BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Well, here's another nice Mesh ...

Although I'm sure my wife will argue otherwise, I am able to consider suggestions, especially when the subject is books. Heck, I'll read stuff just because I was able to get it for a buck at the dollar store. So, when the manager of the Capital One 360 Chicago Café (which provides my client Nature's Little Recylcers' name-sake worms with a generous diet of used espresso grounds) asked if I'd read Lisa Gansky's The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, I had to say “no”, and admit to not having heard of it previously. She was highly recommending it, so I went right to the computer when I got home and found a used copy off the web.

The concept of “The Mesh” is very easy for me to wrap my head around, living downtown and without a car, I end up using, with some frequency, one of the shining examples of a “mesh business”, ZipCar. If you're from “the land beyond public transit”, ZipCar is a service that rents cars by the hour, and has hundreds of them scattered around the downtown in various garages and parking lots. You connect either on the computer or via your phone, pick a car you want to reserve, and block out the hours you need (assuming they're available – most weekends around here the two in our building book fast) … you have a membership card with an NFC chip that, when placed over a reader inside the windshield, will unlock the car if it's reserved to you then – the keys are in it. What's awesome on this service is that the insurance and gas are included for about a total of $12-15/hr.

Car sharing is a perfect example of a business that's in the “sweet spot” for a mesh business. There's a graphic in the book which is very useful, a 2x2 grid with “frequency of use” on the X axis and “cost” on the Y axis. Low-cost, frequently used items (the illustration shows toothpaste and a brush) are not particularly good for a mesh business as there's no reason not to personally own them, low cost, seldom used items (here, a hammer) are also not ideal as the cost of rental is likely to be relatively close to the cost of owning, and high cost, frequently used items (a smartphone is pictured) aren't good, because the “sharing” aspect is not well supported. It's things up in the top right quadrant of infrequently used expensive items that Gansky identifies as the “mesh sweet spot”.

Of course, this concept is not new, normal car rental, or even arguably public transit, fit the general outlines, and hardware stores have been renting carpet cleaning equipment for decades … the difference being that current technology makes it possible to fine-tune the process. She identifies two variations, the “Full Mesh” like ZipCar “... meaning that the company owns and maintains the vehicles. By participating, I get the benefits associated with owning, but without the hassles and cost.” The other is the “Own-to-Mesh” model where “they create a platform for people who own things to share them easily and profitably.”, with examples of companies that allow folks to rent out their homes while they travel.
Both the Full Mesh and Own-to-Mesh models are most successful when the customer feels empowered by relinquishing or sharing ownership. Mesh businesses are well positioned to constantly improve their customers' convenience by refining the overall experience, while offering them long-term savings and near-term happy surprises. Those ingredients will make sharing irresistible – customers will choose access to superior goods and services over living with lots of stuff.
The Mesh features a lot of stories of businesses that have either Mesh or mesh-like business models … such as Blockbuster's Wayne Huizenga, who had previously been into waste management, renting dumpsters in New York City … she quotes him as saying “I'm all about renting – I buy it once, and wherever it moves, I keep making money on my old investment.” … obviously he was able to take that sensibility into the video tape market, although didn't have a way to save that being almost totally swept away by digital, web-delivered, video. This is why Netflix has emerged as such a strong player, while the “traditional” video businesses faded away. One of the thing missing in the older rental models was interaction with the customer base … she talks of a “virtuous cycle of trust”: Learn – Trust – Play – Engage … where you build trust, grow your base, and refine the offers based on feedback from the customers. Again, this is something made far easier to accomplish with the rise of the web and mobile technologies.

She introduces another 4-cell chart which addresses this, with the X axis being frequency of sharing (toasters vs. taxis, for instance), and the Y axis being “data enabled goodness” (socks vs. a GPS device), and only in the high frequency sharing and high date-enabled quadrant are there successful “mesh businesses” (here listing four: iTunes, Netflix, ZipCar, and Amazon Web Services).

Perhaps the weakest part of the book here is that it is largely theoretical, talking about numerous situations, conditions, opportunities, market forces, demographic shifts, and various other trends (she even manages to wedge in global warming) ...but there are few entities as clearly “meshy” as ZipCar, so a lot of what is discussed are companies that have projects or divisions which are heading in a Mesh direction or have Mesh-like elements.

It's not that she didn't try, as the last quarter of the book is “The Mesh Directory”, an abbreviated version of an on-line resource (“Mesh – The Pulse of the Sharing Economy” at which list hundreds of companies over 27 categories that Gansky has decided are “meshy enough” (although, some, like Klout, LinkedIn, or MeetUp seem to be more there for the name-check than being particularly mesh-like in my understanding of the concept).

This was certainly an interesting book, and I have a bunch of bookmarks in it that will lead me off to subsequent researches. As I've been noting of late … it is a “business book” so is likely not a lot of readers' cup of tea, but if you are trying to keep up with trends in the culture, this is a good window into something that's likely to be growing in influence. The Mesh has been out for a while (fall of 2010), so it might be spotty in the physical book stores, but the big boys have it on-line, and you can snag a new copy of the paperback for 1¢ and the hardback for under two bucks through the new/used vendors (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping).

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Tags: book review
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