In 1995, Pierre Omidyar inadvertently built a new company from a side project--a company that has since helped to redefine the current economic environment. Originally known as AuctionWeb, eBay facilitated a new economic order, laying the groundwork for digital platforms that matched people who were looking for something with people who were selling that thing. What's most interesting about eBay's platform is that it wasn't a new concept. In fact, it was simply a modern twist on the oldest way of exchanging goods and service - the barter system. 

This return to self-sufficiency and communal exchanges threatens many of today's established industries. For those at the helm of traditional organizations, this is war. It pits new generations against old ways of thinking and changes the rules for how businesses operate.  

Omidyar's formidable exchange based platform has provided the new generation with a roadmap, allowing them to move away from their dependence on big business and corporate infrastructure. It's literally democratized the economy and with it comes a promise of convenience and simplicity. A promise for a world where people govern, provide and exchange goods and services in ways that serve both buyers and sellers. It proves that people can maintain and balance the economic order of things in open and "free" marketplaces which they control. Ultimately, it has empowered consumers.

eBay was just the beginning. Exchange platforms have paved the way for many of today's most recognized and disruptive brands. In a recent TED talk by Uber's founder Travis Kalanick, he describes the meteoric rise of the earliest known shared cab service known as the Jitney, which begun in 1914. At 5 cents a ride, the Jitney was so successful, that within it's first year there were 62,000 operating across the country. Essentially, it was a business born out of necessity. Streetcars and public transportation had become so overcrowded that those with cars recognized the opportunity to earn an income by offering strap hangers a ride. But it was too successful. In fact it posed such a threat to various city's streetcars and other means of public transportation that by 1916 local governments had imposed regulations that all but destroyed the jitney business.

This sort of regulatory "bullying" may have worked a century ago, but it can't stop the rise of exchange based marketplaces today. While companies like Uber & Airbnb have and continue to battle against regulations, the marketplaces they've created are simply too big, too valuable and too popular to be pressured to shut down.  

So while traditional businesses are being challenged to rethink how they can compete within a new economy, the question that remains is, what's next? If exchange based businesses are actually a recreation of the age-old barter system, where will the next big shake-up happen?

One area of potential disruption rests in how people actually transact with one another and what currency they'll choose to use. Borrowing from our knowledge of how barter economies operate, we know transactions occur based either by the exchange of certain goods for other goods or by the exchange of valued objects for goods. In the old west, cowboys who didn't have enough money for a drink would often exchange a .45 caliber bullet for a tot of liquor at their local saloon (this is why a tot today is called a shot). 

We've already seen the rise of non-governable economic platforms such as the dark web's Silk Road. Underlying the silk road's financial exchange was the often mentioned but little understood cryptocurrency Bitcoin. For all the media coverage Bitcoin's received, the vast majority of it has been in connection with it's use as part of sinister and non-traceable exchanges. The reality however is alternative currencies are alive and well and they may become the next component of an exchange based economy run by  people as opposed to corporations. Think back to the rise of PayPal. While this wasn't a cryptocurrency, it ushered in the age of transacting outside the walls of a "traditional" bank.

Raúl Carrillo sheds an incredible light in his piece: Alternative Currencies Are Bigger Than Bitcoin: How They're Building Prosperity From London to Kenya. Written almost a year ago, he explores how alternative currencies are providing real value for people from both established and third world countries. In it he explores how alternative currencies (well beyond cryptocurrencies) are empowering people in a monetarily unequal world. 

In addition to Carrillo's perspective, Paul Kemp-Robertson also provides an enlightening look in his TED Talk on how various alternative currencies are taking shape around the world ranging from bottles of tide detergent to the trading of loyalty points.

Considering how each generation ushers in a new world order with it comes a new economic reality, we'd be remiss to think that established financial systems are any more immune to disruption than established corporations have been. It's no secret that the economy is under immense pressure. For innovators and innovative companies, this pressure provides  an incredible opportunity to think about and introduce new ways of doing everything. People need to start asking themselves how they will thrive in an economy that looks nothing like the economy they know today. Banking systems in particular have to consider more than simply cryptocurrencies, they have to assess what their business might be in a world run by alternative currencies. 

While there's little value in projecting too far into the future and constructing an imaginary world a 100 years from now, there is immense value in thinking about where opportunity might exist. Finding this opportunity starts with asking yourself a question that's as old as time--what's next?

Published on: Apr 8, 2016