Yes, Airbnb just reached cashflow profitability and could be heading to IPO promised land. But, in the long-term, could the technology that gave rise to bitcoin and other digital currencies emerge as a serious threat? Distributed ledger systems can dis-intermediate sharing platforms, say blockchain advocates, eating into the fees that startups like Airbnb, Uber, and Upwork currently charge.
Instead of a centralized system of exchange, where sharing economy companies stand in the middle of transactions, blockchains open up a world where interactions are automated and the power of the network is distributed to users. That lowers transaction costs (and perhaps prices) and creates a communication system more akin to email or the web. Rather than sending orders to a company that then finds customers for them–like when you search for houses in Paris on Airbnb and it finds a suitable place–on a blockchain-based network, the matching is done using protocols that route orders automatically.
This may sound far-fetched, but blockchain-based sharing startups are already beginning to emerge. Look, for example, at Bee Token, which is being developed by several ex-Uber programmers. Based in San Francisco, the startup aims to be just like Airbnb, complete with glossy photos, user ratings, reviews, and hosting rules. But instead of paying in dollars or euros, guests use site-specific tokens to rent rooms that they purchase using either bitcoin or ether (paying for the tokens with credit cards will become possible at a later date, the startup says).
The other big difference compared to Airbnb: while the former charges hosts 15% on every transaction on its platform, with Bee Token, hosts will pay no fees to rent out their rooms. The platform, which is soft-launching in the next three weeks, plans to make money from licensing its technology to other startups, and by charging fees of 1%-2% if users choose to pay for rooms using bitcoin or ether instead of buying tokens. (Token systems incentivize users to buy into their currency to push up its value.)