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On-Demand Economy Is Just Starting

Fifteen years ago, the idea of having access to any bit of information you could possibly want at your fingertips was outrageous. In 2001, you could get access to the Internet from your phone, but the experience would be slooooow, and it might cost you hundreds of dollars. Dial-up Internet from desktop computers – remember them? – was still very much a thing. Now, people carry smartphones that give them instant access to just about anyone, to every bit of news and to almost all the knowledge in recorded history.

People use those devices mostly to watch videos of singing goats and people failing at dunking a basketball, but that’s a different story.

The point is that technology, such as smartphones and smart watches, has created an on-demand world where gratification needs to be instant. When someone decides he wants something, he doesn’t want it in two hours. He doesn’t want it in 20 minutes. He wants it now. And, he wants it at the push of a button.

As the trajectory of the last 15 years shows, the trend toward on-demand will only continue, perhaps even accelerate.

The main driver, as usual, is good, old Moore’s Law, which has seen the computing power of a chip double every year and a half to two years since the 1960s at no increase in cost. Moore’s Law is why a gigabyte of memory, which cost $300,000 in the mid-1980s, today costs less than a penny, and why, despite some technology headwinds for Moore’s Law, we’ll have devices hundreds of times as powerful as today’s before kids born this year enter high school.

Other “laws,” such as Metcalfe’s, continue to drive the value of networks at an exponential rate. So-called “network effects” are why millennials rarely have their phones more than a foot away and why there is so much effort to make devices even more accessible – in front of your eyes, a la the failed-but-not-forever-dead Google Glass, or on your wrist as a “watch.” Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, has argued for years that we’ll eventually wind up with cellphones surgically implanted behind our jaws, where they will have easy access to our vocal cords and our ears.

But Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s and the others that have driven the unbelievable progress in computing are just the start. Now, three more factors are kicking in, increasing the pace toward the on-demand world. First, sensors and cameras are wiring more and more of the world every day. Second, people are coming up with new business models that build on these new capabilities in surprising and powerful ways. Third, the effects will spread to what is sometimes referred to as “the next billion” (and the billion after that). Those of us in the developed world won’t have all the fun; the rest of the world will join in.

Sensors and Cameras

Fitbit et al. track every step you take and every calorie you burn, and they’re just the beginning. People have begun talking about the “Internet in Me.” The idea is that you might ingest some small sensor that will report from inside your blood stream about blood pressure, blood sugar, etc. A wireless signal – powered by the abundant electricity inside us – would send the information to your phone or watch, which would relay any necessary information to a doctor or some sort of healthcare provider.

Drones are everywhere. They can check crops, monitor disasters or do whatever. In fact, woe to the next generation of teenagers – parents can now just keep a drone in the home and have it fly around from time to time to see if Junior is having a party while they’re away.

Our mobile phones constantly provide information on traffic flow, based simply on how fast they’re moving in our cars. (When is the last time you saw a traffic copter, let alone a thin rubber hose across a road that tripped a counter every time a car ran over it?) Waze has layered crowdsourcing on top of the data from mobile phones, encouraging people to report accidents and other delays, to fine-tune maps and so forth. Nauto, a start-up, is trying to add another layer by getting fleet operators—and, eventually, individual drivers—to put cameras in vehicles (one looking at the road, one looking at the driver) with the initial goal to improve safety. If enough of Nauto’s cameras are on the road, they will provide a real-time look at the world. Want a parking spot right now? Nauto can tell you about the one that opened up 30 seconds ago a block away.

Google is gathering information in real time about diseases like the flu – it can report when and where a lot of people start searching for information about certain symptoms. Even our thoughts and emotions are getting wired. Historically, in presidential elections, people conducted the occasional opinion poll, so you’d have a sense of the result of the debate a week or so later. Now, people monitor Twitter streams and Google searches in real time to assess who won and who lost. Those feelings then get aggregated in prediction markets that are far more accurate than political observers ever were. Of course, a lot of effort gets put into figuring out presidential elections because of the stakes involved, but this kind of wiring and immediate response will spread into other areas, as well.

