What if consumers started sharing instead of buying? In the new episode of Ask Me AnyFin, we’re taking a closer look at the state of the social sharing economy with Tom West, the founder and CEO of the rental platform RentMy. We also discuss building a community around the idea of renting your items and what makes some sharing economy models a success with users.
Tech entrepreneur says, “Ask Me AnyFin,” and is not afraid to answer
Tom West is the founder and CEO of RentMy, a P2P rental platform where people can rent out their belongings. He’s an entrepreneur with keen interest in technology, which he’s been combining with his endeavours in hospitality—Tom owns Jolly Good Pubs, a group of traditional pubs across locations in England. Back in 2008, Tom developed a business for same-day grocery delivery, a precursor to current express delivery service apps. Staying similarly ahead of the curve, he already came up with the idea for RentMy in 2006, but the business officially launched in 2021. Why?
Watch the conversation with Tom or read the transcript below.
The idea behind RentMy, a platform that aims to revolutionise the rental market
Malgorzata Labanowska: Welcome to Ask Me AnyFin. Today we speak to Tom West, the founder of RentMy which is a modern rental platform promoting the economy of sharing. Hi, Tom. Can you tell us a bit about your product, how you came up with the idea, and maybe a bit about your background?
Tom West: I originally came up with the idea of renting anything back in 2006 when I wanted to rent a kayak when on holiday in France. Unfortunately, I was standing around by a river, all these kayaks available, just sitting in people’s front garden and I couldn’t rent a kayak. I thought, “Cool, wouldn’t it be great if the internet was a thing and you could rent stuff off each other?”
I came home, started writing a business plan for it, bought the domain rentmy.com and started researching how this could work, and just realised that technology really wasn’t there, that the opportunity for market adoption wasn’t quite there, and we would need a little bit more time to get ourselves in that space. It did take a little bit longer than anticipated.
But in 2020, I decided to start the journey again, and as I felt that now is the time that people are going to really need to start sharing items, both for the social benefit, but also the climate impact as well. And we just felt that would be a really good time to start the process again.
But in the interim, I’ve been working in tech on and off, and I’m also working in hospitality. I own a hospitality business, but I previously sold a tech company to a large wholesaler over here in the UK that was doing home delivery of groceries within a 45-minute period. But again, I was a little bit ahead of the curve and I was doing that back in 2009, 2010. I now see large companies—Gorillas, Beelivery, Getir—all coming into this space and playing catch-up. So I think now I’ve got the timing right with this one.
Malgorzata Labanowska: Can you tell us where exactly you are with RentMy now?
Tom West: RentMy is a startup. We’re still in our pilot phase. We’re running regional pilots in our area, but we’ve also been doing a lot of data and research on what other solutions or products are out there. When we’ve looked at a lot of our colleagues in the sharing economy space, we’ve realised that the big issue is around data and the structure of that data. So we’ve been looking at solutions on how we can really structure that data so that it can give meaningful insights to insurers, government bodies, and we can use it for the benefit of the users themselves as well.
The importance of building a community around the rental revolution
Lucas Korol: You mentioned that you want to make the whole platform secure for your users. How are you trying to achieve this? How do you want to tackle this challenge of feeling secure when renting your stuff to someone that you don’t know?
Tom West: Renting off of someone directly is actually quite a good way of first reducing risk. If you pick something up off the street—let’s say it’s an e-scooter or a bike—you have no connection with the person that handed it over to you. You just go, collect it, pick it up, drop it off; it’s completely contactless. But when you look at someone in the eye and you say, “Hey, here’s my bike. Look after it,” that relationship changes.
Now, that’s not the whole basis of our security system, but it’s a very good start. You build that on the community. We utilise third-party data models and data structures that enable us to be able to highlight any potential bad actors coming into the platform and enable us to make sure that our collective and our community are pretty good within that space. But accidents can happen, and so we’re looking at how we make sure that we protect our users when something does go wrong.
