I know it may seem odd for a business executive, but I don’t even own a car.
We’re living at a time when a major shift in attitudes is bringing on a new era—one in which people get more value by owning less property. And this shift holds the power to change all of our lives, for the better. While it’s not the traditional American dream, it makes sense if you think about what’s defining America today:
New ways of sharing, driven by online social standards, have taken collaboration to new levels. Thanks to the social web, we can share and trade to use a whole universe of things we once had to buy ourselves. From cars to solar panels, people are realizing they can reap the benefits of ownership without the expense and hassle of buying. For me, not owning a car means I may spend a little extra time on public transportation, but I can use that time to read, catch up on work projects, and make the phone calls I couldn’t get to earlier. Plus, I never waste time at the mechanics or gas station.
After living through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Americans have learned that relationships and experiences are more important than stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Take the now-retiring baby boomers. When their wealth was diminished by the financial crisis, they had to take a new approach to purchasing decisions. According to America’s Research Group Ltd. Chairman , "Many retirees are staying in their homes, moving closer to their children or getting smaller houses with less upkeep, instead of traveling or buying luxury items and second homes."
Smart companies have shown Americans how greener choices can actually save them money in one fell swoop. And the people have spoken: If they can go green and save green, they will. In a recent survey my company Sunrun issued to better understand our customers’ motivations, 9 out of 10 Americans of both voting persuasions said they had made what can be considered ‘green’ changes to their lifestyles over the last five years. Their primary motivator? "Saving money." The new status symbol isn’t what you own—it’s what you’re smart enough not to own.
At the same time, companies that target consumers have recognized this opportunity and are helping turn it into a movement. For example, Airbnb users have now booked over 10 million nights of stays in other people’s homes. A survey conducted earlier this year revealed that almost 20% of Zipcar members sell their cars after joining, and nearly half reported that the service allowed them to avoid buying a car altogether. I am a Zipcar user and love the convenience of it both for daily life and travel.
I’ve heard some opinions that this trend of dis-ownership is limited to the young and urban, that it’s just a temporary phase. But, data proves otherwise: While started in San Francisco, it now spans more than 26,000 cities and nearly 200 countries. In cities and small towns across the globe, Airbnb offers multiple choices of places to stay.
It’s common for cultural shifts to start with young, urban adopters before going mainstream. We’ve seen that recently with Facebook. A site that started with college students at Harvard is now a favorite with boomer-generation parents who have embraced this new way of connecting with family and friends. And while we’re back on the topic of the boomer generation: In a recent Pew survey, Americans between the ages 50 and 61 were most likely to report that their household finances worsened and that they had taken losses on their investments since the recession began. The fact that the economic recession has hit middle-aged, Middle Americans the hardest is another reason to believe dis-ownership is headed into the mainstream.
One final example of the rise of dis-ownership: home solar (since I’m in the business). My company invented a way for homeowners to go solar without the prohibitive upfront cost. We call it solar service. Homeowners don’t have to own the panels. We own them, and our customers just pay for the energy they use at a lower rate than they were paying before. Though this might sound like a feel-good, hipster trend, our largest pockets of customers are in median-income zip codes in conservative cities like Fresno and Bakersfield, California. And this movement is bigger than any one city or company: industry data shows that, just five years in, solar service is already more popular than cash purchase in the nation’s top solar markets. In California, seven out of 10 people going solar choose solar power service.
I’m not saying that it’s easy to get people to adopt this new trend. Old habits die hard and people need a real reason to change. It took me years of practice to streamline my own life and decide what I could and could not do without. At Sunrun, we learned that it wasn’t enough to just get rid of the huge upfront cost of going solar–-we also had to take away all the worries of ownership. We did that by assuring customers that we would take care of monitoring, maintaining, and insuring the systems. And after doing all of that, we still face the challenge of many people thinking what we offer is too good to be true.
Nearly every day we hear customers who ask "But isn’t buying always a better deal in the long run?" when we tell them they don’t need to own or even think about the panels on their roofs. We’ve learned that we need to explain to them that when they factor in the cost and headache of owning, our service is better, even if they have the money to buy.
Since the people have spoken, dis-ownership has gotten the eyes and ears of investment hubs like Silicon Valley. For instance, Sunrun investors include venture capital groups like Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital, and institutions like US Bancorp. With their support, we’ve installed over $1 billion in solar systems.
As we settle into 2013, I predict this: We’ll see companies that promote this shift from private ownership thrive. More people will be able to access things they simply don’t need to own, and they’ll save money and live better, cleaner, green lives doing it. The recent apocalypse was actually the dawn of a paradoxical, powerful shift to the era of getting more by owning less.