|If you can't afford to buy the shoes and dress for your walk down the red carpet, there are Web sites that will rent them to you. There are also sites where you can rent red carpets. Or virtually anything else.|
BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Thanks to post-recession budget cutting, environmental concerns and generational austerity, you can rent just about anything these days. From Segways to llamas and bounce castles, an abundance of sites have launched in recent years that enable consumers to borrow those things they would prefer not to buy -- or can't afford to own.
Want to walk a dog in the park? You can rent a pet. Need a power tool and don't know your neighbors very well? There are peer-to-peer lending services that will do the asking for you. The flip side to renting is the ability to make extra cash with what you can own or offer. Don't mind strangers stopping by when nature calls? You can use the Web site or mobile app offered as Cloo (as in community + loo), a service that lets registered users -- mostly in urban areas lacking public facilities -- share and use bathrooms for a small fee. Need a date to your cousin's wedding, a workout partner, local tour guide or wingman? Where dating sites fail, RentAFriend.com-- bringing a concept popular in Japan to the U.S. -- can provide temporary, platonic companionship (it boasts of having 417,000 members to choose from, charging between $10 to $50 an hour). Sites and services that broker in goods more tangible than friendship include loanables, Share Some Sugar (as in the old sitcom cliche, "Can I borrow a cup of sugar"), Rent-instead.com, Getable and NeighborGoods (which specializes in borrowing among members, rather than cash transactions). Increasingly, rental services are zeroing in on specific needs. Chegg specializes in textbook rentals. Airbnb provides a means to rent your home. Alternatives to Hertz ( HTZ) and Zipcar ( ZIP), Getaround and RelayRides are peer-to-peer car sharing services. Belly Bump Boutique, Rent Maternity Wear and The Maternity Closet allow moms to earn back some of what they paid for clothing bought during a pregnancy and their child's early years. BabyPlays.com lets you rent toys and thredUP does the same for kids' clothes. Rent the Runway was founded to let would-be fashionistas rent designer clothes and accessories they would be otherwise unable to afford, especially for a one-time social event. Bag Borrow or Steal offers a similar opportunity to rent designer handbags and accessories, typically for around $50 to $70 a week, a fraction of what it would cost to buy the latest from Prada, Gucci or Louis Vuitton ( LMVH).
Getable, recently rebranded from its original name of Rentcycle, bills itself as the largest of the online rental marketplaces. Among its high-profile advisers are Marc Randolph, a Netflix ( NFLX) founder, and Chuck Templeton, founder of restaurant reservation service Open Table ( OPEN). Investors include Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal and chairman at Yelp ( YELP), and Farhad Mohit, founder of Shopzilla. Getable recently closed on a $1.4 million round of funding led by Collaborative Consumption, which focuses on investing in start-ups specializing in -- you guessed it -- collaborative consumption, a movement pioneered by companies such as Netflix, ZipCar and Airbnb. Tim Hyer, Getable's CEO, says his experiences as a branding evangelist for Red Hat ( RHT), a leading provider of open source technology built around the Linux operating system, helped guide the creation of what was then called Rentcycle. "The idea is that open source offers choice and access," Hyer wrote recently on the Getable blog. "It invites participation and thrives on it. And everyone who participates reaps the rewards.
The new company wasn't open source, but it was strikingly similar ... Access was praised over ownership. Though I didn't fully realize it at the time, the collaborative consumption movement mirrored the values behind open source in more ways than one." A frustrating event also triggered Hyer's eureka moment. While training for a triathlon, he looked for an alternative to paying $600 to ship his bike cross-country, but couldn't find a race bike to rent. That put the idea in his head, and a week later he wrote the business plan. He sums up the philosophy behind his company, and the broader collaborative consumption movement, as "usership is the new ownership" -- the idea that products themselves aren't as important or desirable as the experiences and uses they provide. Initially he conceived of a peer-to-peer rental marketplace, but decided a focus on businesses, from small to large, made more sense. "As much as I loved that concept, I really think it is too ahead of its time," he says of the P2P model. "The fact of the matter is that there is an entire industry built around this concept of renting that is still not online, and moving it online is the first step toward ultimately building a place where you and I can offer out personal possessions to other users."
Hyer sees the industry as one that is evolving in much in the same way Amazon ( AMZN) begat eBay, which begat Craigslist. "And before Amazon, everything was bought or sold offline in retail stores," he says. "The progression was an offline industry moving online through a trusted corporate entity. There was this progression that happened over 10 years. You couldn't have leaped from the buying and selling of goods offline in trusted retail stores directly to Craigslist. Our sector, in the product rental space, is still in this offline industry phase. We haven't really made that first step. That's why I took the business away from P2P and to the offline rental industry, which is represented by 65,000 shops across the United States and is a $85 billion industry." The advantages for Getable taking this approach, Hyer says, are many. "Businesses have a advantages that individuals don't have," he says. "They have massive inventories. While an individual might have a handful of things to post onto a Web site, a business has 2,000 to 3,000 SKUs at their location. With the inventory a business can offer as opposed to an individual, there really is no comparison. Plus, businesses have been at this for hundreds of years. They know how to do the rental business. They have been doing it for generations, whereas individuals would be learning a new behavior and would have to establish that trust." Hyer sees reasons for why renting has become a more viable form of commerce.
Hyer also sees that, during the past decade, "there has been a rise in an on-demand, or subscription-based, lifestyle." "People are becoming used to getting access to things when they need it, like a gym membership where you just pay a subscription to belong and you go when you need to," he says. "I think we've seen that with Netflix. Rentals lend themselves well to this subscription, on-demand lifestyle." Among the items in high demand at Getable are ones that can be a great help to travelers looking to avoid the cost and hassle of bringing certain items on a plane -- among them cribs and snowboards. "It is a lot easier to get access to a product at your destination than to lug it with you," Hyer says.
In 2008, "before adding even a single quote to the Web site," Abeywickrema set up a booth at Maker Fair, an event run by do-it-yourself publication Make. The idea was to solicit direct feedback from potential users as the site was readied for launch. What happened far exceeded that modest goal: Rentalic won the Editor's Choice Award. "We were an award-winning Web site without even having a Web site," he says with a chuckle. That validation, he says, showed that peer-to-peer rentals did have a willing, and growing, marketplace. Economic frugality and a waste-not environmental outlook fueled that desire for such lending. Abeywickrema says he overcame "trust issues" that have plagued peer-to-peer businesses of this sort by implementing a two-way verification service. "People didn't want to go through the hassle of disputes and refunds and all that," he says. "They don't want to pay until they see the item." So a security code is issued to each borrower that, when called in or entered online, authorizes payment to the owner. If the potential renter isn't satisfied, they are not billed. Likewise, owners can be assured quick payment through Rentalic, and having a secret code means it's not somebody trying to steal an item. Abeywickrema says a tally of the value of the more than 5,000 rental items on his site would total roughly $20 million. That's money in the pockets of owners that helps defraud the cost of the original purchase, he says. It also offers retirees a chance to earn additional income from a lifetime of accumulation. "There are local and macro-economic benefits," he says. "Its $20 million we get to keep in our own communities, and not shipping money out of the country to import more and more. It encourages local entrepreneurship. Someone with a garage full of stuff can build their own home business out of it. That's the power of the platform." -- Written by Joe Mont in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont.