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GiftFlow: When Collaborative Consumption Isn't Enough, Try Collaborative Production GiftFlow Wants to Build Local Economies Around Sharing

It's like eBay and CouchSurfing had a kid—a way to build community and reduce waste by sharing freely with your neighbors.


It's move out day at colleges around the country this week. So what happens to all that stuff students are leaving behind? Sadly, most of it, usable or not, will end up in the waste stream. But at Yale, at least, the softer castoffs like clothes and pillows will be salvaged and eventually offered to the community through a new nonprofit that's trying to make free a workable price for a local economy. Meet GiftFlow.

Money is great and all, but for some exchanges it can actually get in the way: borrowing a lawnmower from your neighbor, helping your friend fix his car, sharing a beer! In response, a number of collaborative consumption and barter sites have popped up—NeighborGoods recently launched nationwide—to help organize the burgeoning sharing market.

Now a group of recent Yale grads are taking the trend a step further to collaborative production. GiftFlow is in the Alpha phase of testing now, but the idea and the possibilities are already taking some shape—read on to learn about a fascinating bike collective that's emerged.

"You get online, you use the website, but you use the website for as little time as possible, and then turn around and go meet someone in your community and fulfill some need or collaborate" to make something, says co-founder Hans Schoenburg. It's like eBay if and CouchSurfing had a kid. With CouchSurfing, he points out, you don't actually trade your couch space for someone else's. "It's not a barter system, you host some people, and you surf with others, and it all works out in one big happy circle," he says. "Instead of having a gift economy in hospitality why not open it up to all goods and services."

You could offer your food waste to a large compost project, or your labor to someone else's creation. "Some of the more interesting gifts posted on the site right now," Schoenburg says, "are 'a custom mashup' of two songs you pick, or an 'extremely dedicated conversation,'" presumably to help another GiftFlow user brainstorm or work through some puzzle. It oozes earnestness, but its founders think it can work on a local level. "We don’t imagine people will be shipping a lot." Instead, neighbors will offer up tools, labor, or recycled materials for nearby projects and products.

Like many savvy startups lately, GiftFlow is creating a social network to facilitate all this. You log on and create a profile where you can post what you have to offer and what you want. "You will be able to add a gift and add a need, and then you can put in your location and search for your need, sort by distance, plot it on a map." Most barter networks—like OurGoods for the creative class—offer something like this already. But Shoenburg wants to expand beyond swaps, because trading is limited by the coincidence of wants.

To make a barter work, two specific people must have aligned wants that each can satisfy for the other. This tends to work for a limited range of items: one book for another book or DVD. But it's hard to barter for that massage you want if the masseuse doesn't need her kitchen painted, and that's all you have to offer.

GiftFlow is more like Freecycle, which lets you offer up what you have to anyone who wants it. But it takes the idea a step further, adding the benefits of a social network profile and user history, Shoenburg says. With Freecycle, a person could conceivably take many gifts and then go sell them on Craigslist. While that's fine and reduces waste, it's also a lost opportunity.

GiftFlow's Jarus Singh redirecting usable goods from the trash heap at Yale.

Like any startup, the success will stem from how dedicated and creative the founders are. The GiftFlow trio is showing some real savvy so far. They've decided to stay nonprofit, because their mission is to reduce waste and build community, and they're leveraging that clarity of mission for extra freebies. "Our biggest hope is that our operating costs will be covered with gifts," says Schoenburg. “You can go to GiftFlow’s profile now and it has all the things we need: like a web developer and free web hosting.” Scoff at the idealism if you want, but right now they have a 5,000 square-foot storefront free for 90 days thanks to the City of New Haven. They will use it to operate a free store, giving away all those soft goods tossed out on Yale move out day.

There's also a bike collective forming that's the best example yet of collaborative production. Local police donate abandoned bikes that are left on bike racks, or parts of them that are still there, to GiftFlow. Then cycle mechanics mix and match the parts to build new bikes. If they make two, they can keep one. The second gets sold cheap to someone who doesn't want to get their hands dirty with gear grease. That money goes to paying for the parts that can't be salvaged. And all together abandoned bike bits go from being eyesores attached to city railings, to usable, affordable sustainable transportation.

"It's a whole business model based on totally free inputs," Schoenburg says. "Collaborative consumption is only half the game, and it really short sells what we can do as a community to meet our needs."

There are about 600 people signed up now across the country. The site will launch a fully functioning beta in July with a local marketing push in New Haven to build that city as the first true test community. Sign up here and let us know what you think.

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