The physical world is being folded into the digital one through hacks such as QR codes, which let magazine readers scan them to figure out where they can purchase an outfit or whatever else is in an image. Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa sits in the middle of a room and allows people to buy something through Amazon right when they think of it, even if they don’t have their phone near them.

Our lives divide into two parts these days: Those that are wired and those that will be wired. 

New Business Models

Just Google “the Uber of,” and you’ll see how much a single inventive business model can change things. You’ll be prompted with companies offering the Uber of trucking, dog walking, laundry, snowplows, tennis partners dentistry and much more. There is a powerful example in the insurance industry: WeGoLook, which is being called the “Uber of claims handling.” If a carrier needs a picture of a car, it can send someone out from the office, or it can draw on the tens of thousands of freelancers affiliated with WeGoLook and have one of them take the necessary pictures and gather the information. Especially in rural areas, it can be a lot cheaper to have a local person gather the information than to send someone out from a regional office. And, through the wonders of information technology, WeGoLook can be so thoroughly integrated into a carrier’s system that the person asking for the photos, etc. doesn’t need to even think about whether the request is being fed to an internal person or to WeGoLook.

Even without totally new business models, tweaks are accelerating the pace of the economy. Seamless, the on-demand food delivery service, has shaken things up by making it much easier for customers to order food for takeout or delivery. Venmo has become popular among millennials by greatly simplifying the process of sharing costs and, in general, making small payments to each other.

Amazon went from “delivery some time” to mostly two-day delivery, via Prime. Now it is working hard to get to same-day delivery and is even experimenting with drones that could deliver within perhaps 20 minutes.

These business model changes will keep unfolding, too, in many cases like a slow-motion train wreck. You can already see some of the ways that 3D printing will step up the pace – you just click on the image of a hairbrush you want and have it start printing in your office immediately. Or look at the news business. Remember weekly news magazines like Time, Newsweek and BusinessWeek? Not only have they gone away but even daily publications like the Wall Street Journal have had to switch to instantaneous publication online – no more holding the big stories for the print edition the next morning. Those of us of a certain age remember what a big deal it was when Monday Night Football showed highlights from the day before. Now, we don’t even have to wait for Sports Center at the end of a game. We can just call up a highlight on our phones. If you look at the changes going on at CNN, you can see that its mission has changed, because there is a new form of 24-hour news network: It’s called the Internet, and it’s “on-demand” — no need to keep Wolf Blitzer droning on in the background.

The Next Billion

As more and more people from countries such as China and India and places in Africa enter the middle class, they will get access to all the technologies that drive the on-demand economy in the rest of the world. In some cases, they will even leapfrog us. In Kenya, for instance, growth in the traditional sort of banking is stunted even as the economy grows, because people use their mobile phones to exchange money. Who wants to go to a bank and wait for a teller?

And these changes in technology, business models and demographics are just the things we know about. You can be quite sure that lots of clever people are already at work on other ways that will speed the move toward the high-speed economy.

Think of the shift in the economy as the move from the demand curve to the on-demand curve.

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.

How On-Demand Economy Can Prosper

Even some of the most successful innovators in history would tell you, “Don’t quit your day job.” George Eastman worked full-time while tinkering in his mother’s kitchen on the inventions that let him found Eastman Kodak in the late 1880s. A century later, Steve Wozniak worked at Atari while developing the computer that he and Steve Jobs would turn into Apple. The fact is: No matter how great the idea, or how great a worker’s skill, it’s hard to mesh with an existing enterprise or any other group.

The reason is explained by Nobel laureate economist Ronald Coase in his influential 1937 essay, “The Nature of the Firm.” He theorized that people choose to organize themselves in companies and corporations rather than contracting their services out directly because of transaction costs. He cited: search and information costs; bargaining and decision costs; and policing and enforcement costs. “Within a firm, these market transactions are eliminated, and in place of the complicated market structure with exchange transactions is substituted the entrepreneur coordinator, who directs production,” he wrote.

