It's a time-sharing world

"The Mesh" author Lisa Gansky on the shift from ownership to sharing.

The MeshLisa Gansky joined me at GNN in 1994, which was the early days of the Web, long before an ecosystem of interconnected services emerged. After the sale of GNN to AOL, Lisa went to work at AOL for several years before going on to run Ofoto, a photo-sharing service that was bought by Kodak She’s had a broad variety of strategic roles in a number of startups as well as large companies. Lisa is energetic and enthusiastic, and she’s known as a person who connects people and ideas. So it’s no surprise that her first book should do the same: “The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing.” I recently interviewed Lisa by email about her new book.

Lisa’s key insight in “The Mesh” is that we are shifting from owning many products and services we use to sharing them and having them only when we need them. It’s a time-sharing world.

Now, time-sharing often reminds us of vacation condos, but I was reminded that the Unix Operating System was called a time-sharing system. The processing power of a computer could be shared by various users and programs, which could be served by individual slices of processing time to do the required work. Her insight is that companies are creating a services layer that relies on a networked operating system to coordinate access to and demand for physical goods and resources.

I asked Lisa about this time-sharing analogy.

Lisa Gansky: Dale, first, thanks for that analogy to Unix. That’s very insightful. The Mesh in many ways serves as a kind of operating system for shifting some core functionality in our cities, homes, work-lives and organizations. I believe it will have resounding impact. The opportunities newly available are similar to the transitions from “standalone” PCs to networked computers, and then to the mobile web.

How would you describe the kind of products or services that lend themselves to time-sharing?

LG: I think that we are at the very beginning of this shift to an access lifestyle and economy. For people or companies who own things, there is a big opportunity to save money and generate valuable currency (cash and social), by sharing what we already own. Often, these are fairly expensive products and services to own outright and are used infrequently by the owner. Cars, boats, homes, factories, office buildings, web hosting, and large parcels of land are good examples. The owner, by making the product available when not in use, increases its utility, decreases costs, and creates a natural opportunity for coordinating in new ways with “ecosystem” partners-people or companies who are going to share something together.

Businesses have been sharing many platforms for decades. Manufacturing, shipping, pick and pack systems, SaaS software for CRM, accounting and database management, sales team management and customer service are just a few. In our personal lives, DVDs (Netflix), Music (iTunes, Pandora and MOG), Couriers (FedEx, UPS), taxis, commercial airplanes, public parks and restaurants are things that we have been “sharing” happily.

The Mesh difference is that with GPS-enabled mobile web devices and social networks, physical goods are now easily located in space and time. It has become very convenient to find a ride back from your meeting with someone heading to your neighborhood, or get a great deal for drinks close by, or locate an available home in a home exchange while traveling, or discover a new “popup gallery” near the dinner you’re attending. The Mesh is about creating and managing what’s perishable. It provides businesses with the ability to reach an audience of one, at a precise time. Likewise, someone can easily find goods and services just when they need them. For makers, it’s a way to cast a wider net to reach other makers, share tools and workspaces, find inspiration by tapping into reclaimed goods, test a market and new platforms or business models.

My expectation is that over time, people and businesses will become more comfortable with sharing some things while maintaining the option of deliberate ownership of some other tools, technology, teams, etc. What is considered “shareable” and when one may be interested in sharing it will depend on the phase of the business or life. It will likely increase as the bias toward sharing becomes more beneficial and convenient over time.

The first companies that come to mind are Netflix and ZipCar but I was surprised by how many others you found. When you went looking for companies based on sharing services or products, which ones surprised you the most?

LG: I was most surprised by the varieties of what I call the Own-to-Mesh businesses. These take things that we already own and make them available (part or full time), through a Mesh service. Some of my favorites here allow us to put our cars (used about 2 hours per day), into a Mesh system and not only increase utility, but generate money from what we own and don’t fully utilize. A few of these include: RelayRides, Getaround and Spride Share.

I also wasn’t expecting to find that real estate beyond homes would be “Meshy.” But, for example, I found the Brooklyn Grange Farm, New Work City, and popup stores to be quite surprising as Mesh businesses. They each showed me in unique ways that the value of commercial real estate is changing as new features of a building are viewed as assets. Roofs become valuable as urban farming gets legs. Brooklyn Grange Farm currently has a one-acre rooftop organic farm in Queens; they supply their food to local restaurants and participate in farmer’s markets. Urban roofs used for growing local produce certainly increases the value of what was “there,” but not truly valued previously.

Likewise, popup stores are a temporal (here today and maybe not tomorrow) type of showcase that features a product, brand, or experience, but without the permanence of a leased full-time presence. This newfound capability gives cities and towns with vacant retail space a fresh vitality, while inviting energetic artists and entrepreneurs to “play” with a space for a short period without the obligation of a long-term lease. It is a strategy that clearly was provoked from the recession but is good for the community, building owner, and artist or merchant. It’s Meshy, especially since these popup stores are found by the host tweeting, blogging, informing people from their Facebook page, and using mobile social services like Foursquare. Customers seek out these companies and brands. They follow them on Twitter or Facebook and receive updates to ensure that they know when the next event will be held. I am fascinated by the web-enabled “popup” — it also moves all us to appreciate that things are perishable and takes advantage of two of the most powerful words in business: sold out.

How is Kickstarter a Mesh company? I’m seeing a lot of makers and artists using it.

LG: Kickstarter is a peer-to-peer funding platform for projects that leverage social networks to promote and drive support for artists, makers, and entrepreneurs. Those projects most successful on Kickstarter — those that receive funding completely and quickly — do so largely because the creator has a strong social network and invites people to be engaged. I really like Kickstarter because you don’t have to be a Medici to fund the arts and sciences, or to get behind a big idea or a person that sparks your imagination. It’s a type of microfunding directed toward creators.

My view is that anything that is fueled by individuals and leverages the power of the web and social networks is, by definition, Meshy. Further, Kickstarter itself has funded several projects that are also Mesh businesses. One that I’ve invited to our Maker Faire NY Mesh event is New Work City, a Manhattan based co-work space that’s really jelled.

Are there certain kinds of products or services that don’t fit the Mesh model?

LG: As they are today, yes. But, almost any business or organization can be massaged into Meshiness. For example, a big box retailer can get Meshy by adopting a club or a services model. Selling products, letting the customers walk out the door, and then essentially waiting to re-engage those customers until they decide they need a new one of whatever it is that they bought, ignores the power of the Mesh almost completely. But a way to modify and expand that model would be to invite customers to bring back products that don’t work, or that they don’t use. You could create a “matching” service where customers who desire a canning set or drill will be invited to the company’s monthly “popup exchange.” There, people looking to lighten their load would have the satisfaction of seeing their things go to someone who can actually use them — and make money back or gain a branded currency for new exchanges down the road. With this type of Meshy offering, the retailer is at the center of all of these transactions and is in a strong position to redirect goods physically.

They’re also using the power of the web, mobile, and social networks to allow customers to say what they are looking for. As we follow our product through its lifecycle, there are many more opportunities to be in touch with customers and partners. As makers, being connected to the “reverse supply chain” of some of these retailers is likely to provide rich new fodder, both for materials to work with and customers to enchant.

Lisa Gansky will moderate a panel at World Maker Faire at 2pm Saturday on Center Stage, which is in the Auditorium inside the NY Hall of Science. “Creating a Mesh of Things” will feature John Caplan of Open Sky, Perry Chen of Kickstarter, Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City and Scott Boggs of the Spotted Pig restaurant and farm.


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