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BOOTSTRAPPING

Sharing Economy: Are You All Done With That?

The newest start-up in the often lucrative (but also often questionably legal) peer-to-peer space is eyeing your plate.

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When we read that a new start-up could be facing Uber-sized regulatory scrutiny, and that the company has a pretty cringe-inducing premise--it's an app that allows strangers to give away, sell, or barter leftover meals--we had to get the founder on the phone.

Yes, you read that right--leftovers. The sharing economy is dandy for buying a secondhand nightstand or renting a power drill. But, food? You've got some meatloaf you're pretty over, but, hey, it'll be a tasty treat for someone else? 

This is definitely a head-scratcher of a concept, but it is decidedly not a joke. Turns out the 25-year-old Seattle resident behind LeftoverSwap is really earnest and seems like a nice guy. His name is Dan Newman, and he says he's a little taken by surprise that his just-in-beta app has attracted any attention. It's a three-year-old idea that he and his former University of Michigan roommate (a computer science major who works at a big company in Seattle and would like to remain anonymous) have been building on the side recently. They decided that since 40 percent of all human food goes to waste, and hunger is a major problem even in the wealthiest country on the planet, so they'd try to solve that problem. 

"When we thought of it we laughed at it, because it was so ludicrous," Newman says. "Today, with the sharing economy taking off, it's on that frontier of possibilities." 

The pair were a bit inspired by Couchsurfing--you know, like Airbnb minus the fast-growing-company aspect, but with a do-some-social-good bent.

"Really a lot of that sharing economy, it's almost, yes, you do share things, but there's always the cost," he says. "But think of Couchsurfing: it's more altruistic, and trust-based, and doing something for the good of humanity. We want to align ourselves with that sort of ideal."

Newman was a business and political science major, and isn't planning on quitting his freelance gig writing for the Motley Fool. But this week, he's been dealing with a lot of press about his sort-of-audacious, sort-of-silly, app. Here's some more of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

How does the app actually work best?
Say you order a pizza, and you have half left over. You take your iPhone, snap a picture of it, and put it up on our database. On the other side of things, say you get home late from work and maybe want to not just sit at home and watch Netflix, but want to hang out with someone new, you can fire up Leftover Swap and find not only dinner, but someone to go meet.

So one can also use LeftoverSwap to meet people? Do you think some relationships will come out of this?
That's one of the aims of this. Technology does a great job of connecting people across the world, but has done little for people locally, for neighborhoods or apartment buildings. And, yes, I understand the irony of creating an app on a smartphone to connect people nearby.

There's also an irony in creating an iPhone app for people who are less likely to own one--ostensibly lower-income folks, right?
Are you familiar with the SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program? If you are 185 percent above the poverty line, you don't qualify [Editor: this actually appears to be more like 130 percent federally, but can vary depending on location.]--and that basically means you make $20,000. People say "how can you have a smartphone and still be hungry? Mobile phones are a pretty big necessity today. For now, we'll just see who we reach with this.

As the SF Weekly has noted, it's illegal to sell food to the public without a permit…
We obviously are not selling food. We are just a service that connects people, and we have little reach in what they do once they're connected. We're going with more of a "free" thing now. But maybe if you find someone who's a baker giving away pies, and realize you are getting a free pie, you could give a little donation to cover the cost.

Don't people say "ew" when you tell them about swapping leftovers?
Of course, of course. But some people think it's really cool.

OK, I'm sorry, but why did you call it LeftoverSwap?
I don't know! What else do you call it?

But this is actually a business?
We are filing those papers today, in fact.

What about making money? What's the plan there?
We'll just take the Facebook stance on that right now and see if people actually are using it, and figure out our costs from there.

You haven't taken outside investment, and you admittedly don't have a plan to make money. Are you sure this isn't a performance piece to raise awareness, or maybe a joke to inspire a TED talk poking fun at Silicon Valley?
(Laughs) Maybe the latter. But no, it's a little like a non-profit or a B-corp. There's a reason I chose Seattle over San Francisco. I was at a party there once and I saw two people introducing themselves, and one said, "oh yeah, I know you from Twitter." I just thought, "this is over." But, well, I'm a hater in general.

IMAGE: Hill Street Studios/Getty
Last updated: Jul 26, 2013




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