Lucas Korol: You mentioned that community is a very important aspect, and for any business, especially a startup, it’s always a challenge, as we can see, to grow this community.
I would like to ask you how you try to address this challenge. How do you want to grow this community? Do you have any specific idea or do you just do whatever you will be able to do?
Tom West: Recent research is starting to lead us down the view that people want to share their items, but only with their friends or with community people that they feel a connection with. We have some tools coming that will enable us to grow through that network effect because we believe that’s a really solid way of people engaging, but also for people to have that security in their mind that the platform is not just publicising everywhere what they own, what their assets are.
We think that’s really important because a lot of people that want to move into the sharing space are willing to share, but they’re not quite ready to share with absolutely everyone. They are just willing to share with their friends or family or people in their town or community. That’s quite an interesting one that we just need to look at. Then once we start breaking down those barriers and this becomes adopted practice, then we’ll see different levels of engagement which are good.
This isn’t just you go and buy something from a shop or you go and rent something from a shop; you have much better communication on how to use the item.
Now we end up with education pieces. They don’t even realise but they’re minute, little bits of education on an item. It can be anything from how to use a drill and how to hold it correctly, or how to get started into a hard surface like a tile or into wood or something.
Our first rental on RentMy was a remote control sailing boat. Now, a remote control sailing boat has no engine. So you put it on the water, if you point it in the wrong direction, it’s gone. It’s on its way to Holland. You’ve got to figure out: how do you communicate to someone who’s not done this before? Actually, how do you sail? That was a really interesting engagement.
We watched that engagement happen via text and then in person. Then we conducted interviews afterwards of both parties and they said one of the things that they really felt was lovely was the fact that the person who owns the sailing boat decided that he’ll come and meet them by the water and explain to them properly and train them on how to use it. It actually made the whole experience far better.
It’s a bit like when you hire a bike in a town or a village, or when you go out on a kayak down a river and you just go off in the wrong direction, and you could have had all these wonderful vistas and views and a great time there. And just a bit of local knowledge or a bit of knowledge passed on actually changes that experience quite drastically. It’s definitely for the benefit.
Malgorzata Labanowska: From what you’re saying, I can see that you stress the personal element to this interaction of renting. I’m interested in where it comes from. Is it based on some research or maybe your personal experiences with hospitality?
Tom West: Yeah. When I went back to hospitality after doing a couple of years in tech, I felt that some time off within hospitality would help, but never got rid of the tech bug. We’ve got kiosks in some of the outlets. We have online ordering apps. We put in things that were ahead of time, that people weren’t ready to start using. COVID hit, and all of a sudden they started using them.
I’ve always been tinkering with tech, especially in hospitality. But tech isn’t a solution for a community. Tech isn’t a solution for what hospitality does. Hospitality is a very unique space where everything that can happen in tech can happen in seconds in hospitality. You can go from a customer having a great experience to an absolutely disastrous experience and making that very well known in real-time, in person, not hidden behind a keyboard, not via an email chain. This is bang, right now and you need to come up with a solution for it because otherwise it can affect your customers that are also in the same space experiencing this.There are times when things go wrong and you have to be able to handle that. Now, 18 years of doing this, we’ve been able to mitigate that. But that hospitality element is really important because it enables you to understand what the consumer wants. It enables you to build a store and almost have them turn up and say, “This is my store, this is what I sell. If you like it, keep coming back. If you don’t, there’s other places available.” I have to make sure my store is the place that they want to come to. And that is competition, and it’s the same thing with the website.
The state of the sharing economy in the UK and in Europe
Malgorzata Labanowska: Can you tell us a bit more about the sharing economy? What’s the status of the sharing economy in the UK? How developed is it?
Tom West: This is the topic where I think every country looks over the fence as “grass is greener over there.” After a recent visit to the US, they were telling me that the UK is far more developed. The UK looks at Europe and goes, “Europe is far more developed.” Europe looks at the US and goes, “The US is really far developed.” I don’t think there’s really an answer yet that’s firming that one up, but I think we are progressing. We are starting to see some adopted markets.