Essentially, marketing, selling, pricing, negotiating and getting paid as a self-employed person isn’t all rainbows and unicorns – the work critical to running a business can be enormously complicated, time-consuming and costly.

Thanks to technology, much has changed since 1937. Mobile connections, broadband and ubiquitous data have reduced transactional search and information costs considerably. It is much easier, faster and economical for a small business to effectively compete with larger firms.

There has been a major shift in our buying behavior, too – consider how profoundly Amazon or iTunes has altered the way we discover, compare and purchase goods. Companies like Uber have used technology to reduce our search and information costs, as well as our bargaining and decision costs and policing and enforcement costs. If reducing one transactional cost shifts the economy, then reducing all three transforms it….

We are now officially unlocking the potential of the on-demand economy – one that will revolutionize the 21st century workplace and workforce. It’s so new, we haven’t decided on a name for it yet; it goes by various monikers like Uberization, the gig economy, the on-demand economy, the access economy and the peer-to-peer economy.

This on-demand economy offers the exchange of goods and services between individuals instead of from business to consumer. The people providing goods and services aren’t necessarily employed by the company connecting them with the customer, either. Many are independent contractors or freelancers.

Technology acts as the intermediary automating the handling of pricing and payments, vetting providers through a user-rating system and matching providers with consumers’ needs. This intermediary speedily brings together supply and demand via a platform that can be controlled by an app on any mobile device. The platform makes information available and accessible in the manner most efficient for the business, ensuring that transactions that are started are more likely to be concluded. The platform often obviates bargaining, directly polices its members, enables community-driven self-policing and enforces the terms of interaction. The costs of this coordination is added to each peer-to-peer transaction.

The new economic model is a highly efficient, productive and cost-effective marketplace. Platforms like Luxe, Lyft and Uber offer transportation services; Caviar, Doordash and Munchery deliver food from local restaurants; Instacart will shop for and deliver grocery orders; AirBnB, HomeAway and Onefinestay connect renters and homeowners offering available space with people seeking accommodations; Handy, Taskrabbit and Thumbtack will help a household find an available plumber, drywaller, cleaner or furniture assembler; and delivery services like Postmates and Shyp will pick up, pack up and send packages.

There appears to be no lack of supply or demand in this rapidly evolving phenomenon. Almost 53 million Americans currently serve as providers to on-demand platforms, at least part-time. Having goods and services on demand satisfies our need for “instant gratification” and allows consumers to find a broad array of competitively priced services 24/7 – they can get what they want, when they want with the touch of a few buttons.

The advantages for providers are many, too. No longer saddled with the time-consuming chores of the self-employed, like marketing and promoting services, negotiating transactions or chasing down payments, the on-demand economy provides freelancers with a turnkey, hassle-free method of accessing a large market of ready-and-willing customers whenever they want to work. It’s freelance freedom and flexibility with almost no barriers to entry.

You don’t need to be an economist to envision how the on-demand economy business model can benefit the marketplace as a whole: The Ma & Pa local restaurant that can easily deliver through a fleet without incurring staffing costs can substantially expand its market and service underserved markets. People can now use their cars to transport passengers and generate income rather than leave vehicles parked in driveways, resulting in a very good use of underutilized resources;. And, when a student can help an eBay seller package and deliver parcels on the fly, a job and professional support network are created that had not previously existed.

The new economy is here. It’s poised to democratize the marketplace and its workforce by maximizing underused assets, creating jobs, expanding markets and meeting the needs of underserved markets, all while creating a faster, easier way for us to get what we want, when we want it.

But this new business model comes with new world challenges as the distinction between personal and commercial activities becomes blurry. To thrive, policymakers, regulators, insurers and the companies enabling the new economy will have to work together to design a platform that protects consumers when they are operating as businesses.

