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Reversing the Lies of the Sharing Economy

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There’s nothing resembling a “sharing economy” in an Uber interaction. You pay a corporation to send a driver to you, and it pays that driver a variable weekly wage. Sharing can really only refer to one of three occurrences. It can mean giving something away as a gift, like: “Here, take some of my food.” It can describe allowing someone to temporarily use something you own, as in: “He shared his toy with his friend.” Or, it can refer to people having common access to something they collectively own or manage: “The farmers all had an ownership share in the reservoir and shared access to it.”

None of these involve monetary exchange. We do not use the term “sharing” to refer to an interaction like this: “I’ll give you some food if you pay me.” We call that buying. We don’t use it in this situation either: “I’ll let you temporarily use my toy if you pay me.” We call that renting. And in the third example, while the farmers may have come together initially to purchase a common resource, they don’t pay for subsequent access to it.

In light of this, we should call out Uber for what it is: a company in control of a platform that originally facilitated peer-to-peer renting, not sharing, and that eventually transformed into the de facto boss of an army of self-employed employees. And even as “self-employed employee” might sound like a contradiction, that’s the dark genius of the Uber enterprise. It took the traditional corporation, with its senior managers responsible for controlling workers and machines, and cut it in two — creating a management structure that need not deal with the political demands of workers.

So, how exactly did we get to the point where business executives at conferences can talk about Uber as a “sharing economy” platform with straight faces? How is it that they don’t feel a deep sense of inauthenticity? To understand this, we must return to the roots of the actual sharing economy. It is the only way we can wrest it back from those who have hijacked it.

Our everyday economic life is characterized by three things. First, you get a job at a company — or you start a company — and you produce something. Second, that company goes to market to exchange its product for money. Third, you use that money to get goods or services from others who are also producing. Zoom out, and a market economy is a large-scale network of interdependent production. We cannot survive without accessing the products of other people’s labor.

Monetary exchange takes the form of, “If you give me money, I will give you a service.” There’s always potential for rejection in market offers, which creates uncertainty, and some people fare better than others. Those who undertake the heaviest burden of production don’t necessarily get rewarded commensurately. Individual competition appears to be — at least at first glance — the defining mark of monetary exchange.

There are, however, three major but inconvenient truths that seem to get glossed over when we talk about the market economy. The first is that market systems feed off an extensive, underlying gift economy in which people transfer ideas, goods, services, and emotional support to each other without requesting money. Unpaid childcare is one example. If your mother watches your two children while you’re at a job, that’s the gift economy in action. In fact, without friends and family it’s unlikely that you could even maintain the desire to go to work. Even in professional settings we share common resources with business colleagues. Companies rely upon this internal collaboration to produce the very products they then competitively exchange in markets.

The second inconvenient truth about the market economy is that its products are not really desirable unless we can use them within non-market systems. What’s the point of all this stuff getting produced if we can’t share it, compare it, gloat about it, or enjoy it with others? Friends, family, and various community systems make having material goods meaningful.

And third, many commercial market exchanges are actually hybridized with non-commercial elements that add richness. Take, for example, flirting with a bartender as they serve you drinks, or having a discussion about politics with the stylist you’re paying to cut your hair. Not only do market systems rely on non-market influences in order to work, but their products feel pointless and empty without them. Recognition of this, however, is uneven.

In small community settings it’s often easy to see a balance between market and gift economies. The shop owner gives a spontaneous discount to a retiree, or allows friends to lounge in a coffee shop long after they’ve finished drinking. Commercial exchange is but one element in a broader set of relationships, and this means the exchange takes longer. Economists call this inefficient; we call it enjoying life.

Meanwhile, in megacities such as London or New York there’s a tendency to strip all non-commercial elements from market interactions. This is the hallmark of what we refer to as commercialization. The large-scale mall and corporation are designed to maximize exchange while offering only a shallow appearance of sociability. The McDonald’s employee is forced by contract to smile at you, but prohibited from taking time to have a true conversation.

This phenomenon is even more acute in faceless internet commerce, where clinical, transactional precision dominates. While hyper-efficient exchanges play into our short-term impulses — initially feeling exciting, convenient, and modern — they gradually begin to feel empty. Sure, it’s frictionless commerce, but it’s also textureless.

When detached from a community foundation, markets can bring out people’s most anxious, petty, arrogant, and narcissistic sides, encouraging them to fixate on their individual strands of the overall economic picture, as if it were the whole. The defining qualities of a market economy — like uncertainty and unequal monetary reward — get exalted, and in this frame, everyone else is either a stranger to do battle with or a temporary ally to assist in your personal gain. Socializing becomes “networking.” Non-commercial ties such as friendship, sex, love, and family are either rendered invisible, or presented as kitsch advertisements designed to promote more commercial exchange.

