In May, Bloomberg ran a story titled “China Is the Future of the Sharing Economy.” “Conditions,” it promised, “are ideal for the sector to thrive.” Bike-sharing in the country is now a billion-dollar industry; companies that allow users to share phone batteries raised upward of $150 million in start-up capital. Today, you can even borrow basketballs and split public “nap capsules.”
It was this bonanza that inspired entrepreneur Zhao Shuping. “Everything on the street can now be shared,” he told the South China Morning Post.
That everything, he realized, included umbrellas.
So a few weeks ago, he launched Sharing E Umbrella in 11 Chinese cities. For a deposit of about $2.79, users could check out an umbrella via app. They would then pay about $.75 for every half-hour of use and check them back in when done. Users could find the umbrellas in stands at subway and bus stations, they could leave them wherever. Once checked out, a user would receive a code to unlock the lock built into the handle.
At the time, users celebrated the service. An editorial in the state-run People's Daily even declared that “sharing umbrellas is a sign of progress in public service, and a show of human care, releasing the warmth of the city.”
But Shuping quickly learned that not everything that can be shared should be shared. Earlier this week, he announced that nearly all of the 300,000 umbrellas have gone missing.
Shuping theorized that many users are taking the umbrellas home with them, in part because it's hard to just leave an umbrella on the street. Dockless bike sharing “made users think anything on the street can be shared now,” he told the Paper, a state media website. “But umbrellas and bicycles are not the same: A bike you can park anywhere, but an umbrella needs a stand.”
Other sharing efforts in China have been similarly plagued. Last month, bike-share start-up Wukong Bicycles announced that it was closing its doors after nearly all its bikes were stolen. The same thing happened to the Beijing-based 3Vbike.
These high-profile failures have left investors wondering whether China has hit “peak share.” “Sharing basketballs, sharing umbrellas — these are all bad ideas,” Allen Zhu, Shanghai-based managing director at GSR Ventures, told the New York Times. “They’re both very tied to a particular location, which makes it difficult for the company to expand.”
Andy Tian, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Asia Innovations Group, was similarly skeptical. “China is finally embracing its communist roots,” he told the Times. “But there’s no question that it’s a bubble. It may have roots in something valuable, but can you really share everything?”
But long-term, investors still think China's sharing economy is a good bet. About 600 million Chinese participated in it last year, spending some $500 billion in 2016, according to the Chinese government's sharing-economy research office. Sharing economy companies raised about $25 billion last year.
First, money that might have been spent on, say, a car, is instead saved by ride-sharing and applied to other, premium purchases. Second, sharing enables access to premium experiences — say, via a very good home share during a vacation. Interestingly, this trend parallels the growth of a rich, e-commerce based trade in secondhand goods (in effect, long-term sharing businesses), including luxury items like Gucci handbags.
Chinese consumers have also embraced mobile payment systems, which make it easier to persuade them to, say, give their credit card information to an umbrella start-up.
Shuping, too, hasn't lost hope. He said he will distribute a couple million more umbrellas around town by the end of the year. With luck, the outlook will be a little more sunny this time.