Project updates

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Corporations, startups, and the crowd. There are many examples of attempts to bring these three worlds together, both successful and unsuccessful. The corporation is too cumbersome, the startup is too fast and takes too many risks, and the crowd simply has different interests and doesn’t want to listen. When I heard of a telecommunications company and a banking company seemingly able to work together, they caught my attention. At the CrowdDialog congress in Helsinki –actually outdoors, because inside it was all too warm, small, dark, and noisy– I entered into a conversation with Andreas Pages, the head of crowdfunding at Swisscom.

We talked about two real-life situations. The first regarding crowdfunding, as Swisscom has built a SaaS crowdfunding platform from which clients may launch their own crowdfunding platforms. Andreas is responsible for this project. The second situation deals with Swisscom Friends: a platform where Swisscom clients receive compensation for helping other clients solving technical problems. Check out the video of the interview, listen to the podcast, and/or read the most interesting findings and thoughts below.

A bank as facilitator and catalyst

With these projects, Swisscom clearly looks toward its future role. The thought of running an organization like a platform highly interests me. In these two examples, Swisscom takes a step back into the role of facilitator and catalyst. Facilitator: by offering its stakeholders (private and corporate clients) tools and a platform to deal with each other without the intervention of the company. Catalyst: by taking the lead, especially in the crowdfunding case, in the maturation process of the market.

Outsourcing the not-profitable and still building relationship

Recently, I visited an ABN AMRO session for a discussion about crowdfunding. At one point, I asked, “Starting from what amount does a business loan become profitable?” Understandably, I received answers like, “Well, it would depend on … bla bla bla”. So I asked again, “Fair enough, but could you pin down a specific number?” We ended up with the amount of €200,000. A loan –roughly estimated and not relevant in this case– of less than €200,000 costs the bank money. So why doesn’t a bank facilitate things for its clients with crowdfunding/crowdinvesting by working together with and by investing in other platforms? (In the broadest sense of the term.) Actually, this is what Swisscom does. They could facilitate the client with the means to collect uninteresting amounts of money (read: amounts incurring losses), while maintaining the relationship until the client does have an interesting (read: profitable) query. Regarding the help desk, it is the same story. The level of organization needed to support the bottom end of the market and the costs involved are huge. By providing clients with a platform, a win-win situation is created.

Keeping expenses and investments within borders

By giving Swiss investors the opportunity to invest, while offering national companies an extra option in the market of financing, money is literally kept within national borders and a closed ecosystem is created. This may sound a little nationalistic, but looking at the crowdfunding market, this is the way it currently works almost everywhere. As of today, there are  very few platforms where international investments are made.

Conclusions:

All in all, I’m of the opinion that the way Swisscom researches and takes on its future role now is by doing. The reason behind Swisscom’s success can be summed up as follows:

  1. They accept the well-known clichés of corporations being cumbersome and startups being fast and risk-taking, all the while looking for methods to deal with these factors.
  1. The teams are allowed to operate between the organization and the outside world as ‘interpreters’.
  1. By allowing the name Swisscom to be affiliated with the initiatives, particularly those cooperating with startups, they are motivated to enforce a certain level of quality. Maybe this is not advantageous to speed, however it is important to show externally, and even more so internally, that it is serious about this endeavor.
  1. By taking on a leading role in the market, also regarding regulations, they not only ensure themselves from developing dependency on reactive regulation making by the government, but they also add value to other crowdfunding startups. In this way they become an ‘equal’ partner (as they are one of us) in this young industry.
  1. Our business case has to be comprehensive in all we do. Hopefully, this also avoids innovations being used purely as marketing strategies, without creating long-term value for the organization. Of course, a pioneering role will attract a lot of positive attention, which is undoubtedly deserved. This is also the result of innovating in the open, and may have a downside: in the event things go wrong you’ll be ridiculed. For this reason, many organizations do not innovate under their own brand name. In contrast to a big brand, a start-up may back the wrong horse in the court of public opinion. Especially when this brand represents, among others, a bank.

I’m curious about the way they will use these new innovations, situated on the outskirts of the services sector, to change the organizations at their core. Whether they like it or not, it is what has to happen in the end. This, from my perspective, is a corporations’ greatest challenge. I observe many corporations making promising (and often also less fortunate) innovations, but usually it’s nothing more than a marketing ploy (only as a means for people to view them as innovative, working together with society and start-ups, or to have the appearance of being open to change). This might be worthwhile for a time, but in the long run they’ll be overtaken mercilessly anyhow. The fact that Swisscom manages to transfer innovations from the drawing table into practice, as well as the way in which they execute this process, instills confidence.

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At The Next Web Europe in Amsterdam I had the opportunity to talk to Ethan Zuckerman. Wikipedia describes him as: “American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist. He is the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and the author most recently of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”. Since I am thinking, talking and researching about the impact of digital platforms and reputation systems on society, I needed to talk to this guy. Enjoy!

