A soldier's tale

A soldier's tale

07.19.12 ShareThis is a story about Arnold Strong, a career military officer who became CEO of Bright Neighbor, a “sharing economy marketplace” launching this summer. I first talked to Strong a few months ago for my June cover story on green innovation and was intrigued by his seemingly unique career trajectory, one that has taken him from the traditional hierarchies of the U.S. military to a company predicated on free-form community and exchange.

Actually, the army is a perfect example of the sharing economy, says Strong,  a Lt. Col. in the Army Reserve who serves as the commanding officer of the 201st Public Affairs Operations Center in Los Angeles  The 44-year old Strong, who maintains residences in Salem, Portland and L.A., says military families, forced to move around and acclimate to new communities, are used to looking out for each other and sharing—or loaning--everything from silverware to lawnmowers. “I thought: ‘if I’m going to take on an entrepreneurial effort, what better than something that facilitates those types of interactions."

Bright Neighbor is a mobile peer- to- peer barter and rental platform—an “Air Bnb for stuff.” Users can upload pictures of their household items, then rent, share or barter such goods with other users.  The company’s innovation is to monetize the sharing process by allowing people to put down a deposit or insure the transaction.  A former chief of public affairs for the Oregon National Guard, Strong signed on as  Bright Neighbor’s CEO last year after a mutual friend introduced him to founder Randy White, who grew up in a military family, and whose brother, an airforce veteran, had committed suicide.    

White’s lament—“where was the support network for my brother?” struck a chord with Strong, who bore witness to the reintegration of National Guardsmen serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To help provide returning soldiers with that support, in 2010, White and Strong developed “Oregon HEROES,” a virtual fort allowing soldiers to share “challenges, resources and stuff,” says Strong. On the verge of securing public funding, the project now languishes after falling victim to legislative “slash and burn."

Oregon Heroes taught Strong an important entrepreneurial lesson: "Without money, it’s just a hobby."  He points one of Bright Neighbor’s competitors, NeighborGoods, which recently shuttered operations “because it was just about barter," according to Strong. "There was no way to incentivize it.”  

Bright Neighbor, by contrast, aims to make money by offering pay-as-you-go options to users seeking security and protections on transactions over $100. For example, borrowers can soft-rent from a peer who will be secured by a deposit held by Bright Neighbor. In cases of peer-to-peer lending, a deposit will be held to secure the loan of the item. In cases of a soft rental, an agreed rental fee will be charged after the deposit is returned. In both types of transactions, Bright Neighbor will charge a small percentage of the value.   

Strong is currently seeking $500,000 in initial funding for the Bright Neighbor mobile app, now in alpha launch. The goal is to scale a multi-billion peer to peer rental economy capitalizing on "the unused value  that sits in the closets, garages and storage units of America." 

"We envision becoming the eBay of the sharing economy," says Strong.  Juggling dual public/private sector careers, Strong says transactions predicated on sharing are not so different from those military personnel enter into every day--transactions predicated on loyalty and shared experience. "This literally moves us from an economic infrastructure designed to protect us from one another towards an infrastructure designed to get us to trust one another.”

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business