The On-Demand Economy: The Mobile Revolution Is Everywhere

“On-demand” is kind of a strange term. “Demand” itself is often ambiguous, one of those words whose meaning shifts depending on the inflection or target. A child demanding something is uncouth, as is the customer during off-hour bull sessions by retail employees (“He demanded that I find him pants that fit, which frankly don’t exist.”). Demanding can be selfish, or it can be the mark of someone uncompromising in their quest for the best – which also can be selfish. You can demand excellence, and demand something of high quality, but that doesn’t always mean it exists, or, frankly, that we deserve it.

But “on-demand” is different. “On-demand” implies the idea that what we are looking for is out there, somewhere in the aether, and all we need to do is find it, or, more to the point, find that right company that will give it to us. It is the growing basis of our economy, and, even greater, of our sense of what the economy should be. It is the touch-screen of our imagination, and, according to a new report, it is going to keep growing. On-demand, in the final analysis, is the heart of our mobile technology.

This man demands to get what he wants- presumably a bigger hat.
Image from

Bringing the past into the present

At Re/Code yesterday, Shervin Pishevar and Scott Stanford, the co-founders and managing partners of San Francisco-based SherpaVentures, published an article talking about the need for the on-demand economy. They told a story about being in a pub in Ireland, which is redundant, and seeing signs for various services posted on the wall.

One wall of the pub was completely covered in advertisements — an ad for a tailor, one for a handyman, another for a chauffeur, a hairstylist, a bed-and-breakfast, and so on. The ads listed no websites, no Twitter handles, no Facebook pages, not even physical addresses. Instead, they displayed phone numbers, the business owners’ names, and the promise of goods and services delivered directly to your home. The very nature of village life drives the creation of this nearly ideal customer experience: Personalized service and near-instant accessibility.

This, of course, struck them as being somewhat remarkable, and a direct predecessor to today’s economy. Back in the village days, you knew who to turn to for your hair needs, for food, for…sheep-shearing or porridge-making (I don’t know a lot about villages). Then we got away from that, with huge impersonal companies, but now we are rebounding, as you can get whatever you need. This is highlighted by companies like Uber or AirBnB, getting you rides or rooms when you need them.

They also linked to their new report on the “on-demand” economy, which goes into great detail about why it is important and why it is going to stay. There are three main factors, all of which were present in that Irish village, and which they think can be replicated by mobile technology.

  • Trust: Buyers can interact directly with sellers, and are able to judge them without the need for intermediaries.
  • Collaboration: We’re all in this together, and being able to trade can be a great thing. You have a car, and I have my top-notch porridge, and maybe we can trade. This reduces wasteful competition.
  • Geographic proximity: This is a huge one, because it dovetails with what can be irritatingly known as “being a locavore,” or, if you are less concerned with nomenclature, as “caring where things come from.” Even without the health and ecological implications of food or other goods being trucked in from who knows where, we all feel a sense of pride in our community, and want to support it if for no other reason than to make it a better and more livable place. If we can access goods and services from our community directly, rather than having to go all over, not only are things delivered to us more quickly and while they’re fresher, but they bind us more to where we live.

None of this seems radical. And if you could have some sort of Brigadoon action with that Irish village (which, yes, was in Scotland), or maybe wake up a Rip van Winkle, they’d be stunned that we would have ever done anything different. Of course you go to the guy down the street for your shoes and call the local horseman for a ride. It’s crazy to have done it any other way.

But even back in those days, it wasn’t so simple. If the porridge maker wasn’t around, well, you were out of porridge. You’d have no idea when they’d be back. This, as is argued, is the village economy combined with our ability to communicate instantly. I could decide I want someone to pick up my laundry and someone else to deliver food and within minutes both could be done. This combines the best of both worlds, and is the heart of our mobile technology. Making life easier and connecting us to our community. This is the promise we’ve been waiting for.

Or is it? There is a fascinating debate online about this, one that has started in full this week, with a bunch of interesting articles. They’ll keep growing, and we’ll come back on Friday to look at the arguments. But it is good to know that, no matter what we think of the on-demand economy, on-demand opinions are never going to go anywhere.

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