These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.
Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.
The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts.
Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.
“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”
Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.
The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.
GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.
Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet.
Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners.
Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway.
Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it.
Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.
But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally.
Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers.
“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.”
Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model.
This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big.
“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.”
“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”
*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces.