The notion of sharing isn’t new to us.  From carpooling to soccer practice to enjoying your week at a timeshare vacation home, we’ve seen informal and formal sharing mechanisms for a long time.  A recent wave of startups has taken old-fashioned sharing to new levels.

Valued at $1 billion in July of this year, Airbnb seems to be the biggest success so far.  A marketplace to list and rent homes to and from others, Airbnb was launched in 2008 and has since grown to over 100,000 unique listings across 13,000 cities in a bid against the more traditional hotel model.  But people are finding ways to share and monetize every underutilized asset they own.  Beyond homes, there are recent consumer-to-consumer startups facilitating sharing of cars (Relay Rides, GetAround, HiGear), boats, bikes, planes, and RVs (Qraft), and parking spots (Parking Panda); at least one business-to-consumer site that rents unused office space (Kodesk); and another bevy of business-to-consumer sites that rent their own inventory: handbags (Bag Borrow or Steal), designer dresses (Rent-the-Runway), and even children’s toys (Toygaroo).

So what’s driving this trend?  For one, consumer preferences are as fickle as ever today.  Is it a sailboat or skiboat day, Porsche or Ferrari tonight?  Gone are the days of committing to one leisure good.  Sharing sites allow indecisive, hard-to-please consumers to spread their spending over a diverse variety of indulgences that might change from day to day.  What’s more, rental sites give everyday Joes access to a higher-end luxury than they otherwise couldn’t afford.  To be sure, though, these sites facilitate sharing of non-luxury goods as well (parking spots?); and so some of it just comes down to simple economics: sharing sites offer an easy way for lenders to monetize their underutilized assets, and they allow borrowers a much more sensible way to consume.  Why buy a full-time parking spot that I’ll only use when friends drive in from out of town?  These more frugal spending behaviors were born out of necessity for some during the financial crisis, and bolstered more recently by inspired movements against waste, extravagance, and reckless spending.

What’s the next step in the evolution of these sites?  Well, perhaps not surprisingly, an aggregator already exists, though largely for B2C sites.  Rentcycle, founded in early 2009, pools inventory from stores renting everything from power tools to office furniture to rock climbing gear.  They raised a $1.4M seed round in August of this year from a group including Andreessen Horowitz and Max Levchin.  But as consumers become more comfortable with the concept of borrowing and sharing, look for more peer- to-peer sites to grab the headlines in the future.  Consumers will continue to find new ways to monetize underutilized assets, and they’ll demand equal innovation in the peer review systems that facilitate trust on sharing sites today.

So what’s your take?  What will define the next growth phase of this promising category of startups?

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