Ideas for a lighter life

Consumerism is a disease. I’m not sure if it’s fatal, but it’s certainly chronic. We’re all buying more stuff, shoving more stuff into our homes, throwing away more stuff, and then buying the same stuff all over again — all while everyone in the business of selling us stuff tries to make it faster, easier, cheaper for us to buy more.

Stuff is not the problem. The problem is that we’ve designed a system where stuff only moves in one direction — from a factory to a landfill — and a lot of people profit from all of our stuff ending up in a useless wasteland.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of bringing new items in from outside of a city each time we need something, a single item can circulate widely within a community, generating value for both the users and the item’s owner. This circular magic has the potential to change the game for how certain items move in and through cities — and perhaps be the cure to the disease of consumerism.

Urbanization has created a sort of “prime time” for sharing economies in modern cities. Cities have an increasingly high density of both people and items, which creates access to a wide array of objects and a deep pool of potential renters. Millennials are 21% more likely to live near city centers than Generation X homebuyers. They increasingly seek lower-cost, smaller-footprint homes with square footage optimized for living space rather than for storage. Globally, urban density is on the rise with no signs of slowing through 2050¹.

In spite of all this, sharing economies haven’t emerged organically outside of the most costly goods — namely cars and homes. The transaction costs (as economists call them) of participating in these networks are simply too high, making it either too expensive or too inconvenient for most long tail items to be worth renting or sharing. An apartment owner renting their place on Airbnb earns hundreds of dollars per night, a financial incentive that’s worth the time and expense of taking on these transaction costs. The promise of the sharing economy hasn’t delivered for long tail items — things like bikes, power tools, outdoor gear, electronics, furniture, art, and home goods.

We can make a far bigger impact on the lives of everyday folks and the cities we live in by reducing the friction — or transaction costs — for the long-tail items we all want access to. That’s the business we’re in at Omni — of reducing the transaction costs to make these circular economies a reality. We do this by offering verified, high-quality inventory available to rent in your neighborhood.

When economists talk about these markets, they often talk about the untapped value that’s unlocked in important but low-utilization items like power tools. For instance, from time to time nearly everyone needs to drill a hole in something. Yet, most people who own power drills use them relatively infrequently (on average, less than 1 hour over the lifespan of the drill). There are 110 million power drills in the U.S. — one for every three people. We can all agree that this is crazy. It’s been the subject of many podcasts, books, and articles — so I won’t go too deep here.

Sharing economies can also boost the productivity and financial yield on a per-item basis across entire cities. In the future, you’ll own less and have access to more. Not only does this mean that you’ll be able to make money on items you own and aren’t using, but that you’ll see a huge increase in effective purchasing power. If you need a drone, kayak, or high end camera four times per year, renting one for $50 a weekend means you can “own” it when you need it for $200 vs. paying $2,000 to purchase it outright and sacrifice space in your home. In this future, we all get access to more as a community — more items, more experiences, and more opportunities.

Casey Neistat had to max out his credit card buying his first video camera to get started. It doesn’t have to be this way. This paradigm shift brings huge swaths of items and opportunities into the economic reach of those that could never previously access them. No massive upfront payments, no red tape, no credit card bills, no complicated ownership — just what you want, when you need it.

Cities will transform into libraries of individual items anyone can access — items that over time will exist in smaller numbers but at higher quality, as buyers find greater value in owning products that are designed for long life (and thus can be shared by more people over a longer period of time). Once inside a city, products will stay there. Importantly, the money spent on these items also stays within the community — and drives compounding economic benefits for each person and city, a powerful force over a long time horizon.

The purchase-first model as-is can’t boost the utilization of individual items and isn’t designed to do so. Imagine a world where we can shave off 1%, 5%, or 10% of the new items entering our cities each year. Imagine a world where anyone can access the items they need to start a business, pursue a creative career, find a hobby, or enjoy the outdoors with their family without the burden of sole ownership?

In this world, we have fewer trucks on the road bringing items into cities, fewer items being produced to be used a few times to end up in landfills, fewer pollution getting pumped into our earth, and more people being able to experience more while owning less. This is the future we’re building. We envision a world where we slowly shave off a few percentage points of new items purchased each year, empowering all of us to turn to renting items from our communities instead — unlocking new opportunity, new experiences, and new economies. This is the future I want to live in.


If you’re interested in helping us build this future, we’re hiring for many roles in SF, Portland, and Salt Lake City — or shoot me a note: r@beomni.com.

Thanks to Bec, David, Ryan, Kelsey, Nick, Anika, Alberto, Zdravko, Newton, Erik, and Michael for reviewing a draft of this post. Illustrations by the incredible Will Bryan.

[1] http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html