Sharing Is an Important Lesson for Us All, Not Just Toddlers

Ted Royer Reviews 'The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing'

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To a 2-year-old, the concept of ownership is locked and loaded. "Mine" is a favorite word, used liberally. But in a little tyke's brain, the concept of sharing isn't as fully formed yet. Oh, they know that if they obey a command from Mommy and Daddy to share, there will be rewards. But that doesn't mean they feel any sense of benefit, collaboration or altruism from the act of sharing itself.

That's why sharing is one of the first things to be taught in preschool, and why it often needs to be taught again and again. Even though without a sense of community and collective destiny the human race wouldn't have gotten anywhere, the intrinsic benefits of sharing need to be put back on our radar every now and then.

Thank Lisa Gansky for doing just that in "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing."

Ms. Gansky is clear about her central tenet: New businesses are emerging almost every day that get people to share products rather than own them. Companies such as Zipcar and Netflix have built models based on sharing and are thriving (excusing Netflix's recent public-relations stumbles). Why? Because instead of a company spending money making a widget and then selling it, "mesh" companies gather widgets and rent them repeatedly. Thus a single widget can generate income over and over again. As a result, "mesh" businesses are built on immediate and sustained customer contact. They are nimble and always willing to adapt.

And there are other reasons "mesh" business are to be emulated. One of my favorite: A "mesh" business will seek out a product that is durable and sustainable, rather than one "built-for-obsolescence." And thank God for that . Durability, flexibility, reparability and sustainability are all excellent design principles, and intrinsic "mesh" values.

The book veers off course, however, when Ms. Gansky tries to incorporate what feels like every hot topic currently circulating. Yes, we know the internet is creating two-way conversations between companies and consumers. Yes, we know powerful brand advocacy is the holy grail to marketers. Yes we know apps are cool. At least she didn't wallow too long in the muck of crowdsourcing. "The Mesh" overreaches when it wanders into these territories to make its point, and it doesn't need to.

Plus , lumping iTunes in as a "mesh" business seems slippery at best. iTunes is not sharing. It's an ownership-based model, and in a lot of ways, it is sad that it has become so ubiquitous. Rhapsody, for example, was more of a "mesh" music business, and it got beaten good. With Rhapsody, one paid a cheap monthly subscription fee and got access to 3 million songs. But everyone kept paying a dollar or more per song on iTunes. Why? People like owning their music, not renting it.

Which brings up a really interesting question: When and why do people like to own as opposed to borrow? I can see the business and societal benefits of sharing, but what really makes one thing more meshable than another? If it works with cars and movies (two things I would have thought ranked pretty high on the "need to own" list), why not other things? Are there some things that are un-meshable? Diving into this further could have been of real value to potential "mesh" business starters, Ms. Gansky's presumed audience.

"The Mesh" would have done better to use its 165 well-spaced and generously leaded pages (the final 57 pages are a mesh-business directory with links, nice to have but felt like padding) to dive deeper into sharing. For example, how about more on sharing-based companies that didn't succeed? And what about a tighter analysis of government examples of trying to make sharing work? The very first fire department in the United States was a "mesh" concern. In fact, collective benefit is what governments are based on, surely relevant examples abound that could have further tested Ms. Gansky's theory.

Finally the "waste-is -food" section could be a book in itself. How relevant, interesting and "meshy" is it that new businesses are arising off of the waste products of old ones? Full Circle, for example, takes the waste from Walmart products and turns it into pet supplies. I know of a site that turns elephant poop into vases and decorations. I wish there had been a lot more on this concept in the book.

But I'm glad "The Mesh" exists. America needs to learn how to share more and consume far less. Responsibility and sharing can go hand-in-hand, and I applaud Ms. Gansky for pointing that out.

A "mesh" attitude is smart and forward thinking, relevant and mature. Though, it's not necessarily relevant for every industry. Let's face it, the idea of sharing clothes with a stranger (a la Thredup) is just plain creepy.

Ted Royer is an ECD and partner at Droga5 New York. He is very meshy about sharing music, cars, movies and books, and decidedly un-meshy about food, pets and bed sheets.