashion sector. Stalwart of the UK high street, Marks & Spencer, has “Shwopping.” Customers drop off old clothes of any brand in a “Shwop Drop”: a large box near the stores’ cash tills. The program has collected 5,500 tons of clothing for Oxfam. Swedish clothes retailer H&M provides recycling facilities at its stores, again for any brand of clothes. In return, it provides a £5 voucher towards a new purchase. Patagonia, the high-end adventure apparel brand, has its own eBay page for customers to sell or donate old Patagonia clothes. These are just some of the companies making it easier for people to clear out space in their wardrobes for more new items, and more guilt-free for them to replenish that space, knowing that a secondary market exists for their purchases.

Recommerce is hardly a Western-only phenomenon: secondary markets are usually more developed in less developed countries. The major brands will do well to play to these cultural norms. Adidas branches in the Philippines, for example, operate trade-ins for worn-out running shoes. Like all of these companies, it recognizes that if too many objects stay put, they will silt up the great river of capitalism.

However, the most consequential expansion of all remains in the balance. In June 2013, news leaked that Google was planning to facilitate the sharing of goods. “Google Mine” was tested internally among Google’s product team as an add-on to its social network, Google+. According to the leaked copy for employees, “Google Mine lets you share your belongings with your friends and keep up to date with what your friends are sharing.” Many Google projects go dark. But if implemented, it would let the search giant inside people’s homes to index people’s belongings in line with its mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Own a juicer? Some stackable chairs? Google wants that information in a structured form. Perhaps Google fears how companies buying its online advertising would react if options from the crowd were presented alongside the new products it was selling. We shall see. One thing’s for sure: if Google—or Facebook—decides to act, it would change the course of the sharing economy overnight.

4 Brand-buffing

As well as expanding to generate new revenue, corporates are adopting sharing services to improve the perception of their brands. Sharing services can make a company look less grasping since they often positively impact what social enterprises call the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profit. Consider, for example, Virgin Atlantic’s free service called Taxi2. Everyone has witnessed the absurdity of airport taxis driving into town half-filled and often with only a single passenger onboard. Taxi2 matches up airline passengers to share onward taxis from their destination airport. The service is not proprietary so passengers from any airline can use it to save money and reduce pollution. “Digital hippies who support new artists on Kickstarter or make wine with Crushpad feel that they are smarter and lighter, at the forefront of a new wave. They feel cool,” writes Lisa Gansky. “It’s not cool to own,” says Loïc Le Meur, co-founder of the LeWeb conference. “It’s cooler to borrow a car.” Corporates can tap into this same cool.

Sponsoring sharing services is one way that corporates can anchor their brands to this cool simply by writing a check—admittedly, a potentially large one. Barclays is paying up to £50 million to sponsor London’s bike- share scheme. Citibank paid $41 million to sponsor New York’s bike-share scheme, Citi Bike. The company’s logo is now ubiquitous across New York on thousands of moving two-wheel adverts and 98,000 New York residents are members of the scheme, enjoying an intimate relationship with the brand. For Citi, the investment appears to have paid off. According to its data, the number of people saying they had a “favorable impression” of the bank climbed 17% after the bike-sharing program started. Vodafone paid just €4 million to sponsor Barcelona’s bike-sharing scheme for 3 years, small change for a company with group revenues of over $65 billion.

B&Q, the UK equivalent of The Home Depot, sponsors its own sharing services: Streetclub. For now a UK-only initiative, Streetclub provides the tools to set up and run “streetclubs”: local social networks in cities that get neighbors helping each other out by sharing their tools, time, and expertise. A 21st-century attempt to restore “the good old days” of close-knit communities, there are over 1,700 streetclubs across the UK. From the perspective of B&Q’s owner, Kingfisher, the program could lead to increased spend on DIY since many streetclubs are motivated first and foremost by civic pride. Streetclub’s boss described to me a typical project on the platform, how a community in a Welsh town had turned some scrap land into a paved garden that now serves as a physical hub for their community. Like the bike-share sponsorships, Streetclub is improving the perception of the mother brand by simply improving people’s lives.

Major brands are running glossy cross-promotions with sharing economy companies, again ones that have far more to do with brand than driving revenue. For example, Pepsi teamed up with TaskRabbit to promote its new drink, Pepsi Next. Throughout “The Extra Hour Project,” Pepsi drinkers could win a free hour from a “TaskRabbit” to run their errands or do a chore. Pepsi got to rub shoulders with a sexy startup. TaskRabbit got credibility and marketing reach: the promotion supposedly resulted in over 93 million impressions on Facebook. Another example saw NBCUniversal linking brands with gifting platform yerdle. As part of NBC’s “Earth Week” of environmentally themed programming, NBC’s “Share and Tell” initiative educated householders to lend and borrow underused goods with their neighbors. In one week, 2,400 Americans gifted their belongings to strangers on yerdle.

Taken from “Corporates” from The Business of Sharing.

Praise for The Business of Sharing

“A remarkable book, a sweeping view of a fascinating new economy in which peer-to-peer exchange will be central, written to be simultaneously very intelligent and very readable. Alex Stephany is a rare author, combining the experiential insight of a successful entrepreneur with the longer-range vision of a deep thinker. Read this book.” –Arun Sundararajan, Professor and Rosen Faculty Fellow, Stern School of Business, New York University

“The Business of Sharing is an excellent read for any entrepreneur. Alex gives a great overview of the sharing economy: from how it works to the current key players in the market and the stories, such as my own, of founders who launched businesses that rely upon the sharing economy.” –Martin Varsavsky, Founder, Fon; serial entrepreneur

“Written by the CEO of digital firm JustPark, Alex Stephany’s The Business of Sharing is a fantastic exploration of the companies, people and issues of the so-called sharing economy… 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.”-Guy Levin, Executive Director, Coadec

The Business of Sharing is a great book about history being made today in the sharing economy. Alex Stephany puts together a thorough, insightful, thoughtful and entertaining account of what is transpiring today and what will undoubtedly be here to stay.” –Alfred Lin, Sequoia Capital

“Superb… The Business of Sharing is a major new book on this economic and social revolution. Above all, it is also the first ever book on the subject written by someone working on the frontline of this new economy. As CEO of one of the UK’s best-known sharing economy businesses, Alex brings razor-sharp insights on the challenges and opportunities for us all in this fast-changing landscape. The Business of Sharing is a fast and thrilling read.” –Mark Suster, Partner, Upfront Ventures, BothSidesoftheTable.com