An umbrella-sharing startup in China already lost most of its 300,000 umbrellas

Gone with the wind.
Gone with the wind.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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The sharing economy has become the lost-and-stolen economy in China, where it took only a few weeks for an umbrella-sharing startup to lose nearly all 300,000 of its umbrellas. Shanghaiist reports:

Only a few weeks after starting up operations in 11 cities across China, Sharing E Umbrella announced that it had lost almost all of its 300,000 umbrellas.

The Shenzhen-based company was launched earlier this year with a 10 million yuan investment. The concept was similar to those that bike-sharing startups have used to (mostly) great success. Customers use an app on their smartphone to pay a 19 yuan deposit fee for an umbrella, which costs just 50 jiao for every half hour of use.

It is bad that all the umbrellas went missing. But let’s focus on the real question here: Why are we “sharing” umbrellas?

Company founder Zhao Shuping reportedly said he was inspired by the success of China’s bike-sharing startups to believe that “everything on the street can now be shared,” given the right system. Apparently undeterred by the cost (about 60 yuan, or $9 each) of each lost umbrella, Zhao said he still plans to put 30 million more umbrellas into circulation across China by the end of the year.

A basic goal of sharing start ups like Uber and Lyft is to make “sharing” a ride cheaper than owning a car. This can be an attractive proposition. Cars are expensive to own and also to maintain (in cities like New York you either pay a small fortune for parking or resign yourself to dealing with a dystopia of alternate-side parking rules). Most cars are also underutilized. As Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer loves to say, the average vehicle is parked 96% of the time. For the infrequent driver, it makes sense to spend money on public transit and ride-hailing apps instead of sinking it into a car that hardly ever gets used.

Bike-sharing programs, which took off in China this year, have a similar appeal. Owning a bike isn’t as expensive as owning a car, but the costs can still add up, especially with repairs and maintenance, and the constant possibility that your bike might be stolen. The designated parking parks that often accompany bike-sharing programs also take care of the perpetual problem of where to park. The beauty of a program like Citi Bike in New York, or richly valued Chinese bike-sharing startups Ofo and Mobike, is that instead of investing in your own bike, you pay a small fee to use one and outsource the parking, caretaking, and risk (already a problem for Ofo and Mobike).

The same logic does not apply to umbrellas.

An umbrella is not a particularly expensive thing to buy nor does it require any maintenance. Sure, you might want to rent one on-the-go if it started raining and your umbrella were at home, but renting hardly seems likely to replace umbrella ownership in the long run. Umbrellas are not like cars or bikes. We don’t need to “share” them.