Michelle Regner knows first-hand that building a sharing platform from scratch is expensive, time consuming, and demanding. A former financial analyst, an experienced CEO, and the co-founder of office space sharing platform DesksNear.Me, Regner has faced the challenges of getting a sharing platform off the ground. In her experience, finding engineering talent in Silicon Valley, where it’s scarce and expensive, is one of the biggest hurdles. This left her wondering: Why do people starting sharing businesses need to reinvent the wheel? Her question led to the development of Near-Me.
Near-Me is a white label service that allows anybody to start their own customizable marketplace for sharing, trading, swapping or renting anything. The term “white label” traces its origins to the white labels that were put on pre-release, DJ copies of vinyl records that didn’t have artwork yet. Today, white label products are common in the business world. They allow companies to brand an existing product or service as their own. There are white label social networks (Ning), electronics (Synometrix), food products (Richelieu Foods) and more.
Near-Me is the new kid on the marketplace solutions block, but with a slightly different angle. While competing sharing platforms Sharetribe and myTurn seem to have more grassroots origins, Near-Me plans to partner with established retail brands and entrepreneurs from the start.
This is an important distinction because retail makes up a massive chunk of our economy. Targeting big brands can help transform the retail sector of the economy which, in the U.S. alone, is 4.7 trillion dollars, or two-thirds of the GDP. Near-Me makes it easy way for brands to join the sharing revolution, helping to mainstream collaborative consumption in the process.
Near-Me is built around what brands and entrepreneurs want from a sharing platform. The Near-Me team, including co-founder and CEO Regner, has spoken with entrepreneurs, business schools and existing brands about their specific needs. Regner's strategy is to be on the ground, meeting with entrepreneurs in different cities and partnering with first-mover brands.
In addition to Near-Me, DesksNear.Me is still running full steam as a business, so Regner and her team have their hands full. But, the biggest challenge facing them is what she calls a "good problem.” They’ve received approximately 800 inquiries from people around the world who are interested in using Near-Me to start a sharing marketplace. She’s currently hiring a sales team to handle all the requests.
Recently, Shareable caught up with Regner about Near-Me’s unique place in the sharing economy, the benefits of white label services, who the ideal Near-Me user is, and her big picture vision for sharing marketplaces.
Shareable: You’re no stranger to collaborative consumption. With DesksNear.Me you have a front row view into how sharing can benefit people. Now you’ve created Near-Me to help people set up their own sharing marketplaces. Was there a pivotal moment when you realized that helping people share goods and services could have far-reaching benefits?
Michelle Regner: Since the time I had to run to our next-door neighbor to borrow sugar so we could finish the cookies we were making for a bake sale, I’ve always seen the benefits of sharing.
[The experience] made me feel like we couldn’t have finished a project without collaboration from our neighbor, and it stuck with me that things made from community collaboration were so much better.
Later in my business life, my last company had too much desk space and I met my now business partner who was looking for monthly desk rentals when he moved his company to San Francisco from Australia. We started DesksNear.Me to solve a problem we had already experienced from opposite sides of the spectrum. People from all sectors of society and business want to share and collaborate and have been since the times of bartering.
Within about three months of developing the site, we saw sharing come alive in front of us. It was so exciting! We saw more sharing sites pop up, but heard from many that the barrier to entry was their ability to develop the code, hosting, and Go-To-Market strategy. So we thought, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s something we can do about this,’ and started building Near-Me as the bedrock for other sharing/renting/subscription services.
Do you recall the moment when you realized there was a sharing movement happening?
I’ve always seen the impact of humans sharing talents, goods, lawn-mowers and, of course, sugar with their neighbors, but the moment I realized there was a real sharing movement online was when I looked at my personal planner and saw that in one day I was renting a desk, renting a car from Getaround and ordering dinner for my family through Munchery. I saw how much the sharing economy simplified my life and realized so many more people could benefit from sharing technology daily—they just didn’t know it yet.
Near-Me is a platform that allows people and companies to set up an online marketplace. How does it work and what makes it valuable?
Entrepreneurs like us, and global brands alike, have so many questions around the buzz that’s rising about the “Sharing Economy.” Being actively a part of it, talking with customers on both sides of various marketplaces, and building solutions, we’ve learned more about what makes it work beyond just a bunch of servers and code.
