The sharing economy has been touted as the epitome of the Internet’s populist ideals. With people like Anup Desai in the fray, it may just live up to its promise.
Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Gigi Gray
A few years ago, Anup Desai was on the front lines of Occupy Wall Street, taking a stand in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to rail against the injustices of capitalism. The young academic became a spokesman for the movement.
At around the same time as the Occupy protests, a new form of commerce was gathering steam: the so-called “sharing economy,” in which individuals sell, swap or rent goods and services via the Internet—now a wildly proliferating industry led by giants like Uber, the ride-sharing app valued at $18 billion, and Airbnb, which has placed more than 17 million guests in properties since its 2008 launch. While still in its infancy, peer-to-peer e-commerce is currently used by between 20 and 40 percent of all Americans, according to industry estimates. One of the fastest-growing areas of the field is rentals, which involves anything from bikes (Spinlister) to parking spaces (Parking Panda) to hospitality (Meal Sharing).
This past summer, the former Occupy leader ushered in a new arrival to the P-to-P marketplace: Rentah. The selling point of his site, Desai says, is that, unlike its most visible competitors,
it doesn’t occupy a niche. You can rent a power drill or an apartment, hire a language teacher or a caterer, or use the marketplace to rent out your wares and skills. But perhaps a bigger distinguishing factor is that Desai, 29, who took a leave from his job last year as an adjunct professor at City University of New York to launch the Brooklyn-based Rentah, is out to prove that capitalism and his Occupy ideals don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“Our goal is to make the world a better place,” says Desai, who’s given to expressing such righteous notions as “People need to have a dignified wage” and “We want to create relationships with our neighbors and cut down on consumption.” Rentah’s official Declaration of Interdependence contains the line: “The primary tenet of business is to do no harm.”
While that last sentiment may call to mind Google-esque brand-speak (“Don’t be evil”), there is some evidence that Desai is true to his words. He started his company a little over a year ago with a workforce of 10 interns, some of whom have since been elevated to the status of co-founders, with an equity stake in the firm. As for the site’s users, Rentah charges only a 5 percent transaction fee, much lower than many of its competitors. “It feels ethically wrong,” Desai says, “to charge people 20 percent for pushing a button.”
He expresses a similar idea when he says, “We don’t have a nickel unless you make a dollar.” However, if a million people each make $100, Rentah scores $5 million. The heart says kumbaya, and the bottom line says ka-ching.
Cait Mary Lamberton, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, contends that “as the sharing economy gets larger, it becomes more commercial.
“It has transitioned from a new, scary phenomenon to an alternate mode of transaction,” she says.
It’s telling that Lamberton uses the word “scary.” Even today, users’ fears of being ripped off, stalked or simply let down remain the biggest stumbling block for P-to-P entrepreneurs. Desai has an advantage in this respect, in that his Occupy association affords him immediate cred with the coveted 18-to-35 age demographic. And in the event that all this built-in authenticity doesn’t do the trick, Rentah is in the process of establishing conventional assurances, such as online credit checks and legal agreements, that will give you recourse should your plumber show up with a live cobra to snake the drain.
Cristina Rouvalis is a Pittsburgh-based writer who plans to get wealthy by renting out her husband and her cat.