The Future of Business is the “Mesh”

At TED@MotorCity, Lisa Gansky, author of “The Mesh,” talked about a future of business that’s about sharing all kinds of stuff, either via smart and tech-enabled rental or, more boldly, peer-to-peer. Examples across industries –  from music to cars – show how close we are to this meshy future. We bring this interesting thought leadership to you.


I’m speaking to you about what I call the “mesh.” It’s essentially a fundamental shift in our relationship with stuff, with the things in our lives. And it’s starting to look at – not always and not for everything – but in certain moments of time access to certain kinds of goods and service will trump ownership of them. And so it’s the pursuit of better things easily shared. And we come from a long tradition of sharing. We’ve shared transportation. We’ve shared wine and food and other sorts of fabulous experiences in coffee bars in Amsterdam. We’ve shared other sorts of entertainment – sports arenas, public parks, concert halls, libraries, universities. All these things are share platforms, but sharing ultimately starts and ends with what I refer to as the mother of all share platforms.

And as I think about the mesh and I think about, well what’s driving it, how come it’s happening now, think there are a number of vectors that I want to give you as background. One is the recession – that the recession has caused us to rethink our relationship with the things in our lives relative to the value – so starting to align the value with the true cost. Secondly, population growth and density into cities. More people, smaller spaces, less stuff. Climate change. We’re trying to reduce the stress in our personal lives and in our communities and on the planet. Also, there’s been this recent distrust of big brands, global big brands, in a bunch of different industries. And that’s created an opening. Research is showing here, in the States, and in Canada and Western Europe that most of us are much more open to local companies, or brands that maybe we haven’t heard of. Whereas before, we went with the big brands that we were sure we trusted. And last is that we’re more connected now to more people on the planet than ever before — except for if you’re sitting next to someone.

The other thing that’s worth considering is that we’ve made a huge investment over decades and decades, and tens of billions of dollars have gone into this investment that now is our inheritance. It’s a physical infrastructure that allows us to get from point A to point B and move things that way. It’s also, Web and mobile allow us to be connected and create all kinds of platforms and systems. And the investment of those technologies and that infrastructure is really our inheritance. It allows us to engage in really new and interesting ways.

And so for me, a mesh company, the classic mesh company, brings together these three things: our ability to connect to each other – most of us are walking around with these mobile devices that are GPS-enabled and Web-enabled – allows us to find each other and find things in time and space. And third is that physical things are readable on a map – so restaurants, a variety of venues, but also with GPS and other technology like RFID and it continues to expand beyond that, we can also track things that are moving, like a car, a taxicab, a transit system, a box that’s moving through time and space. And so that sets up for making access to get goods and services more convenient and less costly in many cases than owning them.

For example, I want to use Zipcar. How many people here have experienced car sharing or bike sharing? Wow, that’s great. Okay, thank you. Basically Zipcar is the largest car sharing company in the world. They did not invent car sharing. Car sharing was actually invented in Europe. One of the founders went to Switzerland, saw it implemented someplace, said, “Wow, that looks really cool. I think we can do that in Cambridge,” brought it to Cambridge and they started – two women – Robin Chase being the other person who started it. Zipcar got some really important things right. First, they really understood that a brand is a voice and a product is a souvenir. And so they were very clever about the way that they packaged car sharing. They made it sexy. They made it fresh. They made it aspirational. If you were a member of the club, when you’re a member of a club, you’re a Zipster. The cars they picked didn’t look like ex-cop cars that were hollowed out or something. They picked these sexy cars. They targeted to universities. They made sure that the demographic for who they were targeting and the car was all matching. It was a very nice experience. And the cars were clean and reliable, and it all worked.

And so from a branding perspective, they got a lot right. But they understood fundamentally that they are not a car company. They understand that they are an information company. Because when we buy a car we go to the dealer once, we have an interaction, and we’re chow — usually as quickly as possible. But when you’re sharing a car and you have a car share service, you might use an E.V. to commute; you get a truck because you’re doing a home project. When you pick your aunt up at the airport you get a sedan. And you’re going to the mountains to ski, you get different accessories put on the car for doing that sort of thing. Meanwhile, these guys are sitting back, collecting all sorts of data about our behavior and how we interact with the service. And so it’s not only an option for them, but I believe it’s imperative for Zipcar and other mesh companies to actually just wow us, to be like a concierge service. Because we give them so much information, and they are entitled to really see how it is that we’re moving, they’re in really good shape to anticipate what we’re going to want next.

And so what percent of the day do you think the average person uses a car? What percentage of the time? Any guesses? Those are really very good. I was imagining it was like 20 percent when I first started. the number across the U.S. and Western Europe is eight percent. And so basically even if you think it’s 10 percent, 90 percent of the time, something that costs us a lot of money — personally and also we organize our cities around it and all sorts of things -90 percent of the time it’s sitting around. So for this reason, I think one of the other themes with the mesh is essentially that, if we squeeze hard on things that we’ve thrown away, there’s a lot of value in those things. What set up with Zipcar – Zipcar started in 2000.

In the last year, 2010, two car companies started, one that’s in the U.K. called Whip Car, and the other one, Relay Rides, in the U.S. They’re both peer-to-peer car sharing services, because the two things that really work for car sharing is, one, the car has to be available, and two, it’s within one or two blocks of where you stand. Well the car that’s one or two blocks from your home or your office is probably your neighbor’s car, and it’s probably also available. So people have created this business. Zipcar started a decade earlier in 2000. It took them six years to get 1,000 cars in service. Whip Car, which started April of last year, it took them six months to get 1,000 cars in the service. So really interesting. People are making anywhere between 200 and 700 dollars a month letting their neighbors use their car when they’re not using it. So it’s like vacation rentals for cars. Since I’m here — and I hope some people in the audience are in the car business. I’m thinking that, coming from the technology side of things — we saw cable-ready TVs and WiFi-ready notebooks – it would be really great if, any minute now, you guys could start rolling share-ready cars off. Because it just creates more flexibility. It allows us as owners to have other options. And I think we’re going there anyway.

