On-demand platforms have eliminated barriers to self-employment. But people need to be protected when operating as businesses.
Even some of the most successful innovators in history would tell you, “Don’t quit your day job.” George Eastman worked full-time while tinkering in his mother’s kitchen on the inventions that let him found Eastman Kodak in the late 1880s. A century later, Steve Wozniak worked at Atari while developing the computer that he and Steve Jobs would turn into Apple. The fact is: No matter how great the idea, or how great a worker’s skill, it’s hard to mesh with an existing enterprise or any other group.
The reason is explained by Nobel laureate economist Ronald Coase in his influential 1937 essay, “The Nature of the Firm.” He theorized that people choose to organize themselves in companies and corporations rather than contracting their services out directly because of transaction costs. He cited: search and information costs; bargaining and decision costs; and policing and enforcement costs. “Within a firm, these market transactions are eliminated, and in place of the complicated market structure with exchange transactions is substituted the entrepreneur coordinator, who directs production,” he wrote.
Essentially, marketing, selling, pricing, negotiating and getting paid as a self-employed person isn’t all rainbows and unicorns – the work critical to running a business can be enormously complicated, time-consuming and costly.
Thanks to technology, much has changed since 1937. Mobile connections, broadband and ubiquitous data have reduced transactional search and information costs considerably. It is much easier, faster and economical for a small business to effectively compete with larger firms.
There has been a major shift in our buying behavior, too – consider how profoundly Amazon or iTunes has altered the way we discover, compare and purchase goods. Companies like Uber have used technology to reduce our search and information costs, as well as our bargaining and decision costs and policing and enforcement costs. If reducing one transactional cost shifts the economy, then reducing all three transforms it.
We are now officially unlocking the potential of the on-demand economy – one that will revolutionize the 21st century workplace and workforce.
It’s so new, we haven’t decided on a name for it yet; it goes by various monikers like Uberization, the gig economy, the on-demand economy, the access economy and the peer-to-peer economy.
This on-demand economy offers the exchange of goods and services between individuals instead of from business to consumer. The people providing goods and services aren’t necessarily employed by the company connecting them with the customer, either. Many are independent contractors or freelancers.
Technology acts as the intermediary automating the handling of pricing and payments, vetting providers through a user-rating system and matching providers with consumers’ needs. This intermediary speedily brings together supply and demand via a platform that can be controlled by an app on any mobile device. The platform makes information available and accessible in the manner most efficient for the business, ensuring that transactions that are started are more likely to be concluded. The platform often obviates bargaining, directly polices its members, enables community-driven self-policing and enforces the terms of interaction. The costs of this coordination is added to each peer-to-peer transaction.
The new economic model is a highly efficient, productive and cost-effective marketplace. Platforms like Luxe, Lyft and Uber offer transportation services; Caviar, Doordash and Munchery deliver food from local restaurants; Instacart will shop for and deliver grocery orders; AirBnB, HomeAway and Onefinestay connect renters and homeowners offering available space with people seeking accommodations; Handy, Taskrabbit and Thumbtack will help a household find an available plumber, drywaller, cleaner or furniture assembler; and delivery services like Postmates and Shyp will pick up, pack up and send packages.
There appears to be no lack of supply or demand in this rapidly evolving phenomenon. Almost 53 million Americans currently serve as providers to on-demand platforms, at least part-time. Having goods and services on demand satisfies our need for “instant gratification” and allows consumers to find a broad array of competitively priced services 24/7 – they can get what they want, when they want with the touch of a few buttons.
The advantages for providers are many, too. No longer saddled with the time-consuming chores of the self-employed, like marketing and promoting services, negotiating transactions or chasing down payments, the on-demand economy provides freelancers with a turnkey, hassle-free method of accessing a large market of ready-and-willing customers whenever they want to work. It’s freelance freedom and flexibility with almost no barriers to entry.
You don’t need to be an economist to envision how the on-demand economy business model can benefit the marketplace as a whole: The Ma & Pa local restaurant that can easily deliver through a fleet without incurring staffing costs can substantially expand its market and service underserved markets. People can now use their cars to transport passengers and generate income rather than leave vehicles parked in driveways, resulting in a very good use of underutilized resources;. And, when a student can help an eBay seller package and deliver parcels on the fly, a job and professional support network are created that had not previously existed.
The new economy is here.
It’s poised to democratize the marketplace and its workforce by maximizing underused assets, creating jobs, expanding markets and meeting the needs of underserved markets, all while creating a faster, easier way for us to get what we want, when we want it.
But this new business model comes with new world challenges as the distinction between personal and commercial activities becomes blurry. To thrive, policymakers, regulators, insurers and the companies enabling the new economy will have to work together to design a platform that protects consumers when they are operating as businesses.