On July 15, the sharing economy shifted with the launch of Peers: The movement became more centralized and acquired a more powerful voice. An advocacy group that strives to involve sharing economy users in conversations between business and regulators, Peers is a collaboration between leaders in the industry such as Airbnb, Zipcar, Meetup and TaskRabbit with an internal team experienced in entrepreneurship and organizing for social causes. We talked with Adam Werbach, founder of sharing economy pioneer yerdle — a founding partner of Peers — and Natalie Foster, Peers’ Executive Director, to get a behind-the-scenes look at this transformative moment in the sharing economy.
What does Peers see as the context for its launch? Why now?
Natalie: Sharing is a huge movement: Forbes estimates that people will earn $3.5 billion by the end of 2013 by sharing their cars, homes, skills and time. Our online connections have opened a new model for building trust and community beyond the people we know directly, driving a tremendous new channel of social and monetary value. That being said, we are at a critical moment: Media, policymakers and corporations are paying serious attention to what is happening in the space, which is creating more questions than answers.
It’s a new space, so a lot of issues from taxes and regulation to government policy have yet to be worked out — the conversation is in its early stages. Different stakeholders are speaking up to influence the structure of the sharing economy. We want to make sure that users have a prominent place in that conversation because they are the drivers. When decision makers in policy and business debate about the sharing economy’s merits or shortcomings, they need to hear directly from the people who are actually using sharing platforms, rather than hearing about the experiences and challenges indirectly through lobbyists, entrepreneurs and others with a vested interest. That’s one of the biggest roles Peers can play: making sure the people whose lives are most directly impacted have a real voice in shaping the future of the sharing economy.
What are the biggest challenges in ensuring Peers achieves that goal?
Adam: Our greatest challenge is that we're being defined by the media's focus on a few examples of tech companies in this world, rather than understanding the scope and expanse of this emerging economy. In yerdle's case, the informal economy in durable goods far surpasses the formal economy that we hear about on the news every night. There are more than $1 trillion dollars of durable goods are sold in the United States each year, but a greater dollar value of goods that trade hands informally. Our mission is to simplify and grow that side of the equation.
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Natalie: Yes. The challenge for Peers is also in making sure people understand that they have the power to increase, or in some instances protect, the benefits they are getting from being a driver, host, seller or other peer-to-peer role. We want people to know that they are more than “users” or “participants.” They are the drivers of a new economic system. Most of us aren’t used to thinking about our economy or our cities that way. The dominant narrative has always been that policymakers and corporations are the ones in charge, directing macro-scale conditions and that we’re all at their mercy. Fortunately, more than 11,000 people all over the world have already joined Peers after only a couple of weeks, and we’re continuing to grow. People are excited and ready.
How did the inspiration for Peers arise, and with whom did you collaborate to make it what it is today?
Natalie: Our early members are also some of our most important collaborators. One woman, Kepa, is an architect who decided to start sharing a spare room in her home to help pay the bills during the economic downturn. But what started as an income supplement became a vital part of her life. She found a network of new friends and even clients for her architecture work. Now she hosts sharing economy events in her native San Francisco. People like Kepa have been a driving force and the inspiration behind Peers.
Before we launched, we also got together with small groups of people who share in 22 cities around the world for collaborative conversations about the movement, and what members feel they need to go forward. We’re now supporting members in more cities who want to host meet-ups, and have those same conversations, and that will always be an important input to our direction.
What is yerdle and how is yerdle’s particular mission bolstered by Peers?
Adam: yerdle is a new social marketplace experience with the mission of reducing the new things we need to buy by 25 percent. Our apps find items that people are ready to give away and match them with people who are looking to acquire those things. To date, thousands of items—from Patagonia jackets and surfboards to kids' toys—have changed hands, all for free.
Peers is helping us prove to the marketplace that the sharing economy is here. Most people still tend to think of the sharing economy as something that will happen when cars fly and ice cream is free, but Peers is proof that that the movement has reached a critical mass.
How might you make a case for businesses that don't directly profit from sharing economy models that Peers is a cause worth advocating for?
Adam: Everyone wins when people save money, with the exception of the business that's disrupted. But creative destruction lies in the fabric of our competitive enterprise system. The challenge is to ensure that the people working for companies with complacent leadership have a safety net that will help transition them to a more efficient business.
What is yerdle’s role in helping to launch Peers, and how will your relationship shift in the future, if at all?
Adam: At yerdle we're proud to be a founding partner of Peers. It's time for sharing economy companies and organizations to speak in one voice. I expect we'll integrate much of our activism in this realm with Peers campaigns, since we're stronger together.