Through his work guiding this trailblazing business, Alex has become an in-demand commentator on the collaborative and sharing economies. In the extract from his book below, The Business of Sharing (Macmillan, 2015), Alex visits San Francisco for a vision of how such new technologies are shaping how we live and work.“It was supposed to be a leisurely brunch but Brittney Bedford was hard at work. By most people’s standards, Bedford does not have a job. By most people’s standards, she is also a workaholic.
Bedford placed her iPhone between us on the diner’s Formica table. Every other minute it vibrated with a new notification from the many apps that fill her working life. “My office is my phone,” she told me, one eye on the screen of her scratched iPhone.
Bedford makes her living solely through sharing economy platforms. The 27-year-old Oakland resident rents out a spare room on Airbnb. She sells second-hand clothes on Poshmark. She dogsits on DogVacay. She runs errands and does chores on TaskRabbit.
Between mouthfuls of scrambled egg, Bedford flicked through new TaskRabbit postings and Airbnb enquiries and explained how 80-hour working weeks are common and how she and her husband have been trying to take a day off for over a month.
When we met, Bedford’s portfolio career meant project-managing a real estate fit-out, cooking soups for health-conscious entrepreneurs, and managing an Airbnb listing in San Francisco’s hippie fallout zone, Haight-Ashbury. But her favourite task as a sharing economy jack-of-all-trades was getting paid to drive a Rolls-Royce for a wedding.
Her work ethic translates into meaningful financial rewards: since quitting her job as a chef, Bedford’s salary has practically doubled to around $1,500 a week. But more than the cash, working in the sharing economy gives Bedford the freedom she craves. “I feel totally in control of my life,” she told me before excitedly talking me through her plans for an upcoming 3-week trip to Central America.
Bedford chooses when she works and what she does, picking only the “gigs” that she fancies. Indeed, she outsources her own chores that she dislikes, paying a house cleaner and a part-time assistant to do her admin.
When I asked Bedford what it would be like to get a regular job again, she gawped at me like I had just broken into Swahili. Finally, she shrugged and said, “I don’t know what that would be like.”
I asked Bedford whether she was concerned about the lack of employee benefits. She told me that she did not have any before. What about job security? She said she feels more secure now that she has a variety of income streams. Lack of career progression? “One of the great things about TaskRabbit,” Bedford told me, “is that you meet lots of people. It’s networking.”
Bedford is an on-call assistant to a number of influential San Franciscans and told me about a recent gig at a multimillionaire’s mansion. Just as I felt Bedford beginning to relax, she spotted a task that she wanted: picking up some groceries. The next moment, we were in her pick-up, her bulldog Otis clambering all over me as we headed to Whole Foods.
Bedford is not alone. There are around 1.5 million freelancers now in the UK. As Carole Cadwalladr writes in The Guardian, “[Airbnb] is succeeding in doing what Margaret Thatcher wanted to achieve but ultimately failed to do: it’s creating entrepreneurs out of ordinary people.”
Many freelancer beneficiaries are online workers in developing countries where they can arbitrage low wages against lower living costs. Even artists are riding the trend. deviantART is the world’s biggest art community of over 30 million artists and art lovers. People are now applying this entrepreneurship to all kinds of assets: real estate, cars, fashion, food, and more.
“Microcapitalism” has become a global phenomenon. Its ubiquity suggests that it taps into a desire for freedom and self-reliance that makes us innately human.
“All human beings are entrepreneurs,” says Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning microfinance pioneer. He continues: “When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed … finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became ‘labor’ because they stamped us, ‘You are labor’. We forgot that we are entrepreneurs.”
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