Bartering, borrowing Web sites flourish as economy tanks

Mercer 3073

Olga Khazan/Special to KPCC.org

L.A. Derby Doll Micki Krimmel is a new business owner, founder of NeighborGoods.net, part of a growing social network trend in which people lend and borrow stuff they own but hardly ever use.

One weekend, Jory Felice needed a chainsaw to cut through some rotten wood in his Atwater Village backyard, but he didn't feel like buying one. He turned instead to NeighborGoods.net, listed the chainsaw on a virtual "wishlist" for his friends and neighbors to see, and a few days later he was the proud borrower of a chainsaw belonging to his friend Damien. "I would never have known that Damien had a chainsaw that he was willing to loan out to people," Felice said.

Since then, Felice has reciprocated, loaning out a book, some bongo drums and some "really long extension cords" to various people – some of them total strangers save for the fact that they, too, have accounts on NeighborGoods.

The site is a cross between Facebook, Craigslist and Freecycle.com – an online social network where people lend and borrow stuff they own but hardly ever use. It offers no immediate profit for the lender but the satisfaction of knowing that ThighMaster or electric mixer was put to good use.

It's an example of new California-based portals that are trying to foster "borrow-economies" and reduce consumption.

It could be that the state's rotten economy has left people with little but good will and Wi-Fi connections, or maybe it's just a marriage between the green movement and the rise of social networking. Either way, start-up sites are increasingly helping Californians look to their neighbor's yards before venturing to the nearest Target.

Online bartering sites have been around for a decade. Their names – Intellibarter, MrSwap, and SwapRat –  don't ring a bell quite like, say, Amazon.

Unlike the barter sites of yore, these new ventures encourage sharing based on proximity and friendship. Just as Facebook provides privacy settings to keep away strange voyeurs, NeighborGoods allows users to restrict their available goods to just friends, or just friends of friends. In doing so, they hope to soothe their customers' privacy concerns.

"A lot of times people say, 'What if someone steals my chainsaw and uses it to murder me?'" said Ben Brown, NeighborGoods' Web developer. "We've taken big steps to prevent that from happening, and it's fully within their control to deny any request that comes in that they find objectionable."

"Also," he added, "I don't think people are out there using Web sites to murder people with their own power tools."

Since the beta version launched in Los Angeles last October, NeighborGoods has shown promising growth, with its membership now in the thousands. 

The site is the brainchild of 32-year-old Micki Krimmel, whose personality combines the ardor of a sustainability activist with the fierceness of an entrepreneur. When she's not thinking about her business, Krimmel skates with the L.A. Derby Dolls – an activity that seems perfectly suited to her, in its hip intensity.

Profile of an LA Derby Doll and Web entrepreneur from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

Micki Krimmel is an LA Derby Doll and founder of an online business that connects people who want to share things.

The idea started with a backpack. In 2007, Krimmel was between jobs and needed a backpack for a trip to Thailand – the sturdy kind that can tote a life on a traveler's back for a few weeks. She tried to borrow one from friends but ended up having to buy one for $200. 

"I knew I was only going to use it that one time, and I realized that was true of a lot of the stuff I owned," she said. "So NeighborGoods' goal is to give us an alternative to buying stuff that you only need once and getting more value out of the stuff that we already own."

Krimmel and entrepreneurs like her are tackling an interesting challenge: how to wean American consumers off shopping and get them addicted to sharing.

"We didn't create the desire to help people," she said. "We're just capitalizing on it."

Krimmel came to L.A. eight years ago from Boston, where she was working as a film production assistant until one particularly bitter winter sent her packing. She got a job with Participant Media in Beverly Hills, where her Web outreach was partly responsible for the success of Al Gore's little show, "An Inconvenient Truth."

After that, she did consulting work for a while and became known as a "community person" who could help companies bring people together online.  

"I like meritocracies," Krimmel said. "In 2004, people were first talking about blogs and how you can use the Internet for social change. Then it was primarily about politics, but now it's about everything."

Now, Krimmel, her black hair pulled into an edgy side-swept cut, works out of a chic downtown L.A. loft. Her work outfit consists of leather boots and a sleeveless cotton dress, the better to show off the tattoos on her biceps. One is of Pablo Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror," and the other is of the Los Angeles freeways – "my favorite view of the city," she said.

"People think of L.A. as fake, but it's the most authentic place I've ever seen because it's difficult," she said. "Everyone comes to L.A. because they want to do something. I like that you kind of have to make your own way here."

In Krimmel's experience, social connections aren't just how you grow a business, they're the key to a happy, functional life. Almost every day, she meets with various real-life cliques – church groups and moms' circles – to tell them about NeighborGoods and how it can help them save money on baby contraptions and stepladders. 

"This is just part of that trend – getting people local, going to the farmers' market," she said. "I think people are just sick of living in their private, closed-off spaces with all the stuff they've accumulated."

Krimmel is banking on the idea that the first people we want to help are our friends, so the first thing NeighborGoods users see after logging in are all of their friends and their various needs. When users loan an item, the site shows them how much money their friend saved. 

There's also an option to charge people for borrowing an item, but Krimmel said that hasn't been as popular.

"Most of the transactions are free," she said. "We're really focusing on the 'help your neighbor' approach. But as we grow, people might be interacting with people they don't know."

For that, there's the Wishlist feature, which allows users to list items they'd like to borrow in the hope that someone else will offer them up. 

The U.S. now has 2.3 billion square feet of storage space; one out of 11 Americans currently rents a storage unit. Not only is it a waste of money, but Krimmel thinks all that stuff literally hurts our society on a sort of metaphysical level.

"These items that collect dust have potential energy inside them," Krimmel said. "We work so we can buy more stuff and build up the barricades around us to protect us from other people. If we lower the barricades just a little and give other people access to the stuff we already own, there's a lot of social good in that."

Krimmel is determined to expand NeighborGoods from Southern California to the rest of the country once she finds a sustainable model for the site, but finding a way to fund a site that eschews the reigning economic models has not been easy.

When Brown and Krimmel pitched their idea to a group of venture capitalists they tried to appeal to the potential funders' sense of good will. They told the group that NeighborGoods could help reduce the demand for cheap disposable goods "made by children in China."

The firm's president interrupted, saying, "I don't need to think about child labor when I'm thinking about investing in a company."

"It's not an invalid thing that [Micki] is thinking about," Brown said, "There are all these issues in the world, but it's not what you lead with in the PowerPoint deck."

For her part, Krimmel is hoping NeighborGoods will catch on not because it's easier than shopping, but because it's better.

"There are easier ways to get books. There are easier ways to get movies," she said. "Even if we're not the most efficient way to get access to that thing, you still do it."

In the meantime, she's constantly working to make borrowing easier. NeighborGoods will soon be coming out with an iPhone app that would let users take photos of their belongings and upload them to the site.

"I added everything in my kitchen. Strangely, two people have already asked to borrow my citrus juicer," said Krimmel, bursting out laughing. "I think because they're doing the master cleanse."

This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Neon Tommy, the news Web site for the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

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