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At The Next Web Europe in Amsterdam I talked to Nicolas Brusson, one of the founders of ride sharing service BlaBlaCar. We talked about their rapid growth, how to secure culture while growing internationally, their new office in Amsterdam, trust and reputation and how the holy grail in ridesharing looks like. To reach this goal they need to lower the threshold for ridesharing drastically and get a way to get into the daily habits of their users.

Two years ago I also interviewed his other co-founder Frédéric Mazzella at their HQ in Paris about the story behind BlaBlaCar. You ca check it here.

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At The Next Web in Amsterdam I had a talk with Danae Ringelmann, co-founder of Indiegogo. It was not the first time we met: in December 2014 we met at the Indiegogo HQ in San Francisco. By then she made a big impression on me when she shared her dream: “to  democratise access to capital and empower anyone to fund what matters to them, whatever that is.” Now, almost 1,5 years, her dream has changed. In this video we talk about her new ambition, crowdfunding, the European market and responsibilities of platforms. Enjoy!

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If I would have told you in 2008 that a businessman would build a hotel chain with about 1.5 million rooms in roughly 34,000 cities in over 190 different countries in just eight short years, you would have laughed in my face. Consequently, you would have listed for me all the impossibilities one would face in building such an empire with limited capital in so short a time. However, this is exactly what Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia proved themselves capable of. Not by building all this on their own, but by facilitating others to conveniently rent out their existent real estate to complete strangers.

Airbnb embodies, together with, for example, Uber, Lendingclub and the Dutch 3D hubs, Peerby and SnappCar, the unprecedented opportunities of exponential growth in the platform economy. Platforms on which the supply and demand of items, knowledge, money, and labor meet, learn to trust each other, and finally perform a transaction. The keyword in this development is facilitation. To facilitate others in creating value and making use of existing and unexploited knowledge and assets.

Personally, I believe that every form of organization, without exception, will be influenced by this new platform of development, also referred to as collaborative economy, within the next ten years. This belief caused me to travel all over the world for the last three years, to visit and speak with over 300 businessmen and experts in this industry. Through this process I learned to understand what is going on, what their dilemmas are, and what several future scenarios might look like. What follows is a brief analysis.

Frustration and amazement as sources of inspiration

The parents of Danae Ringelmann, crowdfunding platform Indiegogo’s co-founder, were as businesspeople never able to make the next step. Reason: they lacked access to growth capital. This frustration planted the seed of Indiegogo. Its goal: democratization of the access to capital, so that everyone would be able to finance what is important to him or her, regardless of what it is. Finding no affordable transport, while thousands of empty passenger seats speed down the highway, and a high transaction cost for transferring money internationally, were the frustrations that laid the foundation of respectively BlaBlaCar and Transferwise, both ‘unicorns’ on European soil. Besides being an accelerator of innovation, frustration also leads to a higher purpose. A higher purpose in giving everyone in the workplace direction.

Does and don’ts

“If you’re not ashamed of your first version, you went live too late”, is a well-known quote in the startup scene. Platform organizations are characterized by a fast learning curve and close contact with their users. Whoever thinks “doing” equals charging full speed ahead is mistaken. It strikes me time and again how well startups and scaleups keep their focus and resist this temptation. Recently, I asked Frédéric Mazzella, founder of ridesharing platform BlaBlaCar, if he would be open to delivering packages or implementing Uber-like activity. It would only be a small step and makes for an interesting business case. His answer was, “No. First we’re aiming to become the best ‘ridesharing service’ in the world. After that, we’ll see.”

Box? Which box?

For existing companies it’s hard to confine or predict these startups. Often, they aren’t the usual suspects and therefore it is difficult to know where they might surface from. About three years ago, I asked a bank director of one of the Netherland’s largest banks if he had heard of Transferwise. “No,” was his answer. He had never heard of –what still was– a startup in international money transferring. Now, I do understand it’s impossible to monitor the whole world, yet when a new player, however small, arises in your industry, is built by the people who built Skype and PayPal, and is being funded by Richard Branson, I would at least prefer to know of its existence. Meanwhile, I read recently that Transferwise is ‘shipping’ 500 million British pound a month through their platform now. I forwarded the link to the respective director. He should know of them by now. Saying it is hard to monitor the market is no excuse for creating a system that signals certain indicators. The positive message for existent organizations is that if others can think outside the box, you could do it as well. Ask yourself the question, ‘What am I?’. And you’ll see, there are more possibilities than you thought.

