Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why online reputation needs to be portable

Last week I quit my job at Connect.Me, where we tried to build a social reputation network. There were many ideas about what could become of it, but the one that made the most sense to me was portable reputation: if I've got 4.95 stars as a SideCar driver, I would like to somehow apply those stars to my Airbnb profile.

Monday night we had a completely nightmarish Airbnb experience, which prompted me to write this post.

We Airbnb a studio on the first floor of our house to make the house give something back after taking so much, and we've been doing really well in terms of reviews and bookings. It also feels amazing to have a business, sort of. So Monday night I was driving home from Palo Alto when our guest called to inform me that their two laptops, an iPod, and an address book were gone.

As my readers know, we live in a pretty rough part of town (not really, anymore). Just a few years ago  in 2006, 2007, 2008  I expected to hear gunshots at night. I think I almost got used to it! Bam, bam, bam  whatever. Also, of course, plenty, plenty of muggings.

But burglaries? Unheard of.

There were no signs of forcible entry at the studio. Everything was neat, nothing ransacked. Expensive bikes and thousands of dollars worth of tools were left untouched. The way it happened, I think, is someone walked up to our gate, took out a key, opened it, walked to the studio, took out a key, opened it, collected the laptops, locked the studio, locked the gate, and went off to find a pawnshop.

The person who took the stuff knew exactly where to go.

Occam's razor suggests the following: a previous guest duplicated our key, waited for everyone to leave, then helped themselves to whatever they could find inside.

We started talking to the neighbors, did they see anyone? Our neighbor from across the fence  he restores antiques at home  says yeah, I saw a couple come to your place, they looked kind of suspicious, so I just watched. They were in and out in less than a minute, both carrying things.

We talked to him some more  the time matched. It was when everyone was gone. He said they whispered, stopped to take a look around, then went inside.

So we show him a picture  "yep, these were the peeps that were creeping into your place".

What the fuck?  we think.

What the fuck is this: we had to get reviews to build up our reputation and increase our price, so we were in no position to deny people reservations based on their lack of reputation. It's a chicken and egg problem.

Airbnb uses pretty faint signals for verifying members: phone number, FB, Twitter, LinkedIn accounts. These things are basically irrelevant in the world of shared economy. What's not irrelevant is reputation from other shared economy businesses, like SideCar or TaskRabbit.

It's understandable that eBay or Amazon will never want to make their member reputation portable  they will lose business as a result.

But shared economy as a whole will benefit tremendously if businesses allow a "fourth party" to serve as a reputation service. This would also help alleviate one of the biggest headaches of launching a new service: building a reputation system. If I were able to import my SideCar driver reputation into Airbnb, we would not have started from zero and maybe we would have been able to be more picky with our guests from the beginning.

Are you looking for a startup idea? Make reputation portable for the shared economy.