The Mesh: Business Revolution or Shiny Object?

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Lisa Gansky is the author of the new book, The Mesh: Why The Future of Business Is Sharing. It’s a pretty fascinating look at what she’s says is a radical shift in the way the new business leaders and companies are launching and building solutions and brands.

I recently had a chance to grill her on the ideas in the book. And, here’s what unfolded…

JF: I’m fascinated by business models (entre-geek), especially by how technology is making things possible on a level and at a pace like never before. You seem to have really tapped into this with your exploration of a model you call “meshing.” So, what IS meshing and why should anyone who’s thinking about starting a business care?

LG: We have a long history of sharing in business. There have been brands and profits made through a primary offer of sharing for decades–hotels, rental cars, commercial transportation, freight services and OEM manufacturing facilities. And in the last decade, the design and distribution of digital products like music, video, and the written word have been forever altered.

Now, given the penetration and impact of multiple factors—mobile web technology, location based tools and services, and concerns about the recession and climate—the ‘friction’ is going out of sharing physical goods. That’s obviously not the case always and for everything. But, for example, we use our cars 8% of the time (the rest of the time they sit around). The ability to increase the utility of those cars and other things we already own—individually, as a community or company—can now be easily improved without diminishing the convenience we have long cherished.

Meshing is, quite simply, using the tools and data we have to make the access of goods and services trump the convenience and cost of ownership. It applies to our personal lives and to how we think about what we really need to own in our businesses. For a new business, a start up, the tools available and the partnership opportunities are vast if we craft strategies that bring new shareable products and services to market.

JF: People have been forming buy groups, sharing rent, running collective farms and organic food coops for generations. Is that meshing, too, and if so how is it different than what you’re talking about?

LG: In many ways it is ‘meshing 1.0’. Sharing is at the heart of all the examples you suggest. Yet, one important aspect of the Mesh which is not necessarily incorporated into the types of businesses you mention is using the data and partnership opportunities inherent in Mesh business models. These data (generated from the company directly or shared via partnerships), provides a company with the capacity to see the customer more clearly.

You can see where she is heading, physically and technologically, to ensure that you are able to continue to delight her. For example, RentTheRunway, ThredUp and Swapaholics each specialize in providing clothing to their customers without the need to ‘own’ the wardrobe. Second-hand shops have been around for a long time. What makes these three Mesh fashion businesses different is that they are web based (which expands their reach and convenience to the customer), they actively create partnerships, and they use data.

They also are experimenting with a variety of business models, giving them far more ability to define and refine their offers to customers, evolve their service, and delight customers and customers’ friends—aka, future customers!

JF: What about your one-person bootstrapped biz? Can this work for them or are the tech demands likely beyond what would be tolerable?

LG: The mesh platforms are almost always a “buy-as-much-as-you-need” type technology or service. For example, UPS, FedEx, Kinkos, Amazon Web Services, and Survey Monkey all provide high value, trackable web-based services where each business only buys as much as they need. There are mesh b2b services, like co-working offices, which in some cases works more on a ‘gym membership’ type model. That is, people pay for access to these community-based offices monthly adjusted for the level of usage and service desired.

JF: I can see how this could be fairly revolutionary for those who are about to open a business, but what about people with old school brick and mortar operations? Does this matter to them? Can they benefit from it? And how? It sounds like meshing could also pose some real threats to businesses built on existing models. Talk to me about that.

LG: Businesses with a physical presence, like a retail business, can benefit from testing and implementing mesh strategies. Location based services like: Foursquare, Groupon, Livingsocial, Opentable and others can help bring new customers to try your products and since these folks are typically tech savvy, they are likely to Tweet, Yelp or otherwise share their opinions widely.

Other opportunities for businesses looking to refine or expand their offerings, can create a Pop-Up shops (which are temporarily established retail venues), create an easy opportunity to package an experience of a brand, product or service. Services like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare are powerful amplifiers letting prospective customers know when and where they can find you.

The pop-up shops have been used as a way to test new markets and to create a sense of urgency as they, unlike permanent retail locations, are perishable. I know that in Oakland California, former restauranteurs with big talent and a network of artisan food producers, closed their full time restaurant and now several times a month, open a pop-up grocery which is a bustling foodie social scene anticipated by their growing community of fans and followers.

Certainly, businesses with the fixed costs of a physical venue and a diminishing customer base that is not compelled to learn more about their customers (and customers’ friends), desires and needs, will be threatened by those companies who learn to listen, test, engage, stay close and delight customers.

There are many new tools and services available today to achieve this and these services are expanding daily. I would strongly encourage anyone in business to experiment, make mistakes early and grow.

