Thoughts: ‘The Mesh’ by Lisa Gansky

by Kim on March 8, 2011 · 15 comments

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I hate taking care of my car.

When I first moved to Madison a couple years ago, I didn’t have a car here with me. I walked to and from campus and took the bus to get groceries and do other errands. Once Boyfriend and I started dating, we started going on “grocery store dates” so I could use his car instead of the bus (What a sweetheart, right?). And you know what? Most of the time, I didn’t miss having a car at all.

Once I graduated and started having to commute to work, I bought a used car from my parents. While I like the independence having a car gives me, writing a check for $110 a month for parking, paying for gas and regular¬†maintenance, and saving up for insurance and emergencies gets a little bit tedious. I don’t know anything about cars, so every weird noise or odd clanking puts me in a bit of a panic about whether there is a problem. It’s stressful.

I’ve often wondered if there was a middle ground — a way to have a car when I needed one, but not have to worry about the upkeep issues. Enter a new kind of business: a car sharing service. A company like ZipCar owns a fleet of vehicles that are parked throughout a city. Users sign up to be part of the service, pay a fee, and then reserve one of the cars whenever needed. It seems like a win-win.

Businesses like this one are part of a new business culture, The Mesh, which author Lisa Gansky explores in her book¬†The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing. I can’t remember how I ended up with this book for review, but I pulled it off the shelf a couple weeks ago because I was feeling like reading something different.

Mesh businesses rely on a principle of sharing, that it makes sense to share items that are high-cost but that are used infrequently (cars, power tools, expensive jewelry, that sort of thing). The book profiles a number of businesses that are taking advantage of this phenomenon. According to Gansky,

All Mesh businesses rely on a basic premise: when information about goods is shared, the value of those goods increases, for the business, for individuals, and for the community.

I’d characterize The Mesh as “nonfiction light” — it’s not narrative nonfiction, but it’s definitely not dense. In fact, the book is more driven by examples and anecdotes than facts or statistics. That makes it more interesting, at least to me, as a book that sparks ideas about the business world and how it works. Overall, it’s pretty light on citations, which is both good and bad. Lack of citations makes it quick to read, but I found myself asking, “Really, how do you know that?” pretty often.

One of the reasons I think I found the book interesting is because of how it connects to my job as an editor at a magazine for design engineers. Gansky writes a bit about design principles for mesh products, and how they should be durable, flexible, reparable, and sustainable. While I think those are things we might hope for in anything we buy, they seem to make a lot of sense for products that are going to be shared.

Another thing that struck me about the book is the way Gansky recognizes the way marketing is changing on a world reliant on social information. People rely more and more on personal recommendations rather than professional reviewers, and good service means a lot. Gansky quotes marketing expert Steven Addis, who explains the power of vocal consumers have a lot of power:

It’s not your consumer power that terrifies marketers. It’s your way over millions of other consumers as a curator. A curator with unlimited resources to research products, review them for others, and expose the disingenuous. A curator with the ability to transmit on a mass scale. And a curator with credibility corporations have all but squandered.

I’m not sure this is the kind of nonfiction book I’d recommend if the topic doesn’t seem interesting. Gansky’s writing is fine and she explains the principle well, but it really is a business book rather than the sort of story-driven nonfiction I usually love to read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion (Kathy) March 8, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I’d never heard the term mesh business, but they do make sense. I bet my husband would enjoy this book.

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Kim March 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm

bermudaonion: I hadn’t heard of the term earlier, but the book makes them seem like a great idea.

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Lu March 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

So have you actually tried using the ZipCars? Is there the same age restrictions on them as rental cars? How does insurance work? This is so interesting to me. I’m interested in this topic, but I’m not sure I want to read a whole book on it. Maybe some wikipedia articles ;)

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Kim March 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Lu: I haven’t rented on myself, but I know a couple people in Madison who did it. I think the insurance is part of the fee that you pay to be part of the service, but I’m not sure about the age restrictions. The book is pretty short — 260 pages-ish, I think — and easily skimmable.

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Care March 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

There you go! Light-Bulb – this idea is perfect for YOU: why not participate in a car-share and then write about your experience? :) Heck, maybe your job could even get involved somehow.

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Kim March 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Care: Ha, that is a fun idea, except now I already have a car so I don’t really need to use it :)

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Ash March 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm

I think this sounds like a really interesting idea, but I’m mostly interested in your discussion about cars. I didn’t miss having a car my first two years of college and we rarely use the one we have now. It’s like I’m paying 120 dollars a month just so I have the ability to drive back to Des Moines when I need to. So yeah… it would be nice to have a different option.

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Ash: Gansky uses the car example a lot in the book, so it might be worth grabbing just to skim those sections. I use my car everyday, but only for commuting. I feel like I could get away with sharing a car with someone, if they had a different sort of car lifestyle than I do.

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Christy (A Good Stopping Point) March 13, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Not really about the book, but about the car comment: I lived without a car until I was 26, mostly for financial reasons. I got a lot of rides from people and made do with the sometimes frustrating public transportation options in my suburban area. I love having a car now, but I dream about living somewhere where I don’t have to use it quite so much.

I often think the ‘sharing’ model would work well for sports-utility and other large-capacity vehicles. I rarely need to transport large items, but if I needed to, my little Corolla wouldn’t cut it. I think a lot of people would only need a small car most of the time, but so many people around where I live drive these enormous vehicles. Of course they must be hurting at the pump right now!

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Kim March 16, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Christy: I shouldn’t use my car as much as I do, given that I live in a downtown area with decent public transportation. But I’m sort of lazy about it.

I totally agree about the SUV and large vehicle comment. That’s a great idea for getting a way to transport things occasionally.

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BuriedInPrint March 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

Although I usually prefer a stronger narrative thrust to the non-fiction that wriggles onto my reading stack this one’s subject matter does sound appealing, so I’ll give it a peek: thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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Kim March 19, 2011 at 8:48 am

BuriedInPrint: It’s a pretty quick read, and easy to skim. If the topic is interesting, I’d give it a look.

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Jennifer March 23, 2011 at 10:09 pm

This is a very interesting topic that intrigues me although I’m not entirely sure I would enjoy the book. I am mostly into reading narrative nonfiction unless I’m reading nonfiction as a resource for a paper or something like that. Still, every now and then I pick up something unexpected just so I can learn about something new.

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Kim March 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Jennifer: There’s not really anything narrative about this book, so it’s not a book you go in reading for story. But as a book on an idea, it’s pretty intriguing, and written in such a sway that I think it would be easy to skim and pick out the parts that were most interesting.

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