This Umbrella-Share Program Has One Giant Flaw

There are estimated to be 15 umbrella-sharing services in China. One just lost pretty much all of its inventory. (Photo: credit_00/flickr)

A startup company aiming to be the Airbnb of rain protection has found out the hard way that people aren’t so good at sharing umbrellas.

Since launching in 11 of China’s largest cities in April, Shenzhen-based Sharing E Umbrella has lost nearly 300,000 of its rainbow-colored umbrellas. No match for the ruinous trifecta of theft, forgetfulness and strong winds, the concept was inspired by and works much like run-of-the-mill bike share schemes. Paying a 19 yuan (a little under $3) deposit via a smartphone app, customers were supposed to borrow and return the company’s shareable umbrellas from a network of self-serve public rental stands.

However, the code-locked, GPS-enabled umbrellas — which cost about 70 cents to use per half-hour — never found their way back. Their rental hubs, located near bus stops and subway entrances, all sit nearly empty now — a reminder that umbrellas, unlike bikes, cars and kitchen appliances, are something that should not be borrowed.

The concept of an umbrella-sharing service is not all that ludicrous. Umbrellas are one of those things that we frequently forget when leaving the house or that we might need tout de suite in a particularly wet pickle. My small but motley collection of half-broken umbrellas was not acquired in a premeditated fashion. I bought them because I got stuck in the rain. Most were bought on the street.

If the skies were to open up and I was close to an outdoor umbrella rental rail, there's a good chance I'd beeline toward it. But here’s the thing: As forgetful as I am about leaving the house with an umbrella, even when I know rain is on the way, I’m even worse at leaving my umbrellas in places outside of my home. I lose them frequently. That can sting — another $5 down the drain — but at the end of the day, umbrellas are inexpensive and ubiquitous. People are both lazy and possessive with them. In a way, umbrellas are meant to be lost.

So, yeah, good luck getting me to return the thing.

An umbrella being used in Beijing
Umbrella sharing is convenient for the smartphone-wielding public but, boy, is it impractical from a business standpoint. (Photo: Hsing Wei/flickr)

There's $2.7 million in lost umbrellas out there ...

This isn’t to say that forgetfulness is squarely to blame for Sharing E Umbrella’s disappearing inventory. It's safe to assume that a fair number of the umbrellas were pilfered by customers with no intention of returning them given that, as the Guardian notes, there is no penalty for unreturned rentals.

Sharing E Umbrella founder Zhao Shuiping launched the company with a 100 million yuan ($1.4 million) investment. Considering the now out-of-circulation umbrellas cost about $9 a pop, it would cost $2.7 million to replace all 300,000 of them. Zhao, undeterred, is pledging to not only replace the MIA umbrellas but expand his inventory. Ultimately, he wants to provide the public with 30 million of them.

“We were really impressed by the bike-sharing model,” Zhao recently told Chinese media. "It made users think that everything on the street can now be shared.”

Nope. Umbrellas can be bought, lost, found, stolen or destroyed. But evidently not shared.

The craziest thing here isn’t that someone invested a million dollars in an umbrella-sharing startup. It’s that Zhao has competition. And a lot of it.

According to an article published last month on English-language Chinese news website the Sixth Tone, there are at least 14 other dedicated umbrella-sharing schemes across China including Hong Kong’s Umbrella Here, a service that’s been around since 2014 and provides Bluetooth alerts and weather data.

While there's been plenty of skepticism toward for-hire umbrella schemes, the concept has been met with some enthusiasm. An editorial published in state-run newspaper the People's Daily called umbrella sharing "a sign of progress in public service, and a show of human care, releasing the warmth of the city."

rainbow umbrella in china
The sharing economy has exploded in China with bike- and umbrella-share startups proving particularly popular. (Photo: Kristoff Buckow/flickr)

The sharing economy: A return to China's communist roots?

China’s wealth of umbrella-sharing services was borne from a sharing boom that’s struck the nation over the last year or so. And because things move at an exaggerated pace in the Middle Kingdom, China’s sharing economy has gone from trendy to “peak” in just a matter of months.

“After all these years, China is finally embracing its communist roots,” Andy Tian, co-founder of Asia Innovations Group in Beijing, recently told the New York Times. “That’s the essence of communism: communal sharing.”

Along with umbrellas, other oddball/questionable objects now available for sharing in China include basketballs. Yes, basketballs. And although China was a bit late to the game with bike shares, they are now hugely popular. And their investors aren’t afraid to throw a little shade at the umbrella and basketball folks.

“Sharing basketballs, sharing umbrellas — these are all bad ideas,” Allen Zhu, managing director at GSR Ventures, tells the Times. “They’re both very tied to a particular location, which makes it difficult for the company to expand.”

Chinese bike-share investors shouldn't get too cocky. Like Sharing E Umbrella, some Chinese bike-share startups have experienced an unfortunate and rapid depletion of bikes. As Shanghaiist notes, bike shares in both Beijing and Chongqing were recently forced to shutter just months after their respective launches because almost all of their bikes went out for a ride and never returned.