More high-tech solutions for low-tech ideas
I first mentioned “neighborrow” a few weeks ago, in a column on the virtues of sharing. This week, we’ve got an interview with neighborrow founder Adam Berk, who gives us some background on how and why he started the site in his New York apartment building.
The basic premise of neighborrow is that it makes no sense to buy stuff when you can get it from your neighbors for free. The site allows you to pool resources with the people who live near you. Everyone can list what they have to loan out, and what they’re looking to borrow — things like a weedwhacker, food processor, projector — and you network with your neighbors to borrow, trade, or give things away. Users are rated using Rapleaf, which lets you know how reliable a user has been with other people’s stuff, and the site keeps track of where stuff is, where it has been, and when it is due back to its owner.
Berk loves the idea of neighborrow so much, he’s even turned it into a verb (to neighborrow, neighborrowing, neighborrower … ). It’s still in the testing phase, but all of us brokeasses can hop on board and start our own “neighborrow-hoods.” Watch Berk give the elevator pitch for his site on MSNBC, and read all about it below the fold.
What was the inspiration for neighborrow?
The idea for neighborrow did not come all at once. I had a ton of things that I owned but didn’t use often. I had books that I had already read or had no intentions of reading, movies I had watched again and again, and piles of CDs. Then I started to think about all the things that I had, which I didn’t use regularly but was still glad that I had access to them when I needed or wanted them. I realized that when people aren’t using their money, they put it in a bank — a secure environment — where it earns something, where you can get it back whenever you want, and where others can use it, too. Why couldn’t there be a similar solution for our stuff? People are entitled to their DVDends!
Also, I am a big fan of photography, especially when I travel. Whenever I was traveling, I always wished that I had “more camera” — more memory cards, more lenses — but when I was home I needed “less camera,” and it would just sit on the shelf all the time. I always thought it was such a waste.
Then there was a time I wanted to borrow a book from a friend. He was reluctant because he knew that he probably wouldn’t get it back (not anytime soon at least). I was insulted at first, but realized he was probably right. I would never steal a book from a good friend (or neighbor, or co-worker), but it was possible that one or both of use would simply lose track of it or forget about it. If only there was a better way …
Finally, there was a Thanksgiving dinner with family where I learned that my grandfather and I were both reading the same book. While it was nice, it also meant that we both spent $20 on it. If only there was a way to know ahead of time that he had it, we both could have saved a little money and enjoyed the process.
I realized there were so many people with so many things, with pre-existing networks of trust and delivery. All I needed was something to bring it all together. We began formulating some ideas and concepts that would grow into neighborrow. When the founders decided that we would use and pay for a service like the one we had conceptualized, we knew we had a business and rolled up our sleeves immediately.
What is the benefit of having a program like this?
When more people use the same thing, less is wasted, and less needs to be created in the first place. When more people pay for the same thing, it costs less for each person. Not only is it good for the environment, but it saves people from buying things, or spending money unnecessarily or inefficiently. It is also more convenient — no need to go to the video store, or the hardware store, or wait for something in the mail if you can just go down to your front desk or pick it up at work the next day or something like that. Plus it’s a friendly site that promotes and reinforces connections of trust, friendship, and sharing, both online and offline.
Do you have aspirations for neighborrow having some sort of wider effect on community or consumption habits?
Of course we would love it if people thought it was strange not to neighborrow. There are fundamental efficiencies in sharing. One of the first things we were all taught as kids was to share; our parents and teachers were really onto something. It really is better for everyone, including the earth, when people share or reallocate resources to where they will be utilized most (by trading or donating, etc.). We hope people will think it’s weird to buy a movie, book, or a tool without sharing the cost, and maximizing the use of the item. Basically, we want people to realize that it’s illogical to pay for an entire movie, or book, or tool, etc., themselves when they know that they don’t have to.
On an even deeper level, we want to change the way people think about their possessions. Not only is it cheaper to share, it’s just nicer. People may even get addicted to giving and sharing.
How have people reacted to the project so far?
Most people think it’s a great idea. I get many emails from people telling me how they wanted to start “the same exact website.” To me, this is the biggest compliment in the world and has really reinforced the validity and appeal of the project. We also have interest from people in countries all over the world — Australia, Germany, Norway, France, the U.K., and even China. It’s such a nice thing. And the great thing is how portable neighborrow is and how malleable neighborrow is for each individual and for each group. Anyone can create a neighborrow-hood anywhere in the world, and they can use it to share anything. It only takes two people to realize the value of sharing.
What were you doing before you started neighborrow? How did that shape this project?
I was trading stocks for E*trade. My trades were all online, and this introduced me to the power and efficiency of the online environment.
Are you using neighborrow? What’s the coolest thing you’ve neighborrowed so far?
Of course I am! My partner and I said from the very beginning that the only way we would put this much effort into creating something is if we would use it ourselves. I would love to tell you that I’ve neighborrowed a yacht from my neighbor down the hall and a house in Tuscany from one of my E*trade colleagues, but the reality is that we are starting small just like everyone else. I have lent books and movies to people in my building and to people in Battery Park City, and I have used the site to borrow the same types of items myself. I also borrowed a camera once. This type of premium item neighborrowing requires a high level of borrowing power usually earned by a combination of things like your history on the site, your collateral, your length of time as a member, your rating, and other accountability and reputation metrics. As the founder, I manually set my neighborrowing power to the highest levels; everyone else has to earn it the old-fashioned way.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard about someone neighborrowing?
I have a lot of friends who think they are pretty clever. The site is still testing, but some of the listed items have been fairly, well … creative. We believe that as long as its legal and does not violate copyrights, etc., we will not interfere with what people lend for the most part. In public neighborrow-hoods, there are some general decency guidelines and we ask people to invoke their common sense and respect. In private neighborrow-hoods, the general policy is that if it’s OK with the State of New York and the federal government, it’s OK with us.
Concerned about the environment but don’t have the economic means to buy your way to carbon neutrality? Need some ideas on how to be savvy about the earth and your dollar? Direct your questions, comments, and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember, as the old saying goes, it’s better to be broke than to further the break-up of the Arctic ice shelf.