Uber for Everything

San Francisco has 800,000 inhabitants. How many cordless drills are there in this city? Probably orders of magnitude more than we actually need. I bought one six months ago, used it just once. It’s now another object in a box filled with stuff. At the time I must have thought that the most convenient way to hang a shelf on the wall was to buy a drill for $22 with free shipping with Amazon Prime.

What I really needed were the holes, not the drill. Maybe I should put it out in the street and forget that it existed. What if for $22 I could have had a reliable person show up at my place within an hour, drill the holes, and go away? I’d probably do that every time I needed holes (maybe once a year, no idea). I know I could find someone on TaskRabbit to do it, but is it as easy as buying a drill on Amazon?

drillimage

I know this is a silly example of a First World problem; that’s not the point. What’s interesting to me is how typical households in the developed world contain caches of random objects that we use with varying frequencies. You probably use your toothbrush at least once a day (let’s hope). How about other stuff in your bathroom? What’s in your closet, or in your garage? Perhaps you have a tennis racket that you bought ten years ago when Rafa Nadal was still an unknown. He’s gone through hundreds of rackets since, while yours sat idle next to your mother’s old dining set, on top of a case containing a $300 guitar that you played for a week, inspired by Slash’s performance during a Guns’N’Roses concert you saw. Then the band fell apart, and Axl spent ten years “working” on an album called Chinese Democracy that few people remember. While far from their best work, Chinese Democracy is way better than, say, Liz Phair’s Funstyle. But that’s not important right now, let’s get back to your neglected guitar.

Why did you spend $300 on a guitar? It probably seemed like the best option at the time given the alternatives you had. You probably couldn’t borrow one from a friend, and you thought there was a good chance you’d use it for a long time. It seemed justified. We humans are pretty bad at predicting the future, and sometimes that’s very costly. On a much larger scale, those of us who live in California know how this state embraced the car/freeway combo during the twentieth century. The state was developed during the short window of time when cars and freeways seemed like the solution to all transportation problems. Now we are stuck with an inefficient transportation system, and we need to own our private cars to drive on public freeways.

What if we had to design the United States transportation system from scratch today? With today’s technology, perhaps we’d want public roads and public cars. It might work like this:

You need to go from A to B, so you walk outside. There are a bunch of cars parked within a minute of your doorstep. They all more ore less indistinguishable, like parking meters or traffic lights. You pull out your phone, click on the “car” icon, see the lights of a silver sedan blink. You drive it to B, and you park it somewhere. Your app charges you a toll for the trip. That exact car probably won’t be there when you get back, so you have to take your stuff with you. Perhaps you have a standard robot trunk that fits into all cars. It follows you around when you walk, and inserts itself into the car you drive. Another robot goes around refueling cars. Cars that break down are mysteriously repaired at night. In this imaginary country, owning a car makes as much sense as owning a road.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we build the above system (I’d prefer self-driving Segways). All I’m saying is that we have the technology to do it if we wanted. In fact, let’s forget cars. What other kinds of objects that we own could be replaced by services? I can imagine startups taking advantage of niche opportunities the same way ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are disrupting the taxi business. Could the “drill-me-a-hole” app become a billion dollar startup? Perhaps not, but what are the conditions for an object-replaced-by-a-service to be a viable business? Here are a few:

  • Latency: if I need a cab, I don’t want it tomorrow. It’s reasonable to wait for ten minutes, but an hour might be too much. For a hole in the wall, I could wait until tomorrow. What about owning a dinner set for 12 people in case we have guests over? I may want to schedule it to show up Friday at 5 pm, as well as a dirty dish pick up tomorrow after 11.
  • Liability: what if I make my drill available for peer-to-peer rental, and the next person to use it breaks it? What if my drill is used to commit a crime?
  • Liquidity: what if I request a dinner set at 4 pm, but there are none available until tomorrow? What if I want a relatively rare object of which only five exist in San Francisco?
  • Peer-to-peer (“AirBnB for drills”) or centralized (“Zipcar for blenders”)?
  •  Cost-effectiveness: could someone put a drill in my hands in the next hour, and pick it up tomorrow morning for less than it costs Amazon to deliver one in 48 hours (and never get it back)?

There must be lots of things for which new “sharing economy” and “unusual things as a service” startups could figure out the operational details. Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Zipcar, that’s just the beginning. Imagine the free space and extra money you’d have if you could have a vacuum cleaner at your place in 30 minutes and gone an hour later, two extra chairs for the weekend, an air mattress for a week, a barbecue for six hours on Labor Day, a Bigfoot Garden Yeti for… well, never?

Discuss on Hacker News

21 thoughts on “Uber for Everything

  1. You might be able to get away with this if you have enough surplus labor to support running these objects around all day. You’re willing to drive an Uber car if you’re making $35-45/hr. You’re not willing to run power tools around town if you’re making $5/hr.

    • What if you’re driving a van filled with objects just like UPS, except you commit to specific times for deliveries and pick-ups? It wouldn’t necessarily be just power tools. If there’s enough density to match people and needs several times in an hour, you might make a decent hourly rate.