So many people with ideas contact us and let us know what kind of marketplace they want, the goods they’ll be sharing, the brand specifications, etc. Learning about their expertise in a specific niche or vertical market, we identify the key elements that suit their client base and then build out the site for them using their unique branding and then hand them the controls. We include payment processing so businesses can earn revenue from their transactions, geo-location capabilities so they can share and rent locally, social integration and review capabilities to establish trust, blogging to allow marketplace participants to share up-to-date information, customer service tools and analytics.
We provide value through our technology, expertise, time and developer resources to build a site that could take a business owner without available engineers months to build and cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Not only are we saving businesses tons of money, we’re developing and delivering their site within a week and constantly improving and sharing new features across all marketplaces.
What are some of the features to enhance trust?
Trust is the bedrock of any successful marketplace. We know that people trust their networks, so we’re pulling in data from LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to show connections, colleagues and friends in common. We’re also building out ratings and reviews for both guests and hosts through a two-way review system, which keeps both sides accountable knowing the other will be reviewing them.
Our long-term vision is to ensure that any review on a Near-Me powered marketplace can be available to other marketplaces built on the platform. Again, this holds people accountable to share nicely!
How much does Near-Me cost?
Since we create, code and build the marketplace based off of a business’ specification, we’re charging a setup fee, which ranges depending on size of company, inventory, number of admins and more. There are also nominal and ongoing subscription/maintenance fees. We work with lots of different types of businesses so please contact us to figure out how we can work together.
Does Near-Me take a portion of each transaction?
Not at all. A lot of the companies out there take a slice of each transaction, but we let your revenue stay as your revenue. Our success rides on the success of the marketplace, and a lot of times our clients have small margins. We don’t want to make them smaller by skimming off the top. Our strategy is to provide a marketplace platform that continually improves, priced at a fraction of the cost to develop a custom solution.
Who is the ideal Near-Me user?
The ideal user is anyone from a budding entrepreneur to an established brand. For entrepreneurs, they’ve likely raised money or have a good fusion of capital. They’ve done some market research for their unique offering, whether that be people, places or products, and are prepared to have their sharing site go live within the next week. Big brands that want to provide better availability and shopping options for their customers and have a voice in the sharing economy are also great candidates for Near-Me.
Could you use Near-Me to host a neighborhood lending library and other local scale services?
Yes, eventually! Right now our solution is best used for one market, like all of Chicago, but our goal is to be hyper-local like that example. It’s definitely something some one could run at a smaller scale.
There are other white label platforms, Sharetribe comes to mind, that allow people to set up online marketplaces. How is Near-Me different?
A lot of our clients tried hacking together a marketplace using WordPress or Shopify, but it just didn’t tailor well to sharing needs. We created our solution to focus on the interaction between the guest and host through in-technology messaging communications and fully integrated transactions. We also offer people the ability for a marketplace to white-label their own platform for someone else who’s interested in using their inventory. We’ve done this with DesksNear.Me and have white-labeled the site for chambers of commerce and other associations so they can use their private inventory and provide their own service for members.
More and more people are seeing the value of sharing. What’s the role of Near-Me in the growing sharing economy?
We hope Near-Me will be at the forefront of the sharing economy powering the sites that are empowering more people to share, rent, swap or sell second hand goods.
DesksNear.Me is also part of the Crowd Companies Council, so you can expect to see us connecting with other sharing businesses and big brands to collaborate and together create more innovation in the space.
All of our user experience learnings, and beyond the technology, such as marketing, social/community building, call center partnerships, guerilla marketing and lead generation, has all been documented and will also be shared with our marketplace partners.
Any surprising lessons you’ve learned so far?
We were surprised and delighted to see that this is more of a global community than we originally thought! We’ve heard from people and businesses in Peru, Argentina, Europe, Australia, even the Middle East. That opened my eyes up to what a big opportunity this is as well as how big the market really is.
What’s your big picture vision for Near-Me?
My vision is that Near-Me not only powers, but empowers peer-to-peer marketplaces and that any one who wants to augment the sharing economy and create their own marketplace can make that a reality. People who share end up saving money, gaining access, having amazing life experiences and living better, more fulfilled lives. This is my personal vision, and I want to help make that happen for anyone who feels the same way.
Editor's note: Near-me is a sponsor of Shareable's Sharing Cities Network and related content including this post.