Clearly, Airbnb is probably the world’s largest sharing economy platform by quite some margin, although obviously, their market model has moved on beyond just sharing economy. But the general consensus is that there’s still so much space within all of these markets. There’s really no defined leader yet and no market-dominant force yet, and that’s something we’re looking to fill.
We believe that the growing behavioural change towards sharing is important.
But we’re concerned about the way the sharing economy is getting lumped in with gig economy businesses. The idea of sharing items, skills or space, that’s a very different thing to offering your services as a temporary worker, a temporary employer on a gig contract.
I think the best example of the sharing economy work in Europe is BlaBlaCar. I just think they’ve done such a fantastic job in growing and they’ve been fantastic throughout.
It’s not really worked particularly well in the UK, which is sad, but I think that the mindset that the European culture has taken on is fantastic. I look forward to the day when we do see that in the UK because that will make a big difference.
The link between the Passion economy and the sharing economy
Malgorzata Labanowska: That’s a very interesting point that you touch upon with the gig economy. I’ve recently been reading about it, and I’ve come across another concept that I’m wondering if you’re familiar with, the Passion economy, which is contrasted with the gig economy because it’s about creating passive income. It’s connected with creating something by people, but it’s more about creating ways of generating income in a passive way. Because I guess the gig economy can be sometimes draining and it doesn’t really provide that much comfort for the participants.
Tom West: I know what you mean. A passive economy is the dream, isn’t it? I think we do like to be a part of the passive economy. Get on a boat and sail around the world, I think that’s the ambition. Unfortunately, I don’t always feel that things come for free. I think you’ve got to graft at some point or have put some effort in at some point.
So as close to the passive economy as sharing economy can be, I would say that renting out items that you already own, that you use occasionally, and that you share or will be happy to share, it’s pretty much as close as you’re going to be able to get to the passive economy without heading down various investment things or there’s all sorts of different concepts within that.
But I think our focus on this is making the platform and our apps as convenient and streamlined as possible so that consumers can move away from that linear consumption of going out and buying something and they can start sharing their items and then we do see those positive impacts afterwards.
Sharing economy models and what makes them succeed
Lucas Korol: It’s very interesting what you’re saying because when you were talking, I was wondering what the real factors are that are driving the potential success of any business that is based on the sharing economy concept. It sounds like there is a very important aspect—let’s call it the cultural or social aspect of it—not only an economic one in the sharing economy. This is probably very important.
You mentioned BlaBlaCar and the reasons why in some countries it was a great success, while in others it was not. But it’s probably highly connected to the potential of adopting some social or cultural aspects to this.
Another thought: for someone that is sharing some stuff with other people, it’s also a social experience because you share your passion behind the item that you are sharing. It’s like sharing passions, not only sharing items. So it’s much deeper, probably, than only trying to get some additional income. And that is a very important factor. So if you are aware of it and you know how to drive this and make it happen, then you potentially have success. What do you think?
Tom West: There’s a lot in that. I’ll unpack it. I think you’re absolutely right in what you’re saying. I’ll just touch on that last bit around that passion of a particular section or niche or a particular hobby that you’re interested in. We definitely see that being a driver for being involved.
When we were writing out our actors and our modelling and trying to understand the best part of why people might want to engage in this, it’s the shared experience. It’s watching someone else succeed and feeling like you’re part of that.
That could be anything: from tools, so they can make something and then you feel part of that creation process, or it could be something where someone picks up a new hobby and now you have someone else to share that with.
Let’s say it’s fitness. Now you have someone else to share that with. It could be paddle boarding, and you used to go paddleboarding on the river by yourself. Then suddenly now there’s six or seven of you, and that’s a shared experience. You build friendships, relationships off the back of that, and we build our own tribes from that.
