Rental Nation: How Everything Can Be Borrowed

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Thanks to post-recession budget cutting, environmental concerns and generational austerity, you can rent just about anything these days.

From Segways to llamas and bounce castles, an abundance of sites have launched in recent years that enable consumers to borrow those things they would prefer not to buy -- or can't afford to own.

If you can't afford to buy the shoes and dress for your walk down the red carpet, there are Web sites that will rent them to you. There are also sites where you can rent red carpets. Or virtually anything else.

Want to walk a dog in the park? You can rent a pet. Need a power tool and don't know your neighbors very well? There are peer-to-peer lending services that will do the asking for you.

The flip side to renting is the ability to make extra cash with what you can own or offer. Don't mind strangers stopping by when nature calls? You can use the Web site or mobile app offered as Cloo (as in community + loo), a service that lets registered users -- mostly in urban areas lacking public facilities -- share and use bathrooms for a small fee.

Need a date to your cousin's wedding, a workout partner, local tour guide or wingman? Where dating sites fail, -- bringing a concept popular in Japan to the U.S. -- can provide temporary, platonic companionship (it boasts of having 417,000 members to choose from, charging between $10 to $50 an hour).

Sites and services that broker in goods more tangible than friendship include loanables, Share Some Sugar (as in the old sitcom cliche, "Can I borrow a cup of sugar"),, Getable and NeighborGoods (which specializes in borrowing among members, rather than cash transactions).

Increasingly, rental services are zeroing in on specific needs. Chegg specializes in textbook rentals. Airbnb provides a means to rent your home. Alternatives to Hertz and Zipcar, Getaround and RelayRides are peer-to-peer car sharing services.

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Belly Bump Boutique, Rent Maternity Wear and The Maternity Closet allow moms to earn back some of what they paid for clothing bought during a pregnancy and their child's early years. lets you rent toys and thredUP does the same for kids' clothes.

Rent the Runway was founded to let would-be fashionistas rent designer clothes and accessories they would be otherwise unable to afford, especially for a one-time social event. Bag Borrow or Steal offers a similar opportunity to rent designer handbags and accessories, typically for around $50 to $70 a week, a fraction of what it would cost to buy the latest from Prada, Gucci or Louis Vuitton.

Borrowed Bling provides a range of high-end jewelry for rent or purchase to members who pay monthly dues (three tiers of pricing and services range from $29.95 for the "Countess plan" to $99.95 for the "Movie Star" package).

You can also rent another person's time and expertise at sites such as TaskRabbit, Zaarly, AirRun,, (a subscription-based concierge service), Agent Anything (it bills itself as the eBay of services") and Skillshare.

"How many times have you bought a tool for a project, used it just once and then it sits in your closet collecting dust? It's frustrating when you feel like you have wasted money on something that you don't get much use out of," says promotional materials for Share Some Sugar. Among the items offered are snowblowers, Guitar Hero, fondue sets and slow cookers.

"When I moved from an apartment to my first home, I ended up needing a lot of household items, like tools and gardening equipment," says Share Some Sugar founder Keara Schwartz of the inspiration that led her to start the site in 2009. "I thought it was unnecessary to purchase, own and store these types of items that I wouldn't use very often. I figured that someone in my neighborhood had to have a tall ladder. So I embarked on a mission to find one to borrow. After knocking on a few neighbors' doors and no success, I went online to see how much a new ladder would cost me. What I found was over 200,000 ladders in my search results with prices ranging from $60 to $300. Yet I couldn't find a ladder in my own neighborhood ... It doesn't make much sense for everyone on your block to own so many of the same durable goods when they are used so infrequently."

Among the items available for rent on Zilok (an international service that went live in the U.S. in 2007) are a hand crank siren for $25 a day, a beach wheelchair for $35 a day and a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder for $1,950 a day.

Zilok's French founders hit upon their inspiration when they needed to borrow a drill. Some curiosity-driven research revealed that the average drill is used for only about 12 minutes total by its owner.

Getable, recently rebranded from its original name of Rentcycle, bills itself as the largest of the online rental marketplaces. Among its high-profile advisers are Marc Randolph, a Netflix founder, and Chuck Templeton, founder of restaurant reservation service Open Table. Investors include Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal and chairman at Yelp, and Farhad Mohit, founder of Shopzilla.

Getable recently closed on a $1.4 million round of funding led by Collaborative Consumption, which focuses on investing in start-ups specializing in -- you guessed it -- collaborative consumption, a movement pioneered by companies such as Netflix, ZipCar and Airbnb.

Tim Hyer, Getable's CEO, says his experiences as a branding evangelist for Red Hat, a leading provider of open source technology built around the Linux operating system, helped guide the creation of what was then called Rentcycle.

"The idea is that open source offers choice and access," Hyer wrote recently on the Getable blog. "It invites participation and thrives on it. And everyone who participates reaps the rewards. The new company wasn't open source, but it was strikingly similar ... Access was praised over ownership. Though I didn't fully realize it at the time, the collaborative consumption movement mirrored the values behind open source in more ways than one."

A frustrating event also triggered Hyer's eureka moment. While training for a triathlon, he looked for an alternative to paying $600 to ship his bike cross-country, but couldn't find a race bike to rent. That put the idea in his head, and a week later he wrote the business plan.

He sums up the philosophy behind his company, and the broader collaborative consumption movement, as "usership is the new ownership" -- the idea that products themselves aren't as important or desirable as the experiences and uses they provide.

