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economy

3 Questions About On-Demand Economy

Last year, as Airbnb’s $25.5 billion valuation surpassed Hilton Hotels’ and Uber became the world’s most valuable privately owned company, it became clear the on-demand economy is no passing fad but is, in fact, a force to be reckoned with.

The on-demand marketplace is growing at a dizzying pace as new companies emerge daily, helping connect a diverse workforce of tradespeople, licensed professionals and unskilled laborers to a market of willing buyers through the company’s platforms. Intuit projects the population of U.S. on-demand workers will more than double by 2020, which means that, if you can’t already summon a doctor, lawyer, babysitter or dog walker right now via an on-demand app, then sit tight—they’re coming soon to a smartphone near you.

But the scale and speed of the on-demand economy’s growth also means policymakers, regulators, insurers and on-demand companies will have to huddle quickly to resolve the issues that arise with this expanding marketplace and its workforce. Here are the three key questions we need to address immediately:

  1. When the safeguards of the traditional corporation no longer exist, how do we protect the on-demand workforce?

Uber is currently appealing a case it lost against the California Labor Commissioner last summer regarding whether a driver is an independent contractor or an employee. While establishing this distinction is a critical issue, we still need to address some big questions about the vast self-employed workforce in the on-demand economy.

A good primer question: How do we get the information we need to make informed policy decisions? Independent contractors in the on-demand economy are classified as part of a larger pool of temporary, seasonal, part-time and freelance workforce called “contingent” workers. A 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report cites this workforce as somewhere between less than 5% and more than one-third of the country’s overall labor pool. The big gap in this measurement is because it depends on how jobs are defined and on the data source; the broad definitions and lack of clear data on this workforce makes on-demand independent contractors and their needs tough to track and evaluate. How much of this workforce depends on this income for supplementary purposes as opposed to relying on this income as a full-time living?

According to Intuit’s study, contingent workers will make up 40% of the U.S. workforce by 2020. That’s a lot of people working without the safeguards provided by the traditional corporation—guaranteed minimum wage, steady income, unemployment insurance, healthcare, workers’ compensation and disability insurance. What kind of safety nets do we need to put in place to protect this workforce? And what does this growing workforce mean in terms of policy development? How does the social contract change?

  1. How should we regulate hybrid commercial/consumer activities?

A sticky issue surrounding the on-demand economy is how to regulate commercial activities that are conducted by individuals rather than by traditional businesses.

While some argue that an Airbnb property should be as heavily regulated as a hotel if a host is accepting payment for lodgings, drawing an apples-to-apples comparison between the two is a challenge. For example, treehouses, yurts, igloos and lighthouses were among the top-10 most desirable vacation destinations on Airbnb shopper’s wish lists last year, some fetching upward of $350 a night. Who exactly should you call about making sure the igloo is up to code before guests arrive?

Some of the services and products offered by the individual through on-demand platforms have never been available through traditional enterprises; they’re unique, intimate experiences and, before on-demand platforms made them accessible, were difficult to find. We’re entering a new frontier where many tourists covet a culinary experience they can book at a local’s house via apps such as Feastly or Kitchensurfing rather than a fine dining restaurant, or they prefer offbeat accommodations booked through Airbnb to a 5-star hotel. We can’t assess how to best regulate these individual commercial activities until we have more data and understand the risks. How do we collect that data? How do we ensure the safety and protection of the individuals operating and participating in these activities until we have the information necessary to adequately regulate them?

  1. How can a square peg workforce function in a round hole system?

Mortgages, loans, credit cards, leases … these are just a few of life’s niceties (or necessities) that are challenging for an on-demand independent contractor to secure. Our current financial services, systems and policies were built to work for employees who collect a regular paycheck as well as freelancers who have reliable cash flow through long-term contracts and monthly retainers. Independent contractors working through on-demand platforms tend to rely on short-term gigs often generated through multiple sources, and they have difficulty predicting their day-to-day income, never mind their annual net or gross.

This isn’t a niche workforce. If independent contractors represent 40% of the U.S. working population in 2020, they’re significant drivers of the economy. They generate income and pay taxes; they need homes, cars, work equipment and all the other stuff that keeps their businesses running and makes their lives worth living. We can’t dismiss their needs, because we are measuring their 21st century income with a 20th century yardstick. How do we retrofit our round-hole systems to include this square peg workforce?

If we want a thriving economy in which people enjoy the benefits of the on-demand economy, and doctors, lawyers, drivers, plumbers and everyone else serving the on-demand marketplace have equal opportunity to succeed, then the time to talk about these questions and issues is now.

No, Insurance Will Not Be Disrupted

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Insurance Disrupted conference in Palo Alto (put on by the Silicon Valley Innovation Center in partnership with Insurance Thought Leadership). This was the single best insurance conference I have ever attended. I was surrounded by hundreds of hopeful, smart, problem-solving professionals from disparate backgrounds and industries all trying to make a difference in insurance without money being the prime motivator.

