CHAD MEYER and Omid Saadati met at a Bay Area coffee shop about a year ago, and the two young entrepreneurs immediately began talking about what everyone in San Francisco talks about when they first meet: how long it had taken to find parking. "We'd both been going around and around the block, and we'd seen all these prime parking spaces that we couldn't use," Meyer says. The prime spots were privately owned — driveways, carports, parking lots attached to apartment buildings — and many were unoccupied while their owners were off at work or on vacation or just out to the store. "We thought, Wouldn't it be great if there was some way that we could communicate with those owners and say, 'Hey, here's 10 bucks, here's 20 bucks. Can I just park in your space for two hours while I go to a restaurant?' "
In January, Meyer and Saadati launched Park Circa, a service that does just that. An owner registers his parking space, its availability, and his asking price on the site; drivers use their smartphones to search for spaces while they're looking for a spot. When a parker sees one in her price range, she checks into it on her phone. After she checks out, Park Circa transfers her payment to the owner, taking a 25% cut of its own. "We made it a simple process," Meyer says. "It doesn't require much work from anyone."
Park Circa is an example of a new trend in startups: Call it "people commerce," because in Silicon Valley, no new trend is worth mentioning unless it's been blessed with insider jargon. When we consider the economic potential of smartphones, we usually think of ways our phones will help us connect to the likes of Starbucks, Gap, and Home Depot. But the bigger story may be in how they give us the power to digitize the real world — to catalog the price and real-time availability of things that some people own, other people want, but which have so far been logistically impossible to trade.
Urban parking spaces are a classic example. There are about 320,000 census-defined households in San Francisco, and while 30% of them own no cars, the rest of the city owns enough vehicles to make up for the abstainers, meaning that on average, there's more than one car per household in the city. Yet there are only about 280,000 street-side parking spaces available. Meyer argues that if it works, a system like Park Circa could revolutionize parking in cities — suddenly, there'd be tens of thousands more spaces available, while owners would make money on their otherwise empty spots.
Indeed, people commerce has the potential to solve some of our most vexing transportation problems. A startup called Avego is one of several firms looking to reinvent carpooling through mobile apps. Not only does it let drivers and riders find each other on their phones, but it also — crucially — seamlessly splits the costs of the ride between them. Another company, Uber, wants to streamline the private-car business by allowing drivers with cars and free time to offer up their services to those who need a ride.
For companies looking to connect buyers and sellers on the go, the biggest hurdles might not be technological — they're more likely to be social and, in some cases, even legal. Park Circa is still in a very early beta phase, and Meyer says the main obstacle to its success is convincing homeowners that it's safe to let strangers use their parking spots. In some ways, then, people commerce might resemble the early days of trying to get people to buy stuff on the web. How scared were you the first time you bid on an eBay auction?
That wariness didn't last long. By developing reputation and insurance systems, sites like eBay and StubHub were able to create new marketplaces between ordinary folks. Mobile people commerce will likely evolve in the same way — and because it's everywhere, all the time, it could prove to be a much bigger deal.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.