Business TEDTalks

11 fascinating “peers incorporated” businesses

Posted by: Jessica Gross

Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, is proud of her company’s emphasis on sharing. But now, a decade later, “it’s really time to push the envelope,” she says in today’s talk filmed at TEDGlobal 2012. Chase’s latest venture, Buzzcar, provides an online platform for people in France to rent cars from their friends and neighbors. “Instead of investing in a car, we invest in a community,” Chase says. “We bring the power of a corporation to individuals.”

Companies like Buzzcar are commonly described as “peer-to-peer,” but Chase prefers the phrase “Peers Incorporated,” which implies not only sharing among members of a network, but also the involvement of a corporation as a go-between. In other words, Peer Inc. companies marry a corporate side—which uses economies of scale, resources, expertise and standards to create a platform—with a peer side, whose diversity, specialization, and innovation yield services and products. “The two of these are delivering the best of both worlds,” Chase says, with each side providing what the other can’t.

Chase points out that building the platforms that connect these two entities isn’t trivial — and it’s hard! Every decision at Buzzcar requires that she consider two groups: the car owners and the drivers who are renting them. On top of that, there is a big range in quality when the product is offered up by individuals instead of a single company — which necessitates ratings and commentaries, but also leaves room for an “exceptional amount of innovation.”

“When I think about our future and all of the problems that seem incredibly large,” Chase says, “Peer Incorporated provides the speed and scale, and the innovation and the creativity, that is going to answer these problems.

To hear more about what makes these businesses different, watch Chase’s talk. And below, 10 great examples of Peer Inc. companies — some Chase mentions, and many she doesn’t.

  1. Carpooling.com, now running in over 40 countries, allows drivers to offer passengers a ride. According to company data, Carpooling.com transports one million people every month and has saved a million tons of carbon emissions.
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  2. TaskRabbit connects those whose to-do lists are unmanageable with people who want to help complete them (for pay, of course). Tasks fall into categories from house cleaning to computer help to research to moving.
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  3. On Change.org, users can start a petition, which — unlike a petition you’d put up on your own blog — has a much greater chance of being seen and signed. “Gathering people behind a cause used to be difficult, requiring lots of time, money, and a complex infrastructure,” the website points out. “But technology has made us more connected than ever.”
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  4. Couchsurfing allows locals to host travelers in their homes, and now has more than five million members spanning every country in the world. (See Patricia Marx’s very funny account of her Couchsurfing experience in the New Yorker, which also lists other smaller hospitality exchange services, like Global Freeloaders, Be Welcome, Nomadbase, and Tripping.)
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  5. Via TopCoder, developers and designers create digital products on the self-described “world’s largest platform for digital open innovation.” Over 425,000 members participate.
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  6. Kickstarter offers a platform for crowd-sourced fundraising. Projects range from movies to radio programs to inventive new gadgets. (Kickstarter has even become successful enough to prompt a backlash, as seen in this New Republic post, or this one on Gawker.)
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  7. On Super Marmite, home cooks can sell portions of their leftovers. In Paris and looking for a serving of lasagne bolognaise at 6pm? That’ll be three Euros, please.
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  8. Etsy provides an online store for crafts makers to sell their wares: jewelry, clothing, artwork, furniture, iPhone accessories, you name it.
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  9. Kiva facilitates microlending across the globe. Those wishing to borrow money meet with a field partner, who approves their request and has it translated for Kiva’s website. On the site, you can give as little as $25 to a internet café in Mexico or help a group in Burundi buy fish to sell at market. Once entrepreneurs pay back the money, you can re-lend it to other Kiva participants.
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  10. Gusta.com provides a platform for people to “attend or create amazing culinary experiences,” like cooking classes, food tours, supper clubs, and food festivals.

Want to hear more about the potential of peer-to-peer businesses? Listen to Rachel Botsman’s talks, “The case for collaborative consumption” and “The currency of the new economy is trust.”