JF: So there’s a pretty clear business case for meshing what about it’s role in helping people not only do well, but do good? How might this approach fit into the realm of social good? Got any examples?

LG: Thanks for this question. Yes. There are many examples where people are using Mesh strategies for social good. For example, there are many finance oriented mesh companies whose core offering is a variation on the micro-lending model made popular by Mohamed Yunis and the Grameen bank. Some examples are: Kiva, Kickstarter, KissKissBankBank, MYC4, Global Giving and babyloan.

There are many more at: http://meshing.it/categories/12-Finance-and-Economics

JF: What if you’re a technophobe? Are you basically screwed or is there a way in?

LG: Partner up! Make friends with someone with a willingness to play with some of these new services. It’s pretty simple to set up a Facebook page or a Twitter account and they are free. You can begin to watch what others are doing and try a few things.

These are low cost and potentially high impact mini-events.

There are also companies, consultants and a growing community of people who are so immensely facile with these social media tools, analysis services and other B2B services that make it easy to learn while the cost is low. I am a huge fan of making early inexpensive mistakes and learning fast! The technology is not the point. The point is to get and stay close to your customer. The technology is a tool enabling better listening and more irresistible, timely offers.

JF: What’d I miss? What else is really important to know before going deeper? What are the important questions to ask?

LG: Wow! You’re good. Not sure what you may have missed.

Only that – we’re early in all of this. The Meshy services, tools and types of organizations that we are seeing today are, I think, going to look somewhat primitive in another year or two. Car sharing was clumsy and cumbersome a few years ago; now, a simple reservation unlocks pre-fueled doors before your eyes.

You can find The Mesh at booksellers nationally.

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10 responses

10 responses to “The Mesh: Business Revolution or Shiny Object?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger, Grant Griffiths, allanjohnston.co.nz, kurio's resource, TwittyBean and others. TwittyBean said: The Mesh: Business Revolution or Shiny Object? http://bit.ly/a13T8U […]

  2. Steven says:

    Very interesting business methodology. I hope my library gets this book in sometime soon, as I would love to read more about “meshing” and how it can be applied to different settings. It sounds almost like social democracy being introduced into the market, which I believe is the future of capitalism.

  3. Annie Stith says:

    Hey, Jonathan and Lisa!

    This makes so much sense to me: Why pay full price for something that won’t be used full time if you can split the use and the cost, while building cooperative connections between the three businesses involved (mine, the “sharing partner,” and the provider)? That’s how my need-it-bare-bones-first brain completely oversimplies it, anyway. No disrespect intended.

    I’ve done this and had it work well in my personal life, such as when I had a roommate and we split the cost of a washer and dryer with an agreement about what would happen to ownership when one of us moved out. Or sharing a service by splitting the cable cost. And my various relationships overlap and weave together, forming a mesh.

    The part that’s missing in personal relationshiops, though, is what I see as the third side of the business relationship triangle. I don’t necessarily gain (or want to gain) a relationship with the provider of the equipment or service.

    Oh, I get so excited when I think I understand a concept right off the bat!

    So, am I really understanding it, or am I way off in left field, completely missing the point?

    Annie

  4. edwardboches says:

    Been meaning to buy this book. Now definitely will.

  5. […] Jonathan Fields, blogger-extraordinaire and author of Career Renegade, posted an interview he did with Lisa Gansky today. Lisa Gansky is the author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is […]

  6. Evan says:

    Sharing makes sense in so many ways I think. The ‘web makes this much easier and more possible (although talking to those nearby can often help too!)

    For physical infrastructure – clothes, lawnmowers etc the ‘web doesn’t seem so important – personal contact is useful here.

    For information sharing the ‘web has opened up a whole new world. It is far quicker and less censored than publishing or getting an article into a journal. Real time collaboration is extraordinary.

    The ‘web can help with some parts of knowing customers. This is easier when you have lots of them. But it is hard to know those you don’t have (this stuff I don’t think helps much with the start-up phase, and when you are finding out who your audience is or where they hang out. In this phase I think it is down to trying stuff and keeping what works.)

  7. Chris says:

    Talk about efficiency. Out right ownership can be such a burden and not very efficient. Real Estate people figured this out a long time ago with the concept of “time-shares.”

    The internet is ideal for sharing because of the low overhead. You really don’t own anything on the internet except for intellectual property which is hard to protect anyways.

    Meshworks are the future. Can’t wait to read your book Lisa. Thanks for the interview Jonathan.

  8. […] The Mesh: Business Revolution or Shiny Object? (tags: Productivity Technology business) […]

  9. Seyi says:

    This book has sparked in me a ‘look around you for what can be shared’ frenzy. The focus on providing what the customer wants (as customers seek less) makes for compelling possibilities. Fab interview Jonathan!