It was in this context that the original sharing economy platforms emerged. Amid the competitive, individualistic rhetoric of the corporate state, people looked to use technology to foreground sharing, gifting, and community activities that were otherwise overshadowed.

One aim was to extend activities between trusted friends to strangers. Friends have long crashed on each other’s couches, but the Couchsurfing site wanted it to happen among strangers. Freecycle allowed you to give gifts to people you didn’t know, while Streetbank let you lend items to strangers in your neighborhood. These platforms encouraged sharing between people who might otherwise be isolated from each other.

All of this was built using the infrastructure of the internet. The ubiquity of interconnected computers and smartphones in the hands of ordinary people allowed them to cheaply advertise their locations and showcase offers. To catalyze a digital platform, all someone needed to do was set up a website as a central hub for aggregating and displaying offers for others to accept. It makes sense to centralize similar information, rather than having it scattered in fragmented locations. This, in turn, builds network effects, meaning that the platform becomes more useful — and thus more valuable — as more people use it.

Attempting to introduce sharing principles into networks of strangers isn’t easy. Our lives are built around large-scale market economies, and many people have internalized the principles of monetary exchange. In the context of huge global supply chains, the rural idyll of community production is long gone, and attempts to reverse-engineer authentic sharing relationships between people we don’t know can feel stilted.

While we might be willing to let a friend borrow our car for the day, we generally don’t trust strangers enough to share our most crucial possessions with them. We may, however, be game to share things that we don’t often use, like a basement that’s only half full or the backseat of a car that could have someone in it while we’re driving to work anyway.

We’ll probably be even more willing to offer this idle capacity to a stranger if there is some third-party assurance that they are legitimate, or will experience some consequences if they behave badly. Likewise, we may be more open to accepting gifts from strangers if such assurances are in place. This is, in effect, why sharing economy platforms developed identity and reputation-scoring systems, adding layers of formality and quantification into non-monetary gifting.

Herein lies one source of corruption, as the very act of earning quantified reputation for gifting adds a feeling of market exchange. But it was building technology to identify and quantify spare capacity that really set the stage for undermining the sharing economy. “Why not get the stranger to pay for the gift as a service?” was a question that couldn’t be far off.

The move from sharing spare, underutilized assets to selling them can be subtle. In hitchhiker culture, a person offering lifts might reasonably expect a fuel money contribution from someone getting a ride — and if the hitchhiker leaves the car without offering it, the driver may be a little irritated. The money though, is never a condition, and until they explicitly say, “If you give me fuel money, I will drive you,” it’s not a commercial relationship. Note, though, how easily the phrase—once uttered—can become generalized into, “If you pay me, I will drive you.”

A new wave of “sharing economy” startups bet on just this concept, as their businesses came to be characterized not by sharing, but by showcasing spare capacity for rent, with the platform taking a cut as broker. So, too, began a hollowing out around the language of sharing. New entrepreneurs feebly hung onto the sharing story with the claim that market mechanisms could re-engineer the very community ties that the markets themselves had eroded. In reality, they were doing nothing more than marketizing things that previously hadn’t been on the market. If anything, this only undermined existing gift economies. A friend calls to ask if she can stay with you, but gets told, “Sorry, we have Airbnb guests this weekend!”

Ah, but there’s another twist. Far from merely facilitating the renting of spare capacity, these platforms grew to such a size that sellers of “normal” capacity started using them—as in, people running professional bed-and-breakfasts migrated to the Airbnb platform, and so on. The irresistible lock-in of network effects dragged the old market into the new, and voilà, the platform corporation emerged.

Let’s be unequivocal here: A platform corporation really only owns two things. It owns algorithms hosted on servers, and it owns network effects—or people’s dependence. While the old corporation had to get financing, invest in physical assets, hire workers to run those assets, and take on risk in the process, a corporation like Uber outsources its risk to independent workers who must self-finance the purchase of their cars, while also absorbing losses from their cars’ depreciation or the failure of their operations. This not only separates corporate managers from ground-level workers, it places the major burden of financing and risk on the workers.

This is a venture capitalist’s wet dream. Give a startup minimal capital to hire developers and run media campaigns, and then watch as the network effects ripple over the infrastructure of the internet. If it works, you’re suddenly in control of a corporation built with digital tools, but extracting value from real-world, physical assets like cars and buildings. The entity holds itself together not via employment contracts, but rather by self-employed workers’ dependence on it to access the market they rely on for their survival.

