Founded in 2014, Omni is a startup that offers users the ability to store and rent their lesser-used stuff in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland. Backed by roughly $40 million in venture capital, Omni proclaims on its website that they “believe in experiences over things, access over ownership, and living lighter rather than being weighed down by our possessions.”
If you’re in the Bay Area, you can currently rent a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo from “Lan” for the low price of $1 per day; “charles” is renting a small framed lithograph for $10 a day; and “Tom” is renting a copy of the film Friends With Benefits (68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) on Blu-ray for just $2 a day. Those prices don’t include delivery and return fees for the Omni trucks traversing the city, which start at $1.99 each way.
In 2016, Omni’s CEO and co-founder Tom McLeod said that “lending enables Omni members to put their ‘dormant’ belongings to good use in their community.” That same year, Fortune said Omni “could create a true ‘sharing economy.’” For a while, the tenets of the sharing economy were front and center in Omni’s model: It promised to activate underutilitized assets in order to sustain a healthier world and build community trust. In 2017, McLeod said, “We want to change behavior around ownership on the planet.”
Just three years later, those promises seem second to the pursuit of profit. In 2019, the Omni pitch can be summed up by the ads emblazoned on its delivery trucks: “Rent things from your neighbors, earn money when they rent from you!”
For years, the sharing economy was pitched as an altruistic form of capitalism — an answer to consumption run amok. Why own your own car or power tools or copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up if each sat idle for most of its life? The sharing economy would let strangers around the world maximize the utility of every possession to the benefit of all.
Sharing was supposed to transform our world for the better.
In a 2010 TED Talk, sharing economy champion and author Rachel Botsman argued that the tech-enabled sharing economy could “mimic the ties that used to happen face to face but on a scale and in a way that has never been possible before.” Botsman quoted a New York Times piece in saying, “Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight track, what solar power is to the coal mine.” In 2013, Thomas Friedman proclaimed that Airbnb’s true innovation wasn’t its platform or its distributed business model: “It’s ‘trust.’” At a 2014 conference, Uber investor Shervin Pishevar said sharing was going to bring us back to a mythical bygone era of low-impact, communal village living.
More than 10 years since the dawn of the sharing economy, these promises sound painfully out of date. Why rent a DVD from your neighbor, or own a DVD at all, when you can stream your movies online? Why use Airbnb for a single room in your home when you can sublease an entire apartment and run a lucrative off-the-books hotel operation? Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb — startups that banked on the promises of the sharing economy — are now worth tens of billions, with plans go public. (Lyft filed for an IPO on March 1.) These companies and the pundits who hyped them have all but abandoned the sharing argument that gave this industry life and allowed it to skirt government regulations for years. Sharing was supposed to transform our world for the better. Instead, the only thing we’re sharing is the mess it left behind.