The rise of self-employment apps like Uber and TaskRabbit, where people decide when to work and how many jobs, rides, or gigs to take on, has led to a fair amount of anxiety and criticism from fans of more traditional employment models. People like the New America Foundation’s Steven Hill have a created a career niche of their own, buzzkilling optimism about the platform economy and the opportunities it is creating. Hill considers the Uber-and-Airbnb trend of the early 21st Century to be an “economic fraud” that’s hurting the U.S. middle class.
Obviously that’s at odds with our view at CEI. My colleague Iain Murray, for example, has written about how sharing app platforms represent a revolutionary decline in transaction costs that has made possible a huge number of mutually beneficial economic transactions that simply weren’t practical even a few years ago. That means consumers get more of what they want and workers have vastly expanded earning opportunities, all while delivering more flexibility and convenience for both groups. That’s a pretty win-win scenario.
In the interest of collecting opinions from outside the think tank industrial complex, however, I’ve recently been reading and watching a lot of material from people who are actually using these platform applications to make money, often income supplemental to their primary employment. What I’ve seen from people who are hustling for extra cash is an impressive amount of hard work, street smarts, and optimism. There’s also a great deal of generosity among people who are going out of their way to share their success stories and strategies with people who are looking to join the game.
I’ve noticed this most dramatically among sellers and resellers on eBay. Unlike some of the trendier smartphone-based apps, the world’s most popular auction site is not a recent market entrant, having been with us since 1995. It does, however, provide the same kind of platform-enabled earning opportunities as its younger cousins, and more importantly, it’s a mature example of what these newer apps could themselves become. In many ways, eBay was the original sharing economy company—providing an electronic marketplace and customer base to a huge variety of sole proprietor entrepreneurs looking to earn a living. Except in eBay’s case, their users are selling everything from old Star Wars action figures to neon beer signs to vintage clothes.
While the company itself has all kinds of public information available to attract new sellers and train them to be better salespeople, it’s the spontaneous self-improvement networks that have sprung up without any corporate involvement that I find so encouraging. YouTube is full of videos of successful eBay sellers sharing (what in many other industries would be) secrets about how to source product, track inventory, market new items, and do your taxes as the proprietor of an online store. It’s exactly the kind of positive, enthusiastic collaboration critics assure us wouldn’t exist in a free market economy. Surely everyone trying to generate profits for themselves is a jealous, greedy capitalist, fearful lest other participants erode their market share?
What you actually find is people who resell garage sale and thrift store finds having live chat tournaments over who has found the coolest, most flippable items and sellers taking their customers, fans, and potential competitors on all-day vlog sourcing trips. Overwhelmingly, the attitude in this online community is one of helping others on the path to success rather than trying to moat one’s own profits. And along with the tips and the fun comes the recurring theme of how much satisfaction comes from earning money on one’s own terms and on one’s own timeline. Many of the eBay sellers out there are part of the #sidehustle nation, but a large percentage of those are looking to make their one-time hustle a full-time job, permanently becoming their own boss. And while that’s not going to happen for everyone, the people who are willing to put in the time and effort have an amazing wealth of unpriced information and encouragement to push them toward success.