Initially he conceived of a peer-to-peer rental marketplace, but decided a focus on businesses, from small to large, made more sense.

"As much as I loved that concept, I really think it is too ahead of its time," he says of the P2P model. "The fact of the matter is that there is an entire industry built around this concept of renting that is still not online, and moving it online is the first step toward ultimately building a place where you and I can offer out personal possessions to other users."

Hyer sees the industry as one that is evolving in much in the same way Amazon begat eBay, which begat Craigslist.

"And before Amazon, everything was bought or sold offline in retail stores," he says. "The progression was an offline industry moving online through a trusted corporate entity. There was this progression that happened over 10 years. You couldn't have leaped from the buying and selling of goods offline in trusted retail stores directly to Craigslist. Our sector, in the product rental space, is still in this offline industry phase. We haven't really made that first step. That's why I took the business away from P2P and to the offline rental industry, which is represented by 65,000 shops across the United States and is a $85 billion industry."

The advantages for Getable taking this approach, Hyer says, are many.

"Businesses have a advantages that individuals don't have," he says. "They have massive inventories. While an individual might have a handful of things to post onto a Web site, a business has 2,000 to 3,000 SKUs at their location. With the inventory a business can offer as opposed to an individual, there really is no comparison. Plus, businesses have been at this for hundreds of years. They know how to do the rental business. They have been doing it for generations, whereas individuals would be learning a new behavior and would have to establish that trust."

Hyer sees reasons for why renting has become a more viable form of commerce.

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"Since the recession, people are living more within their means, and renting allows people to get the lifestyle they want on a budget," he says. "You'll see companies that rent designer fashions, jewelry, things that someone might only want to use for an occasion or a weekend wedding. They are able to have this upscale lifestyle at a much more reasonable cost."

"There is also more of a focus on experiences versus possessions," he adds. "I don't think possessions have the same cache and status symbol there used to be. It's no longer about how many cars you own or what kind they are. Its more about what the car allows you to do. Possessions are becoming much more a means to an end. That's a huge shift that is going on, especially with younger generations."

Hyer also sees that, during the past decade, "there has been a rise in an on-demand, or subscription-based, lifestyle."

"People are becoming used to getting access to things when they need it, like a gym membership where you just pay a subscription to belong and you go when you need to," he says. "I think we've seen that with Netflix. Rentals lend themselves well to this subscription, on-demand lifestyle."

Among the items in high demand at Getable are ones that can be a great help to travelers looking to avoid the cost and hassle of bringing certain items on a plane -- among them cribs and snowboards.

"It is a lot easier to get access to a product at your destination than to lug it with you," Hyer says.

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Unlike Hyer's company, Rentalic operates on a peer-to-peer model. But the story behind Punsri Abeywickrema's founding of Rentalic is similar.

While working in his backyard, Abeywickrema needed a wheelbarrow. He borrowed one from a neighbor. But there was more work to be done the following weekend, and he felt it would be intrusive to ask again -- so he instead found a local store to rent him one.

"People feel bad asking for favors," Abeywickrema says. "You don't know what the other person is thinking. They may be perfectly happy to help you out, but there is a social barrier. I ended up renting one even though there were probably 10 wheelbarrows sitting in my neighborhood, unused. There are tons of resources we all have that other people could use, but there's a cultural barrier that prevents people from using or reusing each other's stuff."

Abeywickrema bounced the idea of a Web site to facilitate such borrowing off his friends and colleagues. The positive reaction led him to think he might be onto something.

"Nobody wants to be seen as a freeloader," he says. "That's why I think rental makes perfect sense. You take the cultural barrier out of the equation. All we are doing with Rentalic is taking the 'feel-bad factor' out of the equation and making it a simple commerce transaction. Look at any neighborhood and within a five-block radius they are probably self-sufficient with all the stuff that accumulated over time in garages."

In 2008, "before adding even a single quote to the Web site," Abeywickrema set up a booth at Maker Fair, an event run by do-it-yourself publication Make. The idea was to solicit direct feedback from potential users as the site was readied for launch. What happened far exceeded that modest goal: Rentalic won the Editor's Choice Award.

"We were an award-winning Web site without even having a Web site," he says with a chuckle.

That validation, he says, showed that peer-to-peer rentals did have a willing, and growing, marketplace. Economic frugality and a waste-not environmental outlook fueled that desire for such lending.

Abeywickrema says he overcame "trust issues" that have plagued peer-to-peer businesses of this sort by implementing a two-way verification service.

"People didn't want to go through the hassle of disputes and refunds and all that," he says. "They don't want to pay until they see the item."

So a security code is issued to each borrower that, when called in or entered online, authorizes payment to the owner. If the potential renter isn't satisfied, they are not billed. Likewise, owners can be assured quick payment through Rentalic, and having a secret code means it's not somebody trying to steal an item.

Abeywickrema says a tally of the value of the more than 5,000 rental items on his site would total roughly $20 million. That's money in the pockets of owners that helps defraud the cost of the original purchase, he says. It also offers retirees a chance to earn additional income from a lifetime of accumulation.

"There are local and macro-economic benefits," he says. "Its $20 million we get to keep in our own communities, and not shipping money out of the country to import more and more. It encourages local entrepreneurship. Someone with a garage full of stuff can build their own home business out of it. That's the power of the platform."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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