Existing organizations catching up

Although the landscape of platforms is presently formed by new companies, my forecast is that existing companies will join the movement in the near future. Existing companies have something of a leg up on a startup, namely a client base. Social media organizations like Google and Facebook are already experimenting with initiatives in the sharing economy. They have a certain critical mass and are already part of their users ‘routine’. However, also less likely organizations can make great strides. It strikes me how existing organizations present their legacy as a handicap, instead of their advantage. Change your perspective and you’ll be amazed by all the possibilities. As a corporation, you will present a far more attractive partner for energetic startups. Start looking for bridge-builders within your own ranks, those who know the pros and cons of both worlds, and make the connection from that point. 

Wrapping up

The platform economy is developing rapidly, though the race isn’t over yet. We’re in the middle of the transition, and though figures of growth may be impressive, the current greatest examples are far from perfect. Issues regarding ownership, (reputation) data, responsibilities of platforms, exclusion, and raison d’être, will probably be fueling public debate in the near future. Meanwhile, developments regarding blockchain are at the verge of a breakthrough with the goal to decentralize the constructed central power of these platforms. Where are we headed? God only knows. The only way to find out is by doing. Will you join the ‘expedition’?

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What importance might be assigned to online reputation? More and more people make use of online market spaces in order to trade with strangers. You may rent out their house on Airbnb, join a private driver through Uber, or invest in a cool gadget in a Kickstarter campaign. It’s really exciting, for anyone and everyone is basically anonymous on the internet. So, you’re in the blue if you can trust the person in advance. Over time, these market spaces have developed countless ways to generate trust.

Control Systems

Systems will ask for ID-checks, Facebook connects and connections with other trusted sources. This is the only beginning. After every transaction, demand and supply side are requested to evaluate each other. How did you enjoy your stay in this home? How clean was the guest? Most often indicated by a short descriptive review or a star-based rating.

Seemingly, these platforms deem these evaluations and checks not yet sufficient. Uber, in this context, announced recently to start using gps-data of driver’s cell phones in order to monitor the driving skills and to intervene if needed. Kroodle, an initiative of Dutch insurer Aegon, launched a very similar product. The calmer you drive, the higher the reduction on your car insurance at the end of the month. This is the first tug pulling the rug from under the collectivity principle on which insurances are based. So far it is only a reduction, but we can figure it is just the beginning.

Further and Beyond

Reputation and valuation systems will be used more extensively. They are applied in a wider scope and databases –data originating from apps, but also connection to bank account, profiles and friend’s behavior– are being connected. The more information one gathers, the clearer the user profile. With such a personal profile, bad behavior can be punished with exclusion and good behavior awarded with greater access and privileges. Transparency in conduct fails, desired behavior is stimulated, being left out once is just a bummer. And all this is becoming even easier with automated algorithms.

Systems in use nowadays are still in an early phase. With scores of 4 out of 5 stars you could think to be heading in the right direction. On Uber, however, having less than 4.6 stars already puts you in the penalty box. Even though the driver has no complete control over the customers experience. Bad weather, traffic jams, accidents, or problems with the app do have a direct influence on the final grade. Besides this, the frugal Dutch will probably give a lower average than the jovial Americans. In case a customer regrets the low rating he gave the next day, there is no way to correct oneself.

Insanity

The better and completer the online reputation, the greater the chances for an Uber driver to find work. This reputation is composed of evaluations of small assignments. An Uber driver will be evaluated about twenty times a day. Off course everyone will attempt a maximized customer experience, but ask yourself what effect it will have on the person itself. The constant push to please somebody, avoiding every little mistake, and adapting your behavior to the standard Uber tries to establish, leaves no space to experiment. Deviant behavior is most probable to be punished, resulting in exclusion. I don’t know about you, but such would drive me totally insane.

Who determines what is ‘right’?

Earlier on I indicated that these systems aren’t perfect. Not only the techniques, but also the interpretation of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ is on the line. This in turn is situationally linked. Whenever I’m taking an Uber ride in company of my kids, I like the driver to drive calmly, yet when I’m in a rush to catch my flight, I’d be pleased with a racy driving style. In both cases the gps-algorithms are likely to punish the driver –as he would be either far too slow, or far too speedy. Though, I would be a super content customer. In hiring a cleaning lady through a mediator platform like Helping the same dilemmas are faced. What makes a cleaning lady good? One greatly values punctuality, another cleaning abilities, and a third a friendly chat.

How important is trust?

Platforms claim that the creation and monitoring of trust is one of their main added values. The question arises: Isn’t the importance of online reputation too exaggerated. Ratings are based on rational data, although the human being can’t make rational decisions. I buy a house for more than the asking price, mainly based on gut feeling, but leave my most precious possession –my kids– at home with a relatively unknown, when going out for diner with my girlfriend at night. The platforms make us believe that online trust is very important, see this short fragment.

They have an incentive as well: the fact that you won’t trust a stranger right away –distrust being the standard– has a huge impact on their right of existence. What would happen if we would switch the standard to ‘trust’?

