Has the Sharing Economy Already Left Zipcar Behind?

Zipcar was a harbinger of the new sharing economy, but according to Arun Sundararajan of The Harvard Business Review, because the company has to maintain a fleet of vehicles, its business model is really no different from an old-fashioned rental car company. Sundararajan points to two upstarts, RelayRides and GetAround, that mobilize a true peer-to-peer marketplace, with fleets of cars owned and operated (and parked) by a community of users. Their reputation-based approach can be traced to Airbnb and other resource-pooling companies like SnapGoods and TaskRabbit. These “peer economy marketplaces,” writes Sundararajan, “enable the disaggregation of physical assets in space and in time, creating digital platforms that make these disaggregated components—a few days in an apartment, an hour using a Roomba, a seat in your drive from Berlin to Hamburg—amenable to pricing, matching, and exchange.”

This emerging model makes Zipcar, which simply tries to lower the cost of a traditional transaction by leveraging technology, look outmoded. It’s no surprise that the company was recently swallowed by car-rental giant Avis. But large companies will have to adapt faster. The proliferation of mobile devices and social networks has created a natural marketplace for the exchange of social capital. How will corporations respond to, and co-opt, the new paradigm of collaborative consumption?

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