The other day I walked into a Peet’s in Oakland, looking for a woman I had never met. We were there to arrange a trade: She would give me three brand new Moleskine notebooks, and I would transfer 125 yerdle points to her account. It was a brief interaction, but a satisfying one. We had complementary views about things like beautiful notebooks and kids’ books — she didn’t need them, and I did — and we are now part of the same yerdle circle.
What’s yerdle, you might ask? It’s a company. And an idea. And if yerdle CEO Andy Ruben has his way, it’s also a new English word meaning the sharing of reusable objects via digital technology.
“The word ‘share’ has begun to lose its meaning,” Ruben, 41, explains while making French press coffee (a popular item in the yerdle ecosystem) for his guest in the company’s downtown San Francisco office. “When someone says they shared something, we think that they told somebody something. We [at yerdle] want to take the word back, and have it once again mean the sharing of things.” By reminding people of the basic, almost primal need to share, Ruben hopes yerdle will help create community while reducing our culture’s environment-busting obsession with manufacturing and buying new things.
Ruben, who co-founded yerdle with former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach and Zipcar technologist Carl Tashian, has one of the more unusual story arcs in contemporary business. An engineering graduate who began his career at Procter & Gamble, his success with corporate consulting landed him a job, in his 30s, as head of global strategy at Walmart. A series of both moral and business insights pushed him to take over Walmart’s new sustainability initiative, and he approached a very skeptical Werbach to discuss Walmart’s emerging policies. Together they created a program, adopted voluntarily by 800,000 Walmart employees, that helped change the culture of the world’s largest retailer.
But Ruben soon realized that helping Walmart reduce materials, and therefore waste, led to more sales, effectively wiping out the environmental gain. Ultimately, then, “the solution to reducing consumption must come from outside the industrial model.”
And so, on Black Friday in 2012, yerdle was launched to try to change the perspective of post-Thanksgiving shoppers throwing family time overboard to grab the newest electronics bursting out of malls nationwide.
Begun as a website, Bay Area–based yerdle shifted three months ago to a mobile app. “Yerdler” communities have sprung up quickly in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wis. — “the usual suspects,” Ruben jokes.
Yerdle is part of a new business trend called the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption.” Powered by the Internet, especially social media, this development includes companies such as Airbnb, through which people rent out their home or apartment, and Lyft, a service turning private cars into on-demand taxis.
Yerdle’s twist is that no money exchanges hands. “In today’s society, you can buy your way out of needing any community at all,” Ruben explains. “And that can be a very hollow existence.”
New yerdle members receive 250 credits right off the bat, and gain credits by posting and sharing items. They then use the credits to bid on items. So far, according to Ruben, 90 percent of all items posted on yerdle have found a new home.
Active in a havurah near his home in Burlingame, Ruben, who has two young children, helped found Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville, Ark., near Walmart’s headquarters. It’s likely, he says, that his work creating a tiny synagogue, powered not by commerce but by sharing and bartering, deepened his insights into how people could work together to create value without commerce.
“This is not a utopian idea,” he says, quoting the work of scholars Alan Fisk and Paul Hawke. “What’s new is the ability of technology to scale things.”
Ruben is betting that the yerdle network will attract people because of good deals (and the opportunity to clear out their stuff), and that they will stay because they are helping the environment and meeting interesting people.
“Almost every time I use a service like Lyft, when I get into the front seat of a stranger’s Corolla, I have the feeling that the world is a better place than I thought,” Ruben offers. Utopian or not, he hopes that yerdlers will come away from an exchange of goods feeling something similar.
Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.