4 Ways Superstores Can Teach Insurers

A smoke alarm isn’t the only kind of protection on sale at your local superstore these days. Need some life or health insurance with those printer cartridges? You’re in luck. Insurers like Metlife and Aetna now sell insurance policies through superstores. Walmart launched a pilot program with Metlife to sell life insurance policies at 200 Walmart stores, and Costco members can select Aetna health plans offered through Costco’s Personal Health Insurance program — Costco has offered its members discounts on auto, homeowner, renters, umbrella and specialty insurance through Ameriprise Insurance for several years.

Although not every effort has gotten off to a flying start, these are good examples of insurers experimenting with approaches to tap into large, underserved markets and new sales channels and to create brand awareness in a shopping environment where there’s a natural connection with the products they sell.

What I’m most curious about is the impact the superstore channel will have on how these insurers sell. What can insurers learn from two of the world’s most valuable retail brands about creating the kind of convenient, affordable one-stop-shopping experiences that Walmart and Costco offer and consumers so desperately want?

Plenty of things. Here are four:

1) FOCUS ON SELLING YOUR BRAND RATHER THAN YOUR PRODUCT

Walmart and Costco both offer lower-priced house brand products, but neither focuses its attention on selling its own product even though that would obviously benefit the bottom-line. The goal is to own the customer by meeting the brand promise of offering low prices and good value on any and all products that a customer wants to buy. Walmart doesn’t worry about selling a competitor’s product – even with a small profit margin, Walmart still generates revenue and profit, through multiple product sales, and keeps the customer coming back rather than sending him to shop with the competition. It’s good business sense to focus on what the customer wants to buy rather than what a retailer wants to sell.

Similarly, it’s good business sense for an insurer to consider selling products that are a good fit with the brand and that complement other product offerings – even if that means offering a competitor’s product.

Selling a competitor’s products can help insurers facilitate that convenient, one-stop-shopping experience that consumers want. It allows the insurer to keep the customer relationship while generating revenue from underwriting the risk, or from brokerage fees. And in cases where an insurer doesn’t have the experience, appetite or capacity to underwrite the product, it’s better to make fee income than the underwriting income.

An insurer’s No. 1 goal is to own the customer. The insurer that underwrites the product makes one sale; the insurer that owns the customer can sell to her for her entire lifetime. That can mean decades of selling renewals, cross-selling related products and generating referral business.

2) OFFER CUSTOMERS CHOICE

Mac or PC? Chocolate or vanilla? We’re a culture of consumers who covet choice. Even a limited selection is enough to provide customers with this valuable component of the shopping experience. While Costco is cautious about the number of brands it offers (limiting the number of brands allows Costco to get the kind of volume discounts it needs to offer the lowest prices), like Walmart it offers at least two choices of brands for any given product.

Providing a competitor’s products can help insurers, too. The objective is to give customers a selection ample enough that they can compare insurance products and choose the product that works best for them. As with Costco, this may mean offering the customer a choice between two brands that offer different price points and levels of coverage.

3) SELL CUSTOMERS EVERYTHING THEY WANT

There’s nothing haphazard about the layout of a Walmart or Costco. Superstores invest a great deal of time and money walking the walk of their customers. They think through how customers search and shop for products and how those products should be grouped for optimal cross-selling opportunities.

While insurers understand the profitable art of cross-selling, in theory, I’ve witnessed more than a few property and casualty insurers who’ve missed big opportunities to cross-sell products. What happens when that flower shop you just insured needs auto insurance on its three delivery vehicles and you don’t have it? If the insurer isn’t prepared to sell the customer what she wants, the customer will go to the competition to satisfy her multiple coverage requirements.

4) NEVER LET THE CUSTOMER LEAVE EMPTY-HANDED

The path from creating awareness to having a customer walk through the door ready to purchase is long and expensive. A superstore does everything in its power to make sure you have no excuse to walk out the door without buying something.

Factoring in advertising and promotional campaigns, the cost of bringing a paying customer through the door could be as high as $400 to $500 for some insurers. Every insurer’s goal should be to make effective use of a lead by finding some way to fulfill the customer’s product needs.

I’ve only scratched the surface. Now it’s your turn: What superstore selling practices do you think insurers should consider to win market share?