“A lot of people get so hung up on what they can’t have that they don’t think for a second about whether they really want it.” – Lionel Shriver, Checker and the Derailleurs
We used to own things. I expect this will seem significant and surprising sooner than we think. Ownership is embedded in our culture. To own more is to be happy, ‘Happiness is the smell of a new car’. And yet we all know that statement isn’t quite true. While we strive every day to achieve that goal; work harder, longer, sacrifice and cut corners so we can buy more, all the while we know that we don’t really believe the story.
If this is such a well known fallacy, then why is it so resilient? I think partly we have hope to blame. Not the good kind of hope that pulls us through the dark times, but the kind harnessed by beer ads and pictures of beautiful people. The kind of hope that tells us that if I only buy that beer, or wear that cologne, then this aspect of my unhappiness will disappear. Hope can be a powerful thing. So why would this change?
One reason is financial. Ownership is a very inefficient thing. Aside from a very small number of the things we own, most of the things we own are unused most of the time. For the hour a day we drive our car, there’s another 23 hours where it’s not be used. Worse, much of the time we’re actually paying to park and *not use* our cars. This may sound bad, but it gets worse. The books, music, movies, video games, we own. These spend 99.999% of their lives sitting on a shelf. Sure, we get some value to our decor from our bookshelves or music collections. We may even give some the illusion that we’re well read or musically inclined, but these are expensive decorations.
There are also some cultural shifts happening. We’re seeing an increased focus on experiences and stories, over things and stuff. ‘Smart may have the plans, but stupid has the stories.’ People want to have stories to share. The race has become to keep up with the Joneses tales, not their televisions. If they go to Mexico, you need to go to Thailand.
We also can’t forget technology. Technology is finding it’s way into all aspects of our lives, and this is no exception. The power and connectivity that people carry in their pockets enables models that were previously impossible. For a less obvious example (e-books and streaming music should be self-apparent) look at car sharing services. A decade ago to share a car some form of physical key exchange would need to happen. This would likely mean a centralized place for this to happen; bricks, mortar, employees. For a modern car share service the primary exchanges involve bits. Bits from your smartphone to their servers to express your intent, from your bank to theirs to exchange funds, and then from your smartphone to the car to unlock it. Bits from the GPS unit and computer in the car back to servers ensure the company or cooperative knows exactly how you’re treating their car.
Let’s look at this example a bit closer. There’s a fundamental shift going on here. We’re looking at the ‘why’ of car ownership. Why did we own music? So we could listen to it. Streaming music services (and piracy) allowed us to fill that need without ownership. Why do we own cars? To allow us to conveniently travel on our own schedule. Car share services are showing that the need can be fulfilled without the ownership.
I don’t think this is going to stop with cars. The challenge for entrepreneurs is to recognize what needs we have confused with the need for ownership. Each one you can identify is an opportunity. Not only that but it’s an opportunity you can feel warm and fuzzy about; it will make our society more efficient, reduce consumption, and help save the unicorns from extinction.
Think of all the things you own. I don’t mean that rhetorically; try and actually think about each thing you own. It’s probably a much longer list than you thought. Now think of all the things you need to own. Think of all the work of ownership; maintenance, storage, dusting. Now tell me that we should continue to own more than our parents did, as the American dream tells us to.