Helen Bui jettisoned almost everything she owned when she moved to Asia to “take a break indefinitely and find myself.” She lived out of a suitcase for 18 months as she traveled the continent.
Recently she relocated to San Francisco to start a business helping East Asian women become engineers, but she still wants to “live lightly.” So instead of buying furniture, she rented it from a company called Feather,which offers “subscriptions” to pieces from the likes of West Elm and Pottery Barn.
“It’s so freeing not to own any furniture,” said Bui, 38, who pays $300 a month for a six-month rental of a mattress, bed, sofa, coffee table, lamp, armchair and TV stand for her Noe Valley studio. “It was amazing to just rent stuff, get it delivered and not have to deal with it.”
Feather, founded last year and based in New York and San Francisco, is among a growing number of companies catering to people who want to have things without owning them. Think music (Spotify, Pandora), entertainment (Netflix), cars (Hertz on Demand, Avis’ ZipCar, GM Maven) and designer clothing (Rent the Runway).
Millennials in particular like the pay-as-you-go system.
“This shift is partly economic and partly technological,” said Alexandrea Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at New York’s Mercy College and author of the forthcoming book, “Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy.”
“Millennials are weighted down with student loans and not making a whole lot of money. The ubiquity of technology makes it possible for ‘paid sharing’ to move into fields like baby gear and furniture.”
There’s also a feel-good aspect, she said, from not just saving money but saving the Earth by using fewer resources and not tossing items in landfill.
Skyler Wang, a doctoral student in sociology at UC Berkeley who studies the sharing economy, said the trend is also fueled by the sheer number of products available.
“A huge part has to do with the fact that we want change and access to different things,” he said, pointing to companies that offer subscriptions to art as an example. “People don’t necessarily want to commit to just one thing anymore.”
One of the earliest San Francisco companies in the field started with the idea of “sharing” time to do odd jobs.
“TaskRabbit started around the mission of sharing resources in a community, hiring folks to help with errands and tasks so you don’t have to do them,” said founder Leah Busque, now a partner at VC firm Fuel Capital, which invested in Feather and used the company to completely outfit its 2,500-square-foot Burlingame office for less than $700 a month.
“This next generation of consumers is taking that flexibility to another level and applying it to stuff: houses, cars and now furniture, which is the third largest asset class people spend money on,” Busque said.
She’s an avid consumer of such products herself, renting clothing through Armoire (cheaper than dry cleaning, she said), staying in Airbnbs on vacation and taking Lyft to work.
Feather CEO Jay Reno moved 11 times in the 13 years after graduating from college. “When you switch apartments, you might still like the furniture you previously bought but it doesn’t fit your next place physically or stylistically,” he said. “The layout may have changed, the bedroom is smaller or the dining room is nonexistent.”
He also saw an environmental problem: an “unhealthy” amount of furniture gets discarded, largely cheaper pieces that don’t wear well.
“I love not committing to things,” said Yuka Ohishi, a program manager at Pinterest who just moved with her husband into a Potrero Hill condo. They rented a bed ($57 a month), two nightstands ($24 each), sectional sofa ($75) and lounge chair ($42) from Feather.
“I do a lot of Rent the Runway for my clothes, and for a car we rent from Zipcar or Getaround,” she said. “We’re really trying not to own as much as possible.”
But Feather’s approach carries some baggage. It must buy, store and move all its furniture, an expensive endeavor. Reno said it has a financing structure that lets it own furniture worth much more than the $3.5 million it’s raised.
Ravenelle of Mercy College worries that Feather’s ease of use — press a button and furniture shows up — could undermine customers who end up spending much more than they would have by shopping furniture sales or buying used items.
Feather’s method — buying furniture and renting it out — contrasts with the other sharing economy model: facilitating person-to-person rentals.
That’s what Turo and Getaround do with cars and Airbnb does with home rentals. Those companies invest heavily in technology but can expand quickly because they don’t have the capital-intensive need to buy cars or build homes.
Another case in point: San Francisco startup BabyQuip, which lets traveling families rent baby and kid equipment such as cribs, car seats, high chairs and strollers. A network of about 315 people in 250 markets provide the equipment.
“They own the gear, deliver it, set it up, pick it up and clean it,” CEO Fran Maier said.
About half the customers are grandparents hosting their families; 30 percent are people renting vacation rentals and the rest are hotel visitors.
“Millennials care about doing and having experiences, rather than owning,” Maier said. “We’re taking advantage of that.”