When sharing economy goes corporate: LiquidSpace's work space rental goes enterprise-level

By Erin Griffith , written on March 29, 2013

From The News Desk

There's a tension between the flashy, venture-backed sharing economy companies gracing the cover of glossy magazines, and the pure-of-heart collaborative consumption community -- the original sharers, barterers, car-poolers, and couch surfers that feel the term has, of late, been co-opted and perverted with money-hungry capitalism.

One company that's mostly stayed out of that debate is LiquidSpace. The company may have done that by not trying to align itself with every list, feature, and press mention related to the collaborative consumption. Or it may have done that by co-opting the idea in an even more radical way. Liquidspace takes sharing economy the ideal of recycling unused resources, and sells it to corporations. There will be no accusations of selling out, because LiquidSpace's goal from the very start has been to sell.

The company's desk rental platform has now begun enterprise-level pilot programs with a small group of large Fortune 500 companies, most notably Accenture. The integration allows their employees to work wherever they choose (within LiquidSpace's growing network of 750 venues), particularly when they're traveling. The idea is that when employees are given a choice as to where they might be able to work or take meetings, they feel empowered and engaged. It may cut down on real estate costs for the parent company, too.

Beyond that, companies are beginning to implement Liquidspace's tools internally as a way to book meeting rooms and dole out empty desks to traveling employees. I can attest that the conference room booking software used by any large company I've worked for has been clunky, unreliable and confusing; LiquidSpace's software (or really anything built in the last 15 years) has to be an upgrade.

In this way, LiquidSpace is using the OpenTable model for available workspaces. First OpenTable got the restaurants to use its software internally as a way to manage their seating system. Then they began taking reservations on the platform. LiquidSpace believes that, as more companies implement their enterprise offering, they'll also see the value of employees booking rooms and desks outside of the platform when they're traveling or taking meetings.

But no one accused OpenTable of participating in the sharing economy. I posed the same question to Mark Gilbreath, CEO of LiquidSpace.

"We're bringing sharing economy concepts to the enterprise," he says. One can quibble over the definition of the sharing economy (and oh have we), but Gilbreath defines it as "driving utilization of assets and bringing the purchasing decision down to an individual." Liquidspace takes existing inventory and resources and puts it to use, just like RelayRides, Airbnb or TaskRabbit. Only, within corporations. (Individuals use LiquidSpace's desk rental, too.)

On the flip side, the most well-known of LiquidSpace's competitors, LooseCubes, was closely aligned with the idea of the sharing economy. Last November the site closed its doors suddenly, despite having raised $7.8 million just five months prior. The service was popular and had quickly expanded globally, but most blame the company's business model, which did not which did not charge users to reserve desk space, for its demise. LooseCubes' management disagreed with investors over its future and much of that $7.8 million never actually made it to the company.

LiquidSpace -- also venture-backed -- has earned early revenue by, well, charging users. Gilbreath will argue his company never competed with LooseCubes, but the models are too similar to ignore a comparison. Others, including Neardesk, Sharedesk, Desktime and PivotDesk, compete with their own twists on desk-sharing. With LiquidSpace's approach of targeting employees of large corporations (as opposed to the cash-strapped freelancers and creative types targeted by LooseCubes), it has found a market willing to pay for its office space inventory. This month the expects 25,000 bookings on its site, the majority of which are external, public bookings (which cost money).

In that way, it's less "sharing economy" in the most literal sense of the word, and much more "inventory re-allocation." For everyone, corporations included.

[Image courtesy Tiger Pixel]