The Peer-to-Peer Business Models That Matter Most Are the Ones We Haven’t Seen Yet

On January 14, 2014 by Philip Auerswald

I’m testifying tomorrow to the House Committee on Small Business at a session titled: “The Power of Connection: Peer-to-Peer Businesses”

Here’s an excerpt from my written testimony:

From the standpoint of the United States Congress, the peer-to-peer business models that matter are the ones we’ve not yet seen.

It is instructive to ask ourselves why we are focused today on local transportation, hospitality, food service, and the rental of consumer goods as the most significant domains of innovation in peer-to-peer business models. The reason, arguably, is that these are industries in which regulatory complexity is relative low. In contrast, there has been relatively little innovation of peer-to-peer business models within healthcare, energy, and education, where regulatory complexity is relatively high. These three industries together comprise more than a quarter of U.S. GDP. The greatest macroeconomic impact of peer-to-peer business models for the United States thus will be realized when we have established the training, certification, licensing, and auditing mechanisms at all levels of government that allow neighbors to earn their livelihoods by taking care of neighbors, and by providing power to their communities and offering validated, work-relevant training to people anywhere who seek expanded opportunities.

In more general terms, the bottom line is this: shared prosperity requires not only innovations that scale-up to create new wealth but also innovations that scale-out to create new opportunities.

Let me be very clear on this point. Much of my own work, as well as important research conducted over the past decade at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City with which I have been affiliated, is about the value to society of scale-up innovation—particularly via new entrepreneurial entrants. This research has demonstrated that the small proportion of new ventures that scale-up rapidly are responsible for a disproportionate share of value creation in the economy.

But here’s the problem we’ve run into: while some scale-ups create a large number of new jobs, many do not. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all achieved valuations in the tens and even hundreds of billions of dollars, but they directly employ far fewer people per dollar of revenue than their Fortune 500 counterparts did a generation ago. This is where peer-to-peer platforms come into play. By their very structure, peer-to-peer platforms scale-out success to reach tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people with opportunities to create viable livelihoods for themselves. They create new and enticing invitations to latent producers within the economy to employ their individual assets and talents to create new economic value.

The significance of peer-to-peer business models thus is not effectively measured by adding up the share of GDP they represent in terms of monetized transactions. These innovations in work are rushing in at the fringes of the advanced economies to fill the void left behind as large corporations continue to “lean up”—that is, to shrink their payrolls by employing algorithms and machines to perform routine tasks previously performed by people. As Gansky puts it, “We’re in a period of exploration. While we might be looking at a relatively small magnitude of overall economic activity now in the peer-to-peer economy, it’s happening at a time when all the tried-and-true industries are going through significant transformations.” Steven Straus, former managing director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, looks at the same phenomenon from the standpoint of service providers: “We currently have about three job seekers for every available job and 11 million people looking for work—so the growth of the sharing economy isn’t surprising.”

In the coming decades, the United States and other advanced industrialized economies will no sooner return to the routinized, manufacturing-centric economy of the 20th century than to the agrarian economy that preceded it. The issue is not whether new livelihoods based on peer-to-peer business models are better or worse than the Industrial Age jobs that are disappearing from large corporations. The real point is that when jobs are eliminated in the process of digital disruption, they will not be coming back in their old form. As that happens, we humans have no choice but to fall back on our fundamental social skill set: creating and sharing with one another. There is, however, one big difference: unlike our isolated ancestors of millennia past, Americans in this century are empowered by architectures of collaboration that allow for the creation of new and diverse livelihoods at unprecedented rates.

Therein lies the potential of today’s peer-to-peer economy.

Full testimony is here.

3 Responses to “The Peer-to-Peer Business Models That Matter Most Are the Ones We Haven’t Seen Yet”

  • Looking forward to reading full testimony.

    Interested in what Phil thinks about specific P2P business models in education that have some form of financial return for contributors- directly and via enhancing reputation.

    Efforts like eHow are interesting but seem to benefit financially on a few participants who are participants in their so-called hybrid organization… .

  • My apologies… the company I was referring to is: wikihow
    (ehow was the precursor company- both founded by Jack Herrick)
    article on hybrid organization that wikihow is a model for is here

  • Some of the most important take-aways fro the Davos World economic forum a few weeks ago were precisely about the lack of collaboration. What if the challenge is precisely in the architectures of collaboration?

    I can’t help noticing that despite the use of the words, collaboration is not a main topic in Davos. Entrepreneurship, growth, alignment of policy etc… the list of topics is long, and many point back to the lack of collaboration as a root cause of more beneficial outcomes. But the way it is discussed assumes that this is the result of policies, motivations or other factors. What if the question really lies in the architecture of collaboration in a deeper sense?

    Peer to peer business models can indeed be seen as a “fall back” position to fundamental social skills – doing together tasks that overwhelm us individually, and learning, creating and sharing. But again, what if this is not a “fall back” but an intrinsic part of an Operating System of innovation? an essential component of the “collaboration architecture”?

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