With the business of sharing staff, offices and equipment now worth 1.3 per cent of Britain’s GDP, a growing number of companies are finding that collaborative ways of working can make financial sense too
When Michelle Henry launched her signwriting start-up in Birmingham in 2010 she found herself sharing office space with printing company Genesis Display. The prospect of starting in business, she says, was daunting. “I couldn’t go out and meet other customers while making the signs and doing everything by myself,” she recalls.
The solution? Genesis Display answered the phones and made signs when Henry was out the office, with her fledgling business, HNS Signs, helping Genesis with screen printing (both companies have been trained in each other’s trades). As more staff and equipment were added, the firms shared these too.
Four years on, this reciprocal relationship is paying dividends, with the sharing doctrine enabling both companies to scale their businesses. Today, HNS Signs has five full-time staff and estimates the money accrued by pooling resources with Genesis Display represents 10 to 15 per cent of annual profits. Sharing equipment has prevented the firms “buying double” while staff swapping has resulted in much-needed labour during busy periods.
While collaborative work spaces and tech hubs have been a mainstay of the start-up economy for years, SMEs are starting to see the benefits of sharing staff, machinery and transport, too. With the sharing economy worth 1.3 per cent of UK GDP, it’s a trend set to continue.
“Start-ups are beginning to recognise that when launching a business, you need to be incredibly resourceful,” says Benita Matofska, founder and chief sharer of the sharing economy comparison site Compareandshare.com.
“One of the challenges of being an early-stage business is that you don’t have the resources and ability to hire full-time staff while you raise funds. [Sharing staff] is a way people can access labour in a short-term way without making any long-term commitment. It’s about being smart and using what’s available to you.”
For HNS and Genesis, employee swapping happens “whenever one company is quiet”. Henry says: “It’s brilliant because it builds on their skills. Because screen printing complements signwriting, I’m more than happy for them to learn that skill and vice versa. It gives greater understanding.”
This synergetic staff-sharing can also bring in new clients. “We answer each other’s phone calls when the other is busy,” says Henry. “It helps direct business towards the other firm – and it’s part of the reason we’ve managed to grow so much.”
This staff-sharing trend has been harnessed in recent years by peer-to-peer outsourcing outfits such as Echo (Economyofhours.com) and TaskRabbit (Taskrabbit.com). Similarly, in the world’s start-up capital, Berlin, ‘borrowing shops’ are booming.
Expensive equipment such as DIY and farming tools are all swapped. Electric drills are used for an average of 13 minutes during their lifetime, so advocates argue it makes perfect economic sense.
Multinationals are also realising the sharing economy’s potential, with car-hire behemoths Avis Budget Group buying auto-sharing service Zipcar for $500m (£298m) last year.
But issues, mainly regulatory, remain. Before its 2013 closure, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) looked at setting rules for peer-to-peer lenders, and as collaborative start-ups begin monetising, governments could look to tax revenue. There are also concerns around manufacturing – if everyone rents the same machinery, we need fewer people to make and sell it.
But the hopes of sharers remain undimmed. “The sharing economy is the biggest thing since the industrial revolution,” says Matofska. “It is creating a seismic shift in society – not just economic value, but social value that boosts productivity, too.”
Global Sharing Day is taking place on 1 June. For more information, visit thepeoplewhoshare.com/global-sharing-day