I think the consumer behaviour has changed massively and it’s been changing for a few years, let’s be honest. But it massively changed through COVID, and I think brands are still trying to pick up on that acceleration period. Previously brands would look at their consumers saying, “Well, what’s the lifetime value of this customer to us? We’ve spent X amount of pounds on marketing to them, so what’s the lifetime value of that to us?” That was how we were bought as users.
What’s happened is the customers flipped out on their heads and they’re basically looking at the brand and going, “Hold on a minute, if I wear your brand, what do you mean to me? What do you put out there? What things have you been doing with regards to the climate or with regards to social movements or whatever else is?”
I think that we’re starting to see that change and that’s where we think that the sharing economy really comes into its own. And whether we end up with branded sharing economy items or platforms, niche into their own sections, we’ll see. That’s going to be fantastic if we do.
Then the other side of it is also what happens in scenarios where there’s major disruptions. An example right now is, sadly, the Ukraine situation. If we have disruption to our supply chains and we can’t keep consuming items in the way we used to consume items, how do we stop that? How do we change? How do we share items better?
God forbid that the Chinese take a side one way or another, but all of a sudden we might end up with a bit of a problem where we can’t now import items from China.
The UK especially is particularly weak at manufacturing. We need to look at how to keep the economy going. We think that the sharing economy from a B2B side of things potentially has a lot to answer for to help continue to move that forward as well.
There’s lots of little community elements within that, and each of those communities, whether it’s person-to-person or B2B, or whether it’s education or healthcare, there’s lots of elements that could be built into that. Then you do end up with that experience and support side of things. That’s massively important.
What is the circular economy?
Malgorzata Labanowska: I wanted to ask, additionally, about the circular economy. How does it relate to the sharing economy? Are they the same?
Tom West: They are and they aren’t.
Within our technology, we’ve built the ability for us to turn on circular modules. After running a project for a large tool manufacturer, we looked at what opportunities there could be including what we’re building for the item never to be actually sold to the consumer, but just to be rented for the entirety of its life.
We could see that the benefit for the consumer is that they end up not having to outlay huge amounts of cash initially and they can tailor their budgets according to what the item essentially they may or may not use, or they might end up with communal tool or asset use. The circular economy would take it one stage further, so you’d end up with a manufacturer designing a product with multiple lives.
Let’s say that they’re making lawnmowers, and a lawnmower has probably got quite a long shelf life. So you’re looking at 5-10 years before someone replaces a lawnmower. But they sell normally, historically, they would have sold 50,000 of this particular model of lawnmowers or 100,000 of this particular model of lawnmowers.
The circular economy in that sense is them looking at that lawnmower and saying, “Right, when that lawnmower finishes his life, how do we get that lawnmower back? What are we going to do with the 500 tonnes of mild steel, the 300 tonnes of plastic, the electrical wiring? How are we going to repurpose that and then move on to building our next set of products out of that?” So we don’t keep digging stuff out of the ground and we start making things fully circular. It’s almost a little bit of a combination of recycling, but if it’s designed in a way that it can be repurposed time and time and time again, then that’s a big plus.
We also see insurance. Insurers haven’t really moved into this market within the circular or within the sharing economy quite heavily enough, I feel. But the view is that the product could potentially include insurance as part of the process as well, which would then retain the value of the item throughout, which businesses clearly want to focus on as well.
Malgorzata Labanowska: I imagine that the circular economy is more possible to realise when the manufacturing is more local.
Tom West: Absolutely. We either need to decarbonise transport to a point where it’s either negligible impact or no impact at all, or we need to change the way we make and manufacture items and just shorten routes and construction. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
Successful use cases of the sharing economy
Lucas Korol: Before we finish, I would like to come back to our discussion about the use cases or some examples of businesses where we can see that this sharing economy concept works and that it is a real sharing economy. You already mentioned BlaBlaCar, which is interesting. I guess in Poland it is quite a success. I just want to ask you a bit of a different question because you said it didn’t work in the UK. Do you know why?