So, now here you are, staring at your Uber app with irritated sighs because the driver is two minutes late. This is a market transaction. To the driver, you’re just another customer. There is no sharing. You’re as isolated as you ever were.

We have a hard time seeing systems. We find it easier to see what’s tangible and in front of us. We see the app, and we see the driver’s car icon moving along the streets on their way to pick us up. What we can’t see is the deep web of power relations that underpins the system. Instead, we are encouraged to fixate on the flat and friendly interface, the shallow surface layer of immediate experience.

If you’re a driver, that interface doubles as your boss. It doesn’t shout at you like the jerk boss of old corporations. In fact, it shows no emotion at all. It’s the human-readable incarnation of a robotic algorithm that calculates the optimal profit-path for Uber, Inc. As a driver, you have no colleagues and no union. There’s no upward mobility. Uber wants you to leave as soon as you build any expectations of progress. You and thousands more eke out enough to survive, if you’re lucky. This all while the owners of the platform get richer and richer, no matter what.

Of course, if you want to put a positive spin on this kind of work, you can call it flexible, decentralized micro-entrepreneurship. But pan out, and it looks more like feudalism, with thousands of small subsistence farmers paying tribute to a baron that grants them access to land they don’t own.

So, what is to be done? For one, let’s first understand the problem. Innovation and change are pointless unless they’re coming from a real analysis of what’s gone wrong—especially when we’re being made to believe we’ve actually gained an asset. Only then can we rebalance the power.

If we are going to turn ourselves into a sprawling network of micro-entrepreneurs, micro-contracting via a feudalistic platform, let’s at least cooperatively own the platform. In doing this, we might even retain one definition of sharing — the common usage of a shared resource pool, like the farmers who collectively manage a reservoir.

This is the origin of the platform cooperativism movement, one possible counterforce to the rise of platform capitalism. In principle, it’s not that complicated. Spread the ownership of the common infrastructure among the users of that infrastructure, give them a say in how it’s run and a cut of the profits that emerge from it.

The platform cooperativism movement is a new one, with many of its proposals still on paper and yet to be released into the wild. Many have seen the potential to use blockchain technology, whose original promise was to provide a means for strangers to collectively run a platform that keeps track of their situation relative to each other without relying upon a central party. Some, like the blockchain-based ride-sharing platform La’Zooz, have already released apps and are iterating away in the background. Others, like the blockchain-based proposal for an Uber-killer called Commune, are still in their conceptual stages. Arcade City, another attempt at an Uber alternative, has been dogged with controversy—and a split in the team has led to the creation of Swarm City.

Meanwhile, big corporates have increasingly encroached on blockchain technology with an eye toward using a pacified version of it within closed and controlled settings. There are, of course, plenty of talented and idealistic blockchain developers looking for opportunities beyond corporate life.

Either way, fancy technology isn’t a magical recipe. The equally important work involves building a community willing to back new platforms. A Dutch proposal for an Airbnb alternative called FairBnB is making a start as a Meetup group, and food couriers are organizing gatherings to discuss how they can set up cooperative alternatives to Deliveroo.

In the face of massive commercial platforms, aggressively backed by venture capital money, these initial attempts might seem idealistic. But as digital serfdom only expands, we have little choice but to start small with underdog pilot projects that galvanize action.

It’s a new mentality that needs building. In a world where we’re told to be grateful receivers of products and the opportunity to work on them from heroic, demigod CEOs allegedly “democratizing” the workscape, we need to see straighter and expect more. The entrepreneur is still nothing without the underlying people who make their enterprise work; and in this case, their wealth comes directly from skimming money off vast collectives. Let’s fuse the two forces into one, and build collectives with actual sharing in mind.

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About the Author

This article was written by Brett Scott, author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. Exploring urban ecology, economic anthropology, P2P tech & alternative currency.

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Entrepreneurship

Science is the Next Big Thing in Startups

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From pharmaceuticals to petrochemical processes: Newcomer companies and investors and investors alike are setting their sights on science. How the start-up scene moves beyond the mobile apps bubble…

For the last two years Silicon Valley analysts and venture capitalists are anticipating the burst of yet another bubble. This time, under the risk are the mobile start-ups which constitute the biggest share of the market. Out of 50 companies listed in Forbes’ “the hottest startup of 2015” (by valuation) only six companies are based on innovations in other-than-mobile area, one company provide cleaning services, while the rest are diverse mobile apps.

Meanwhile many products listed can be barely called innovative. A significant proportion of the listed start-ups are texting apps, apps for people search (starting from business partners to life partners) or delivery services. While those services can definitely facilitate one’s life, in general they differ from their predecessors by only a narrower audience.

