A quiet revolution is transforming the way we consume, by empowering our innate desire to share, writes Rob O’Neill.

An aggressive new breed of entrepreneurs is disrupting traditional business models through allowing people to do what comes naturally, to share.

But the so-called "sharing economy" can be hard to define. Outwardly, many of the companies involved look a lot like traditional businesses. Uber, for instance, works like a taxi company.

The difference is that Uber drivers are sharing their private vehicles through the Uber app and almost anyone can be an Uber driver if they meet the company's criteria.

Author and academic Rachel Botsman said such sharing amounts to a transformation in the way we use assets and transfer value and trust.


"The sharing economy is an economic system that takes unused assets. It can be anything from spaces, to physical stuff, to capital. It unlocks the value of those by matching 'needs' and 'haves' in ways that create greater efficiency and access."

Sharing economy hotspots include transport, finance, accommodation and skills and labour, supercharged smart and mobile technology.

In New Zealand, the sharing economy is thriving, with a healthy mix of local start-ups and global giants offering services. One of the oldest of these is Bookabach, founded in 2000 and now owned by global travel giant Expedia.

Co-founder and general manager Peter Miles said the sharing economy is built around people that own underutilised houses, baches, spare rooms, office spaces, car parks, cars, camper vans, even tools.

"The internet gives reach and scale," he said. "Online marketplaces facilitate peer-to-peer transactions and help manage risk, through feedback loops, and fraud."

Some people don't like the term "sharing economy", but Miles said he's okay with it.

"Fundamentally making more efficient use of existing assets has got to be good for the planet, right?

"In the Bookabach case we have all these baches and holiday homes totally under-utilised in many cases, made available for both domestic and inbound visitors. It provides access to remote parts of the country and accommodation capacity for peak seasons.

"For bach owners it offsets the rates, funds maintenance and improvements and for some people provides a modest secondary income."

Local peer-to-peer lender Harmoney was only launched in 2014, but has already facilitated over $300 million in loans. For chief executive Neil Roberts the sharing economy is about using technology to revalue assets and enabling owners to make a choice to share those assets.

"It's when people prefer, rather than dealing with the big guys, to deal one-to-one using technology and where that technology empowers you by making the complex really simple and enjoyable to use."

There's nothing new about taxis, holiday homes or lending money to each other, Roberts said.

In the case of Harmoney, what has changed is the ability to lend money to multiple kiwi borrowers, to diversify that lending and to do it automatically.

"We give you the tools to manage that really simply," Roberts said. "All of the models have to have customers coming to them in droves and therefore have to offer a good experience."

Miles recounts just such quality experiences while on a trip to Texas a couple of years ago. In Austin, he took Uber rides with a yoga instructor making ends meet, a limo driver between jobs, a teacher raising funds for his child's university education and a "lovely middle-aged lady that just liked driving and meeting people".

"On the face of it allowing people to earn a secondary income on partially used assets, and their spare time, makes good sense."

Roberts, another Uber fan, said success in sharing markets is based on creating great, empowered customer experiences.

"You have to make it ten times as good or don't bother. You have to do that to bring the customers in."

Watch Harmoney Joint CEO Neil Roberts talks about the origins of peer-to-peer and the challenges and risks he faced starting up the first business of its kind in New Zealand.