Perpetual garage sale

How much stuff do you have lying around that hasn’t been used for years? On the other hand, have you ever needed a power tool for a day or two and have ended up buying one? Or maybe you want to try out kayaking or golf without committing to buying any equipment. Now there’s a chance to make some cash from the stuff you have and to save money by renting things you need just for the time you need it.

Taken by the idea of collaborative consumption, Lisa Fox and her partner Duncan Stewart set up Open Shed, a web-based peer-to-peer rental service. This sees ordinary people renting out spare items to other ordinary people.

“I learnt about collaborative consumption from Rachel Botsman’s TEDx talk,” says Lisa, “but couldn’t find an Australian site with enough trust and safety features to make me feel comfortable using it. Duncan is a developer, so I talked him into creating one.”

Making sense

Duncan and Lisa believe collaborative consumption makes both economic and environmental sense. Every year Australians spend billions of dollars on items they never or rarely use. Just a little bit of sharing, facilitated by a modest rental fee, could lead to a substantial reduction in the materials and energy that goes into all those forgotten tools and cake tins, ice cream makers and kayaks.

Setting up Open Shed was a big step for the former government lawyer and software developer. The project has been self-financed, and by giving up their inner city apartment and becoming house-sitters, Lisa and Duncan have been able to cut out their biggest expense – rent.

“We have learnt to live with a lot less,” says Lisa, “and this fits in with our goal of creating a secure and reliable community marketplace that helps Australians live more resourceful and sustainable lives.” On the upside, house-sitting has also taken them from Hervey Bay to the Clare Valley, and to Sydney and Melbourne.

Early encouragement came in the form of a $10,000 prize in the Nokia In Hindsight competition, won against a field of 100 entrants.

Critical mass

Key to the success of a service like Open Shed is attracting a large enough pool of items for rent and renters all within a convenient distance of each other. Starting from scratch, it takes time to build that critical mass. Work began on Open Shed in March 2011, and it went live in following October. Since then it has attracted over 500 registered users.

“We always knew it was going to be a slow build,” says Lisa. “We are asking people to think very differently about their stuff, and while we’ve created a lot of interest, this doesn’t immediately translate to new listings or members. It’s a matter of waiting for people to develop the need or for the idea to take root.”

Making it easy

Lisa’s attitude towards helping people move to a more sustainable approach to life is to make it easy. Her advice for others looking to develop a sustainability based business is to make it easy. “Keep in mind that what you are offering is likely to require a change of behaviour or thinking. Whether it’s a product or service it needs to be easy to understand, easy to do, and easy for it to become a habit.”

It’s a model that Open Shed follows whilst still incorporating effective security measures into their process. Payments are made via PayPal, and once both parties to the rental are happy to proceed the renter provides a code to the owner that allows them to access the funds. Open Shed receives a 6% transaction fee on each rental.

Adding functionality

Lisa and Duncan’s enthusiasm for Open Shed is undiminished. “The site is in its infancy, and so much more is planned,” says Lisa. “In November we introduced the ability for members to create ‘wanted’ ads and more recently we’ve added a Facebook connect feature.”

So have a dig through your shed and a rummage in the back of the wardrobe. Chances are you’ll find lots of things that could earn you some extra cash, help out a neighbour and take a little of the strain off the planet’s resources.

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