It is important to ask ourselves this question. As mentioned before, reputation systems will be used for so many more applications. These may be good, but also be bad or with disputable objectives.

Sesame Credit

Reputation data helps entrepreneurs without credit history in less developed countries to obtain loans. But things may turn. Considering the possibilities, one would end up in the scenarios described in the book The Circle, by Dave Eggers. Reality has caught up with the writer’s fantasy, so it seems. Late December last year, it was announced that China is developing a national reputation score, Sesame Credit. Drenched in clever gamification techniques, the score is still optional, yet will be mandatory for all it’s population from 2020. The Independent unraveled the system, stating “The system measures how obediently citizens follow the party line, pulling data from social networks and online purchase histories.” (China has made obedience to the state a game) Bringing a scenario depicted in The Circle within reach.

Designing the future

Consequently, the time has come to consider future reputation systems. Anyone who owns reputation data is sitting on a goldmine, and even owns the solution to glue platforms together. The interpretation of data will hence never be fully objective, but always in advantage of the (revenue) model of the platform.

Everyone has to learn from their own mistakes. The current systems do not allow for this, so we will have to think about creating a system that takes into account the human development on the long run. A system with room for mistakes, where you do have the right to experiment, and where shortcomings can be forgotten. For otherwise we’ll end up in a situation in which deviant behavior, which has been a source of new inventions through the ages and brought growth to the human existence, will be hampered.

 

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In Brussels I interviewed Alex Gaschard, co-founder of peer2peer car sharing platform CarAmigo. We talked about their entrepreneurial journey, working with different stakeholders, tax rulings and responsibilities and added values of sharing platforms.

 

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At the 2nd International Workshop on the Sharing Economy I shared some insights of the Crowd Expedition research in a presentation called:  ‘A research on the real added value and potential of the collaborative ‘crowd’ economy?’.

Read the full paper: http://bit.ly/IWSE2016

 

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5 predictions about the sharing economy in 2016

The sharing economy is an incubator for companies with exponentially growing valuations and user numbers. Hence the number of fascinating confrontations with the status quo also grew in 2015. What what will 2016 have up its sleeve? Sharing economy expert Martijn Arets looks ahead.

1. ‘Traditional’ Tech companies take the step into the sharing economy

Though the sharing economy domain was dominated by national and international start- and scale-ups in 2015, 2016 will also see some well-known ‘traditional’ names joining the sharing economy. Existing corporates are recovering from their disruption and discover the fact that they can earn their share in these developments. Better said: they have to rediscover themselves to be relevant in the future.

The automotive industry will, like in 2015, take the lead. Logically: the development of self-driving cars provides the branch the urgency to innovate. In this perspective, BMW launched a car sharing platform for her clients, Toyota launched a car rental service for Uber-drivers, and Daimler expanded its Car2Go program.

2. Greater supply, lower thresholds

The circa 150 sharing economy platforms active in the Netherlands at the time, will receive solid competition this year. Foreign players are crossing the border and free open source platform software like Sharetribe lowers the threshold to launch new ideas better than ever.

Given that a critical mass remains one of the greatest challenges to make a sharing economy platform a success, I also expect online platforms with an existing user base, like Google, Facebook, and Waze, to enter this domain. Google has been investing in several different initiatives and has a look in the kitchen in many places.

Recently, Facebook requested a patent that might indicate the company wants to integrate a drive sharing function. In Israel, Waze experiments with the drive sharing app RideWith to potentially compete the French BlaBlaCar.

3. Growth through partners and APIs

As many platforms mainly tried to attract users to their website in 2015, 2016’s (necessary) growth will mainly come through opening the platform for other parties, commonly by inserting APIs. Uber does this most actively, as far as I can see. Especially when they will start facilitating package delivery in the Netherlands, this might in effect provide an enormous growth.

4. More on-demand working platforms

After a residence (Airbnb), and a car (Uber and SnappCar), it’s your skill that is the most valuable and sellable asset. This year platforms offering small tasks, nicknamed ‘gigs’, will rapidly boost. Delivering groceries, walking the dog, cleaning, small domestic tasks, etc.

All this might go for a few euros and can be arranged for within seconds through a smart app. With the growth of these type of platforms, mostly inhabited by low-skilled workers with less alternatives to work different jobs, the discussion about this new form of ‘labour’ will rise.

5. The market will mature

With the valuation of many millions up to even billions, many platforms won’t be able to hide behind their label ‘disruptive’ and have to take responsibility for their actions. Differently stated: the market will mature.

In 2016 the term sharing economy, which resembles the phenomenon of people allowing each other to use their unused consumer products for a while (Frenken and Meelen, 2014), will be exchanged for a better fitting ‘collaborative economy’.

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