Collaborative Consumption and Social Entrepreneurship, A Cautionary Tale

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at Oxford’s Said Business School entitled “Trust Me, I’m A Stranger: Learn from leading entrepreneurs innovating in the collaborative economy”.

The panelists were Lily Cole founder of Impossible, a social network that encourages users to exchange skills and services for free in the hope of encouraging a peer-to-peer gift economy; Sam Stephens founder of streetbank, a website that helps neighbours build community, reduce consumption and save money; and Ivo Gormeley founder of GoodGym, a growing movement of runners who run to do good.

The panel was moderated by Rachel Botsman, a self-styled expert on collaborative consumption.

Collaborative consumption is a growing trend and looks set to continue for some time. It refers to the fact that the Internet enables people who have things to sell or share them, and people who need things to buy or borrow them.

Buying and selling, sharing and borrowing are nothing new. They have been going on since the dawn of humanity. But the hype around collaborative consumption is due to the fact that the Internet allows people to connect at very low cost (in terms of time and money), and so makes it possible to create markets that didn’t formerly exist because they weren’t economically viable.

While the collaborative economy does offer exciting possibilities and significant promise to enable us to consume more while producing less, I was underwhelmed by the three self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs who spoke.

For three reasons.

Firstly, the panelists demonstrated a lack of understanding of how things work online. 

Lily Cole spoke about the slow growth of her platform, Impossible, and argued that people just need time to become familiar with a new medium, and that it just takes time for people to trust each other online.

This sounds like a plausible argument, but you don’t hear Mark Zuckerberg or Reid Hoffman talking about lack of trust online.

Facebook and LinkedIn are platforms that launched successfully because they were able to attract the critical mass of active users needed to create sufficiently strong network effects, and thus a self sustaining community.

Secondly, the self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs all seemed blissfully aware and yet surprisingly apathetic about the fact that they lack the resources required to compete should a new venture-backed start-up company decide to enter one of their market segments.

Uber poses a significant threat to the taxi industry worldwide largely because it has $1.6 billion to spend.

Good intentions are meaningless if you lack the resources required to carry out your mission; and the panelists were full of good intentions.

Thirdly, two of the panelists (Lily Cole and Sam Stephens) typified the social entrepreneurship movement in that they were slightly too self serving and self congratulatory to be given the respect that they so desperately crave.

Lily Cole has a net worth of around £8 million, and yet was happy to take around £250,000 from the UK government in order to launch her (lackluster) collaborative sharing platform.

Sam Stephens took a similar amount from the UK government. He joked during the panel discussion about needing a new laptop and whether he should borrow one through streetbank, the sharing platform he founded with the money. He conceded that since nobody was likely to lend him the Macbook he so desperately coveted, he would probably just spend some of his grant money to go and buy one.

Social entrepreneurs love to frame themselves as public benefactors, but sometimes the only people they are benefiting are themselves.