The opportunity and the challenge with mesh businesses – and those are businesses like Zip car or Netflix that are full mesh businesses, or other ones where you have a lot of the car companies, car manufacturers, who are beginning to offer their own car share services as well as a second flanker brand, or as really a test, I think – is to make sharing irresistible. We have experiences in our lives certainly when sharing has been irresistible. It’s just, how do we make that recurrent and scale it? We know also, because we’re connected in social networks, that it’s easy to create delight in one little place. It’s contagious because we’re all connected to each other. So if I have a terrific experience and I Tweet it, or I tell five people standing next to me, news travels. The opposite, as we know, is also true, often more true.

So here we have LudoTruck, which is in L.A., doing the things that gourmet food trucks do, and they’ve gathered quite a following. In general, and maybe, again, it’s because I’m a tech entrepreneur, I look at things as platforms. Platforms are invitations. So creating Craigslist or iTunes and the iPhone developer network, there are all these networks – Facebook as well. These platforms invite all sorts of developers and all sorts of people to come with their ideas and their opportunity to create and target an application for a particular audience. And honestly, it’s full of surprises. Because I don’t think any of us in this room could have predicted the sorts of applications that have happened at Facebook, around Facebook, for example, two years ago, when Mark announced that they were going to go with a platform.

So in this way, I think that cities are platforms, and certainly Detroit is a platform. The invitation of bringing makers and artists and entrepreneurs, it really helps stimulate this fiery creativity and helps a city to thrive. It’s inviting participation. And cities have, historically, invited all sorts of participation. Now we’re saying that there are other options as well. So for example, city departments can open up transit data. Google has made available transit data API. And so there’s about seven or eight cities already in the U.S. that have provided the transit data, and different developers are building applications. So I was having a coffee in Portland, and half of a latte in and the little board in the cafe all of a sudden starts showing me that the next bus is coming in three minutes and the train is coming in 16 minutes. And so it’s reliable, real data that’s right in my face, where I am, so I can finish the latte.

There’s this fabulous opportunity we have across the U.S. now: about 21 percent of vacant commercial and industrial space. That space is not vital. The areas around it lack vitality and vibrancy and engagement. There’s this thing – how many people here have heard of pop-up stores or pop-up shops? Oh, great. So I’m a big fan of this. And this is a very meshy thing. Essentially, there are all sorts of restaurants in Oakland, near where I live. There’s a pop-up general store every three weeks, and they do a fantastic job of making a very social event happening for foodies. Super fun and it happens in a very transitional neighborhood. Subsequent to that, after it’s been going for about a year now, they actually started to lease and create and extend. An area that was edgy-artsy is now starting to become much cooler and engage a lot more people. So this is an example. The Crafty Fox is this woman who’s into crafts, and she does these pop-up crafts fairs around London. But these sorts of things are happening in many different environments. From my perspective, one of the things pop-up stores do is create perishability and urgency. It creates two of the favorite words of any business person: sold out. And the opportunity to really focus trust and attention is a wonderful thing.

So a lot of what we see in the mesh, and a lot of what we have in the platform that we built allows us to define, refine and scale. It allows us to test things as an entrepreneur, to go to market, to be in conversation with people, listen, refine something and go back. It’s very cost effective, and it’s very meshy. The infrastructure enables that.

In closing, and as we’re moving towards the end, I just also want to encourage — and I’m willing to share my failures as well, though not from the stage. (Laughter) I would just like to say that one of the big things, when we look at waste and when we look at ways that we can really be generous and contribute to each other, but also move to create a better economic situation and a better environmental situation, is by sharing failures. And one quick example is Velib, in 2007, came forward in Paris with a very bold proposition, a very big bike sharing service. They made a lot of mistakes. They had some number of big successes. But they were very transparent, or they had to be, in the way that they exposed what worked and didn’t work. And so B.C. in Barcelona and B-cycle and Boris Bikes in London – no one has had to repeat the version 1.0 screw-ups and expensive learning exercises that happened in Paris. So the opportunity when we’re connected is also to share failures and successes.

We’re at the very beginning of something that, what we’re seeing and the way that mesh companies are coming forward, is inviting, it’s engaging, but it’s very early. I have a website, it’s a directory, and it started with about 1,200 companies, and in the last two and a half months it’s up to about 3,300 companies. And it grows on a very regular daily basis. But it’s very much at the beginning.

So I just want to welcome all of you onto the ride. And thank you very much.


Lisa Gansky is the author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, and the “instigator” behind the Mesh Directory ( She often speaks on the topic of technology, social currency and business platforms and models.

For more than 18 years, Gansky has been an entrepreneur and environmentalist focused on building companies and supporting ventures where there is an opportunity for well-timed disruption and a resounding impact. A founder and CEO of several internet companies, including GNN (the first commercial web publication) and the largest consumer photo sharing and print service, Ofoto (now Kodak Gallery), Gansky’s attention is on sustainable ventures with positive social impact. Gansky currently serves as a Director of Dos Margaritas, an environmental foundation focused in Latin America.

(This article has been republished from a TED video hosted at The original video and transcript is here.)

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