I just finished reading Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh and there’s much to like about the book. There are a few places where it gets a bit repetitive, but she does share lots of interesting anecdotes and she’s telling an interesting and very important story here – the story of better sharing through technology.
The mesh is the interconnectedness of all that surrounds us; not in a metaphysical/spiritual sense, but in a technological sense. We’re just starting to understand the implications of software capturing some representation of our relationships with people – what technologists call our “social graph.” But what of our relationships to the things in our life – what of our connections to the Internet of Things? It is this connectedness we all have to both people and things that Gansky refers to as “the mesh.”
Gansky’s book is a business book, focused primarily on exploring the opportunities now emerging from the mesh. She calls them “Mesh businesses” and here are their four primary characteristics:
- The core offering is something that can be shared, within a community, market, or value chain, including products, services, and raw materials.
- Advanced Web and mobile data networks are used to track goods and aggregate usage, customer, and product information.
- The focus is on shareable physical goods, including the materials used, wich makes local delivery of services and products – and their recovery- valuable and relevant.
- Offers, news, and recommendations are transmitted largely through word of mouth, augmented by social network services.
Some things are better owned and some are better shared. Things we use a lot, and that are relatively low cost, don’t lend themselves that well to sharing through the mesh; think your toothbrush. Things that you don’t use that often, and that are expensive, do make a lot of sense to share through the mesh; think boats, vacation rentals, and airplanes.
A couple friends of mine are proving this latter point quite effectively with a startup called ShareZen. They wisely chose to focus on the mesh sweet spot of expensive, infrequently-used items; and are even concentrating – at least initially – on one market (pilots who need better ways to share aircraft). They are seeing some really nice uptake on the service – some proof that what Gansky’s talking about in this book is very real.
The Mesh in Economic Context
Though Gansky doesn’t really go into this, Mesh businesses are part of a bigger shift that’s been rippling through our economy for many decades; the transition from product manufacturing to service delivery. This macro-economic shift shows up in everyday life too as interactions with companies transforms from products to services. As our lives have grown busier, things we used to do ourselves, we increasingly hand off to professionals.
Fifty years ago, if we wanted dinner, we bought food from the market and almost always made the meal ourselves. Today, we often outsource food prep to a restaurant, delivery or even to upscale supermarkets like WholeFoods. Restaurants have been around for hundreds of years, but today they play a qualitatively different role in the way humans consume calories in developed economies.
Another, more obvious, example? Software as a service. We used to have to go to a store like “Egghead” (who?) to purchase floppy disks or CD-ROMs with software on it. Today, we still do this for many games, but more and more of our software consumption is now delivered as a service over the Internet.
The Mesh Makes Us Strong
The book outlines a number of benefits of Mesh businesses. The first is that they are in more frequent contact with customers, which strengthens relationships and loyalty, and gives Mesh businesses a greater flow of customer data. That data helps Mesh businesses continuously improve offerings over time. Mesh businesses can also utilize their ongoing connections with customers to broker relationships with partner businesses that have complementary service offerings.
Mesh businesses also tend to be more efficient in managing resources since they invest heavily in information technology for managing the way customers share the company’s limited resources. And because they’re built to run via the Internet, Mesh businesses benefit enormously from massive public and private investments in communications technology over the last several decades. This helps explain how a number of mesh startups can so quickly from literally out of nowhere. Think, for example, just how quickly Netflix toppled well entrenched competition from Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.
Finally, Mesh businesses thrive through connections with and between the people who use them – something that helps them spread quickly through Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks. As Gansky says “…part of the Meshy experience is feeling part of something.” This is a very interesting point – and something I’ll explore more in future posts. For now though, think of the mesh as the infrastructure for the intelligent membrane the firm uses to connect with the world around it. It’s a membrane made of humanity, and what makes organizations capable of the kinds of third-order engagement that run through the hundreds of examples in Gansky’s book.
The Mesh Makes Us Good
One of my favorite things about Gansky’s book is Gansky herself. She’s clearly someone I’d want to have beers with – techie to the core, but also passionate about how all this stuff helps build a better world.
Mesh businesses will reduce waste because they help us achieve greater utilization of the stuff we already have – through sharing it. On a more subtle level, Mesh businesses lower their operating costs by using durable, long-lasting products as part of their service offering and developing easy processes for servicing and repairing these products when they do have problems, rather than simply throwing them away – one of the big problems with today’s consumer society.
I’ll end this writeup of this very interesting book with my favorite line – one that Gansky mentions in passing at the end of chapter six. She uses the phrase, the “advantage of access over ownership“ – and I just think it’s worth marveling a bit at the beauty and importance of this simple notion.
Access over ownership is the marvel of our library system. It helps us maintains the rungs of upward mobility in our society by providing access to information for everyone who wants it. Mesh businesses are still businesses. Unlike libraries, they still need to be run in ways that actually make money. But if the exciting vision Gansky paints in this book really were to achieve its full potential, it could helps us maintain upward social mobility – and the American Dream – by ensuring the advantages that come with investing in technology aren’t just experienced by those who can afford to own. Access over ownership may not solve all these problems, but it might be a path for addressing at least some of them.