Many venture investors expect stagnation if not decrease on the markets, which is why they start to transfer their capitals from start-ups offering customers software to start-ups offering specific solutions for existing businesses. Such companies are expected to demonstrate more stability in the near future.

The Market for Mobile Apps Might be Saturated

Back in 2012 a talented entrepreneur could walk into a venture capitalist’s office, say his startup was a mobile-first solution for pretty much any problem (payments! photos! blogging!), and walk out with a good-size seed investment. “That pitch was enough to get going,” says Roelof Botha, a partner with VC firm Sequoia Capital. “It’s not enough anymore.”

“I think investors are bored with investing in another messaging app. And our idea is crazy enough that it might just work. ”, has declared in 2014 Nadir Bagaveyev a founder of a start-up using 3-D printers to make rocket engines. By 2016 the company attracted investors funding sufficient to launch its first rocket.

Pharma and Biotech Start-Ups in High Demand

Currently the most successful science-based start-ups are the companies offering innovative solutions in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies. It’s noteworthy that despite the previous revelations and even judicial proceedings the list of the most expensive start-ups still includes Theranos, blood analyzing laboratory, whose story did not descend from the main pages of the global leading media from 2014.

It first amazed the audience with its fantastic take-off and then with its collapse. One of the crucial parts of the success story of this start-up is its fundamental difference from the majority of the services produced in the Silicon Valley. Unlike the others, it was not a story of yet another beautiful gadget for communication or mobile app, but the story of the scientific idea which intended to conquer the world.

The great success stories in other scientific areas are now happening on occasional basis. However certain facts allow to predict that the situation is to change soon. One of such factors is growing interest among the big corporations to attract innovative solutions from outside to develop their businesses.

Given the accelerating pace of scientific and technological development of the world, the activities of internal R & D departments are often turn to be insufficient to ensure stable development of innovative business. Outsourcing of the R&D may become the efficient mechanism to stimulate the growth of the company. And high-tech start-up can certainly benefit from it.

Start-Up Technology for the Petro-Business

In December, 2016 world leading companies in the field of gas processing, petrochemicals and chemicals announced their intentions to enforce their R&D capacities by attracting start-ups. 3M, AkzoNobel, BASF, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Henkel, Honeywell UOP, LG Chem, Linde, Sibur, Solvay and Technip together created a global stage for startups and investors.

“The petrochemicals industry can and must rely on the potential of open innovations to facilitate further inventions and implementation of new solutions in all major application areas, from construction and medicine to packaging and 3D printing. Thanks to the participation of international partners, IQ-CHem is now the largest global project within the industry which attracts innovative solutions and provides for their implementation into practice,” said Vasily Nomokonov, Executive Director of Sibur, a company which coordinates the project.

Positive Experience in Chemicals and Beyond

Some of the listed companies have already gained positive experience in working with start-ups which may have driven them to elaborate a systemic approach to attract innovative companies.

At the beginning of 2016, SIBUR and RRT Global start-up reached an agreement to build a pilot plant for isomerization based on RRT Global technologies in Sibur’s Industrial Park SIBUR “Tolyattisintez”. According to Oleg Giyazov, co-founder and CEO of RRT Global cooperation with a large corporation bring significant advantages to his company.

“By cooperation with Sibur we get a huge industrial experience that enables us to develop technologies and solutions better fitted to the market demand. This advantage is often not given due attention, but we, on the contrary, see significant opportunities in it. Currently, RRT Global cooperates with several companies around the world” he said.

Another petrochemical leader BASF enjoys successful cooperation with Genomatica start-up. In 2013 BASF started the production of 1,4-butanediol based on renewable feedstock (renewable BDO) using Genomatica’s patented process and in 2015 the license was expanded to the Asian market.

Unlike traditional forms of cooperation between a start-up and a venture capitalist, a cooperation between start-up and a relevant corporation allows to minimize the risks associated with investing in a potentially promising idea where the key word is “potential” (but not “guaranteed”). While delivering services in the same field as the start-up the corporation gets an opportunity to more effectively and accurately estimate the market value of an innovative idea and to support its implementation.

Structural Changes Ahead: Outlines of A Coming Market

In the short term prospective, possibly in 2017, the global start-up market will face structural changes – both in terms of start-ups professional orientation and of funding mechanism. In the future science-based start-ups will dominate the market and will change our lives at a deeper level than the way of sending a text message or searching the restaurant for an evening meal. To be more concise this is already happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and the other scientific areas are to follow.

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About the Author

This article was written by Dominik Stephan of Process Worldwide. See more.

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Callum Connects

Norman Tien, Founder of Neuromath and Early Math Matters

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From a young age, Norman Tien, found his passion helping students as a math tutor and went on to translate that into a successful business.