  2. I’ve had this very idea myself for a long time – but what if you could ‘rent’ things instead of buying them from a somewhat centralized location?

    With how effective delivery services are becoming these days, what if you could have ‘rented’ that drill for $2 for a single use including delivery and then got rid of it within a few days, potentially sending it directly to the next person who needs it (although you wouldn’t send it directly to the next person, some backend magic would work that out), ideally in a close by location (if scale was high enough this would be possible).

    Amazon can only make $20 off that drill by selling it once, but what if they sold the same drill 50 times? 50 x $2 = $100. Of course they theoretically lose out on the people that would have bought that the drill for the full $20 price.- but there would be somethings where that would not be the case.

  3. If you believe that is a good idea you should test it.

    I don’ believe that is a good idea(*), but probably you are onto something.

    (*)My electric drill and tennis racket are one of the things that I use the most, I help my friend doing their holes for free too, have no electric guitar, and already share a car, but only with people I know.

    Where I live in Spain people are already sharing cars together, you should ask the companies that are already testing this model in cities like Madrid or other European cities.

  4. This idea has been stuck on my mind for awhile now. Why is it more convenient and cheaper for me to buy a new trinket than to find the 5 within 1000 feet of me that aren’t being used!? This is the next big problem for the sharing economy to tackle.

  5. This is a good idea. You could also posted items you need to borrow on TaskRabbit and someone would probably lend it to you for a fee. Or you could just hire a TaskRabbit….even to vaacum or steam clean, etc.

  6. Here in Berlin is a shop called Leila (short for “Leihladen”, which is german for ‘rent shop’, but also a female german surname).
    Its a shop, in which you can become a member. You have to give at least one item of yourself to the shop (permanently or temporary). If you give one item, you can rent one item (without fee). If you give two items, you can rent two etc.
    You have to give a small deposit for valuable items, but you’ll get it back if you return them.
    Its purpose is exactly to avoid that ten people buy each one drill, if one is sufficient for all. The idea is, to share seldomly used items and to save money doing this and to protect the environment by less consumption.
    The website is this one http://www.leila-berlin.de/ . If you are interested, you can read about it using Google translate or contact them. I am sure that they speak english.

    Best regards,
    Hans

  7. Am I the only one that doesn’t feel a sense of freedom when everything I interact with is leased? I like private property, because I can own the actual capability (obviously having piles of crap all around isn’t efficient or particularly freedom inspiring, but balanced consumption is possible), and more importantly I don’t have to continually rely on other people and especially profit-driven companies that may or may not be there when I *actually need them*. Relying on companies to provide things on demand when you need them may or may not be economically or otherwise efficient, but it doesn’t create self-sufficiency. That doesn’t appear to be valued very much in these conversations.

    Is there room in this dialogue for an alternative point of view like this one?

    • There absolutely is. New models would address the desire for self-sufficiency somehow; maybe it just means that for some people or some objects at least, the ‘sharing economy’ isn’t appropriate. I think at the core there’s something useful here though, at least for some items self-sufficiency comes at a price that some people aren’t willing or able to pay.

  8. I am totally affiliated with this: http://peerby.com. Borrow the things you need from people in your neighborhood within 30 minutes. We’re in TechStars London right now. Working like a charm in Amsterdam. If you post a request for a power drill you’ll really get one offered by your neighbors in 30 minutes. Works best in Amsterdam, but more and more communities are popping up around the world.

  9. For the life of me I can never figure out why the phrase Uber for X is so popular? All Uber does it make it easier to get a taxi/blackcar (in an incredibly awesome user experience). They are a middleman between consumers and licensed drivers.

    The real solution is Redbox for X. (see what I did there?). Community kiosks for what you need. Imagine Home Depot/Guitar Center/Sports Authority kiosks. Rent what you want, and then put it back when you’re done.

  10. Your car-sharing idea does exist, without the robot trunks. It’s called Car2Go. Started in Germany, but is now in SD, PDX, Austin, Vancouver, Toronto, etc. It’s f’ing awesome.

  11. There are even planned services to allow you to order a public bathroom with your smartphone:

    http://wcnreports.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/gotta-go-hail-a-mobile-toilet-with-your-smartphone/

    “Our method is actually much safer, because it’s totally social,” [Dauber] added. “In the past your toilet time was spent alone, shut off from society. Now our system will be totally integrated with Twitter and with your Facebook Timeline. PowderCar will post your status updates automatically, and you can share with friends using Vine.”

  12. You can rent all sorts of tools at Home Depot in Massachusetts (though you still have to drive to a store). I don’t think they do delivery because it would cut too much into their margins. I guess what we need is more of these specialized places. One of the biggest obstacles I see is the relatively large areas that such businesses would have to cover. This is the reason – I think – why in Manhattan you can get free or very cheap delivery (someone will bike to your place with the food), but in other areas you often have to pay – lower population density, plus there might be a hill or two around etc.

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