“The sharing economy” is a sobriquet to warm hearts. Think of it as a claim that while grubbier businesspeople sell, buy and rent, the ones in the sharing economy collaborate, facilitate, build trust. Or so they say. Sharing-economy flag-bearers like Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. give people easy, cheap access to products and services that would otherwise go unused, free of the burdens of ownership. Their fans say this brings social benefits like community building and diminished inequality. Skeptics predict that it’s more likely to lower wages, raise housing costs, undermine health and safety rules and expose women to harassment and assault. A 2015 Harvard Business Review headline had this to say: “The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing at All.”
Winners and losers have begun to emerge. The winners so far include ride-hailing companies like Uber, Lyft Inc. and Didi Chuxing and home sharing startup Airbnb, while many of the field’s wackier ideas are disappearing. Food delivery companies like Maple, Sprig and SpoonRocket Inc. collapsed and the on-demand laundry company Washio Inc. folded. Meanwhile the more successful (though still mostly money-losing) sharing economy companies have largely avoided the term “sharing economy" of late. Uber has acknowledged that full-time professional drivers do about half the driving. In terms of funding, the sharing economy hit a peak during the third quarter of 2015. That year, investors poured $8.3 billion into the on-demand economy. The fund-raising champ remains Uber, which has raised more than $15 billion alone. Despite its many public relations crises, the company, which generated $20 billion in gross bookings last year, continues to overshadow much of the rest of the industry. Now it’s up to its new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, formerly of Expedia Inc., to see if he can move the company out of the shadow cast by its ethical lapses — and out of the red.