Guess who benefits most from the new ‘sharing’ economy?


London Evening Standard, by Richard Godwin

“It’s hard to be a disrupter and not be an asshole.” That’s how an early investor in Uber described the company’s founder, Travis Kalamnick, in a recent Vanity Fair profile. “It’s douche as a tactic, not as a strategy,” was how another explained Kalamnick’s tendency to pick fights with anyone who stands in the way of his taxi app.

Clearly there’s a lesson to be learned. If you want to be a billionaire don’t be a douchebag all the time. Just some of the time. For Kalamnick, 38, with a fortune of $5.3 billion, is among the new faces in Forbes magazine’s annual parade of the revoltingly wealthy.

As its publisher is aware, the Forbes rich list offers a vivid snapshot of what’s happening in the global economy. Oxfam describes it as a “moral outrage” that such a small number of humans should control so much wealth. I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s not just a question of how much money the billionaires make. It’s worth looking at how they make it.

Kalamnick and his business partner Garrett Camp are among 23 men from Silicon Valley to make their debut on this year’s list. So too are the three founders of the holiday rentals service AirBnB (each worth $1.9 billion). Like Uber, it operates in the “sharing economy”, which allows everyone with an internet connection to make transactions between themselves, bypassing — and disrupting — existing businesses.

As a consumer, I use both regularly. London’s black-cab drivers may be second to none but they’re also really, really expensive. Uber drivers may score poorly when it comes to reciting the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue or understanding the congestion patterns on the North Circular but they’re also cheap, easy to locate and have GPS. I like staying in hotels too. Just not as much as I like paying one third of the price to stay in a much larger apartment in a much cooler part of town where I don’t have to ring up an obsequious stranger when I want a slice of toast.

So they’re great services. Still, if you look at them from the other side of the transaction, Uber and AirBnB are more like high-tech employment agencies than service providers.

Uber is an agency for freelance minicab drivers. Its technology allows anyone with a licence to make money from driving people around. AirBnB allows anyone with a home to make money from letting people sleep in it. In both cases, the founders have got rich by providing ordinary people with opportunities to make money — and then taking a cut.

These businesses operate in an increasingly freelance society. The Uber driver is typical of the jobs “created” in Britain’s recovery. (“Earn cash with your car! Be your own boss!” promises the sign-up page.)  The TUC recently calculated that only one in 40 jobs created since the recession is for a full-time employee; the biggest growth area is part-time self-employment.

It’s the central irony of the sharing economy. It promises collaboration at the same time as it pushes all of us to be less secure, more individualistic, more cynical about what we have and what its value is. I suspect we’ll see a lot more people using “douche” as a tactic in future.