What’s your story?
From the age of 14, I knew I would be in business for myself and started designing my company logo.

Growing up in a poor family, I worked part time while I was in school. That’s when I started tutoring and realised I had a gift to help students “see” mathematics. I delivered good results, and my students started to love math as well.

A turning point was when I was down with dengue fever and I realised I had to grow my business to the next level. I started a learning centre and that was the beginning of Neuromath. The initial years were tough as costs went up while my personal income took a dive. I almost gave up, but I pushed through.

Today, we have 3 specialty math enrichment centres managed and delivered by my dedicated team of teachers.

What excites you most about your industry?
“How to win” has always influenced how I position myself in the industry. I researched the psychology of learning, why some students are so naturally good at math, while others struggled. I managed to find the connection, and have always sought out niches to position myself so I can win.

In the beginning, I fused academic delivery with psychology to differentiate my services. Now I have a good team of teachers fully equipped with a psychological skillset.

In the next evolution of our business, we will incorporate technology into education in order to customise each student’s learning experience based on his or her needs.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and educated in Singapore. One key driver why I started a business was, as a youth, I witnessed how my dad struggled daily as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet.

That said, I am very blessed to be in Singapore and to be given the right education. I see this as a very important factor to my success today.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore – well, for one, most of my businesses are here. Singapore is convenient for business and is very well governed. There are rules and systems that make the entire entrepreneurial journey more secure here. One big plus is the location: Singapore is a hub that allows us to connect to the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
船到桥头自然直 –
There is a Chinese saying that when a boat goes near the pier, it will automatically align itself (with the current). It means we don’t have to worry too much, that things will take care of themselves.

A mentor once challenged me: “But who can guarantee you can even reach the pier?”

It is such a highly competitive world we are in, who can guarantee success? This is the ONE question that has been etched in my mind for decades. The Chinese saying always comes to mind when I am positioning, designing and strategizing for my business.

Who inspires you?
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew – The fact that he started ruling the country just like a startup. With limited resources, he was able to find a strong positioning to differentiate his country from the rest of the of Asia. With hardwork and proper planning, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a prominent financial hub in Asia.

Because Mr. Lee Kuan Yew positioned Singapore so well, government owned companies, such as Singapore Airlines, have emerged as the best in the world.

His story inspires me, spurs me to understand that success is not by chance but by design – every little step, all the strategies are all planned out. Not at all by chance.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
My business coach, Marshall Thurber, shared with me the power of the “Trim Tab” – a small part of the rudder system in a ship. This Trim Tab, despite its small size, is able to influence the entire ship’s direction by turning it.

This metaphor helped me see that a man can influence the entire world if the right effort is applied. We are now living in an entirely new world, the way we commute with an app on the phone – that’s the power of the Trim Tab at work.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would embark on the same journey but I would seek a mentor at a very early age.

I have been through many hard knocks along the way, and I definitely could have shortened the learning curve if I had a mentor to advise me on the many aspects of entrepreneurship.

How do you unwind?
Driving down long highways helps me unwind, that’s when I let my mind relax and wander.

I love long distance driving and riding. My wife gave me a Harley Davidson Tourer for my 50th birthday and we intend to embark on riding holidays together in Asia.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong – I love the fast pace and the vibrance of the city. I love the cars there and it’s a very unique and exciting experience for me. And of course, I love the food there too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
One Minute Millionaire – this book highlights the mindset of an individual that is the key determinant for success in whatever we embark on. As long as we know we have a very strong reason why we need to do it, we can do it!

Shameless plug for your business:
I am the CEO and Founder of 2 Math enrichment brands:
Neuromath is a Specialist Math Learning Centre that helps students from Primary 1 to Junior College, empowering them with strategies, skills and a strong desire to learn and problem solve. We use technology to train students to avoid careless mistakes reclaiming 30 marks or more in Math exams and achieve their full potential in math.
www.neuromath.com.sg

Early Math Matters is a premier Mathematics and Cognitive Development enrichment centre for preschool children aged 3-6 years old. Through purposeful play and our renowned EMM approach, we help learners build a strong foundation for problem solving at an early age, and instil in them a passion & love for math that will stay with them for life.
www.earlymathmatters.com

We are actively seeking passionate teachers, entrepreneurs and investors who are keen to grow the education business with us.

How can people connect with you?
I speak regularly at workshops for schools, parents and platforms demonstrating the use of technology for peak performance in education.

Do contact me at
www.NormanTien.com

Alternatively, you can connect with me:
www.NormanTien.com/facebook
www.NormanTien.com/linkedin

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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