It is lovely to think about the emergent collaborative economy as the victory of the little guy. From artisans hawking their wares on Etsy to people renting out their homes on Airbnb, there is an ever-growing range of applications and websites that make it easy for people to make money off the room or car they are not using, or to earn a supplementary or full-time income on their own terms. As Richie Hecker observed earlier this year, “With the rise of the shared economy, everyone is now an entrepreneur.”
Take a look at the data, however, and we see another story: the continued relevance of big brands. That is what Jeremiah Owyang and I found in our recent report, “The New Rules of The Collaborative Economy,” just released by Vision Critical and Crowd Companies. Our report was based on feedback from more than 50,000 North Americans, including 2,000 who provided details on their latest transactions as buyers and sellers in the collaborative economy.
When we looked at the specific sites or apps that people had used in their most recent transaction, we found that almost every area of the collaborative economy is dominated by a single player that enables at least half of the peer-to-peer transactions in that category. These are the big brands of the collaborative markplace: brands like Kickstarter (responsible for 57% of crowdfunding transactions), Craigslist (65% of professional services), Uber (86% of ride-sharing) and Etsy (a staggering 91% of the custom products marketplace—though that could change with the recent launch of Amazon Handmade).
While there are obvious advantages to aggregating a wide range of buyers and sellers in one place, the market dominance of the collaborative economy’s biggest brands means that there is essentially one gatekeeper for most peer-to-peer transactions. That seems to work better for people buying or borrowing goods and services than it does for the people selling them. Though we see high levels of customer satisfaction among collaborative economy participants, sellers are somewhat less satisfied than buyers, particularly when it comes to price.
That dissatisfaction means there may still be an opportunity to carve up the sharing world into smaller slices, since suppliers could be lured away from the prevailing platforms by upstarts that offer them higher earnings from their goods or services. Unless and until that happens, however, it is time for us to stop romanticizing the collaborative economy as the triumph of small entrepreneurs.
Far from the collaborative economy looking like the rise of the little guy, it looks like a new bunch of big guys–big guys with the power to set prices and working conditions for the entrepreneurs we have celebrated as the sharing-economy poster kids.