Tom West: I think it’s a cultural thing. I just don’t think that, over the past 15 years, we have been the most open to being sharing, and I think that is a cultural issue that is slowly being changed. I think that there’s a new generation that is far more open-minded about that, and I think that’s a positive change in the right way. How far does it go? I don’t know. We’ll see.
But if we look at the US, BlaBlaCar hasn’t really worked out there either. But that’s because they have carpool lanes and outside of cities you have carpool parks. So you’ll drop off one car, you’ll stand there and wait to get a lift into town with someone else, or you’ll jump onto other forms of transport with other people. They do it differently, and I just don’t think it necessarily came across in the UK. And also it’s down to messaging.
The latest companies that are really pushing over here: Liftshare, and they’re just up the road in Norwich. They’re doing really well by coming into the market and activating it through corporates and businesses. They’re asking their businesses to get behind it because if they can get their employees to save on the number of journeys coming into the office, that overall helps cut the office’s CO₂ output and also reduces the number of parking spaces. There’s multiple benefits to why you’d want to do that and obviously increases social interaction as well, which is really beneficial because that social equity is massive within the business.
Lucas Korol: I would like to add a comment to theBlaBlaCar case. I’m wondering why it had success in Poland specifically. And maybe there was some good background for this or foundation because probably 30 years ago or maybe even further in time, there was the whole culture around hitchhiking.
I remember even in school and that this was the case that we really liked to do this. Hitchhiking was like a cultural, social experience. Not because you were doing this, not because you specifically wanted to spend less money on your transportation, you did it because there was an aspect of adventure in this.
I remember some comments from my colleagues and friends that what is really nice about BlaBlaCar is that you don’t have to drive alone. You spend some time with someone, you meet people. It was more like spending your time in a valuable way for you. It was a social experience rather than just spending less money on gas or whatever. This somehow connects with what we discussed at the beginning of our conversation, that the whole sharing economy aspect or business is very tightly connected to the social aspect of it.
Tom West: Well, we’ve just performed the sharing economy and we’ve turned it into a circular conversation at the same time by coming back to the community, because that’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s a community. That aspect of community is so important. But social equity of actually seeing people in the flesh cannot be replaced by technology.
I think that there’s pros and cons there. It works in certain environments with regard to office work. But I think when it comes down to experience and personal desires, people actually want to spend time with other people in the flesh as a majority, not everyone, but as a majority.
Lucas Korol: But at the same time, when we see it, we can see that there are so many cases of such successes like BlaBlaCar. At least I do not know anything as successful here in Poland. So this is the question: if this is so beneficial socially and there is also some economic benefit in this, why are we not surrounded by the social economy type of businesses?
My guess is that there has to be some sweet balance between what your social experience is in this, and there has to be a little bit of economic drive in this. And especially if you look at the BlaBlaCar and treat this as a benchmark for us today, I guess that the gas prices are also something that makes this happen. So probably you have to find something in the sharing economy that balances those two aspects there: the social experience and the economic factor.
Tom West: I don’t know that it always has to be an economic reward. The amount of people that are willing to share with their friends for free is actually quite a strong driver, and we were a little bit surprised at that in our research. That’s quite interesting. I think that is because it’s the shared experience reward whether that is completing a task, whatever else, can be something different.
But I think we have been for a while and we’re slowly picking up pace towards the complete democratisation of the economy because that’s what seems to be happening: people can work when they want, where they want, how they want.
They can utilise their assets for whatever revenue stream they want to utilise them for on a marketplace that they want to use them within, and they can buy things how they want now as well.
They don’t necessarily need to buy everything. They can start sharing and renting. So it’s fantastic to see. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the future. RentMy has been a fantastic project so far and I’m looking forward to our scale-up. I look forward to potentially talking with you guys again soon.
Malgorzata Labanowska: Thank you.
Lucas Korol: Fingers crossed. We wish you the best.
Tom West: Thank you very much.
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