Steve Gutmann, Portland Business Development Manager, Getaround
// Photo Craig Mitchelldyer
Naysayers abounded in 1998 when Dave Brook started the first car-sharing service in the country, CarShare Portland, with four Dodge Neons accessible via realtor-style lockboxes. “People said, ‘No one will ever rent cars for a couple of hours,’” Brook remembers. “‘Car ownership is the American way,’” they told him.
But people were mistaken. Turns out, demand did exist for services traditional car rental agencies did not offer, and while Brook set his rates too low to turn much of a profit, his company lived on in others: FlexCar purchased CarShare Portland in 2000 and, in 2007, merged with Zipcar.
This January, rental car giant Avis Budget Group bought Zipcar in a $500 million deal, validating with cash the viability of sharing-economy ideas. “Clearly big companies are taking notice that this is a growing segment,” Brook says. Over the last five years, the sharing economy has taken parts of the country by storm. In 2011, Time named collaborative consumption one of the top 10 ideas that will change the world. This January, Forbes noted the sharing economy’s “unstoppable rise,” and in March, The Economist cited the “immense potential” for the model to go big. David Brodwin, co-founder and director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Sustainable Business Council, explains the appeal: “Wherever there’s an underutilized asset anywhere, the sharing economy is going to root it out, find some way to monetize it and rent it out to responsible users,” he says. “Economic necessity is what drives the whole thing.”
Many credit the room-rental website Airbnb for laying the groundwork. Founded in San Francisco in 2008, the website has helped 4 million travelers find lodging in spare bedrooms or empty apartments in 192 countries (3 million last year alone) — taking a 9% to 15% cut of each rental fee. “Airbnb’s business model is one people have tried to mimic because it has done so well in such a short period of time,” says Airbnb spokesperson Amanda Smith. “People have begun using it as an example by the way it’s proven itself.”
Since Airbnb began normalizing the idea, more than 100 sharing startups have sprung up across the country. These startups usually adopt one of three different business models. Baltimore-based Parking Panda enables people in destinations with limited parking to rent out their driveways or parking spaces. With HomeAway, which started as Second Porch in Portland, people pull in extra cash from their second homes during those unfortunate times when they’re not on vacation. And with SnapGoods, members rent out high-end housewares — guitars, karaoke machines, camera lenses, toolboxes — for a set fee per day.
Other sharing startups facilitate the exchange of services rather than goods. Santa Monica-based DogVacay matches dog owners with pet sitters (who, by contract, send daily photo updates). Lyft, SideCar and Uber, all from San Francisco, connect people in need of rides with car owners willing to shuttle them around for a fee. And TaskRabbit, which moved to San Francisco from Boston in 2010, helps people locate neighbors they can hire for odd jobs like picking up groceries or assembling IKEA bookshelves.
Finally, in the footsteps of more familiar rental operations like Blockbuster and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, other startups offer up assets they own themselves. Zipcar and Car2Go maintain fleets of private vehicles throughout cities for member use. Portland-based Alta Planning + Design has launched citywide bike-share programs in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York and Chattanooga and intends to start a program in Portland in the spring of 2014. And New York-based Shecky’s Closet rents out a wardrobe’s worth of designer clothing, jewelry and accessories, delivered by mail, for $40 a month.