I was so encouraged by what transpired at the conference, the connections that I made and what I believe would be the promise of a new future that I began to pen this article on my flight home. But something just did not sit right with me as I wrote. Three weeks have gone by, and I am beginning to understand why I felt the way I did; at the end of the day, insurance will NOT be disrupted.

For all the promise of big data, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles and peer-to-peer insurance, there was nothing presented at this conference that struck me as disruptive in the way the tech industry is generally thinking of the term today. When technologists think of disruption, they immediately point to Uber and Airbnb, which disrupted the taxi/livery and travel accommodations industries. The taxi industry is literally fighting for its survival. No, that will not be the fate of insurance. Insurance will be a lot more difficult to shake up or disrupt.

Here’s why:

  1. At the core, insurance customers are leasing the potential to access capital. That capital is sitting in predominantly liquid assets. Not real estate, not taxi medallions. How do you make a big pile of money irrelevant?
  2. The modern form of the industry is 300 years old, and the math is pretty solid (that’s why they call it actuarial science). We sell a product whose costs are unknown at the time of purchase. That means scale and immense capital is required to cover worst-case scenarios, which rules out any new business model not having that potential. Peer-to-peer providers just won’t be able to get sufficient scale to efficiently use capital to cover risk. And if they aggressively get scale, then they just become another insurance company, so what’s the point?
  3. Getting a better glimpse into those unknown expenses can create massive competitive advantages. This is where big data and the IoT creators are looking to disrupt, as big data and IoT will generate incredibly large data sets to be used to accurately predict, avoid and mitigate future losses. I have no doubt that these new technologies will make an impact on the industry, but I am less convinced of their disruptive nature. Insurers have already established non-actuarial, big data departments where fraud detections and credit scoring are just a couple of many predictive models being created. IoT devices will slowly be adopted by most insurers as they look to get competitive edges, but the follow-the-leader paradigm of the industry will mean that any edge will disappear quickly, and we will all be running hard just to stay in place. These technologies are impressive. I would classify them as a solid innovations to the industry, but not disruptive. (Disclaimer: I bought a smart battery from Roost.)
  4. Autonomous vehicles represent the one area where some chaos can occur. But notice I use the word “chaos” and not “disruption.” If autonomous vehicles can live up to expectations, then they will be a great service to society, reducing deaths and increasing efficiency. Risk will transfer from a personal lines business to commercial lines, and that could be chaotic for heavy personal lines auto writers such as State Farm and Progressive. But will this be disruptive? Will State Farm or Progressive be fighting for their survival the way that medallion owners in the New York City taxi system are? Again, I doubt it. State Farm is sitting on about $70 billion in surplus capital, and it generally writes at a 100 combined ratio, working the float and cash flow model. I think State Farm and large auto insurers like them will be just fine, and technologies such as autonomous vehicles will be more of an annoyance than an existential threat. And like others, I don’t think autonomous cars are nearly as ready to take over our roads as many seem to think.
  5. For better or worse, state-by-state regulation of insurance is intense and nebulous. Ask Zenefits. The battlefield is already uncertain, and scrutiny by a regulator with political ambitions can kill your disruptive product quickly. Any technology that you think you can create that could potentially benefit the majority of buyers while subsequently raising the price for some other group, alone, would be grounds for a regulator to squash you, as that vocal minority raises their collective voices. In Florida, the state may even create a company to compete against you, writing business at a loss. Insurance regulation might be the ultimate disruption killer.
  6. There was not one presentation on natural catastrophes, which happen to be my area of expertise. How we underwrite, manage and think about natural catastrophe risk has changed quite a bit over the past 20 years. In fact, CAT models have been and may continue to be the most disruptive force in insurance, and yet there is little technology can do to disrupt that area of the industry. I would have been very excited if we had discussions about new business models to help customers with the problems the industry is currently facing with getting adequate flood or earthquake cover to homeowners. If someone had proposed a new product that removed the exclusions of flood and earthquake from the homeowners policy, now, THAT would be disruptive! Alas, nothing on NatCat, and so we will continue to have thousands of homeless families following big storms and earthquakes.

I don’t think insurance will be disrupted, not in the way folks from Silicon Valley are used to doing it. But the future of insurance will look very different than today. Very digital. Streamlined. Less clunky, more efficient. If “disruption” comes to insurance, it is likely going to require the replacement of the current set of leaders with new ones cultured in this digital age and influenced by the successes of technology to make change happen to their business models.

Paul Vandermarck from RMS (a CAT modeling vendor) perhaps summed it up best when he said that no matter how all of this change to the industry plays out, we know of one sure winner: the customer. And that’s how it should be.