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5Q :: UWS grad creates 'green' alternative to eBay

Punsri Abeywickrema is quickly making a name for himself in the online realm. With Rentalic.com, the 2000 University of Wisconsin-Superior alumnus has created a "greener" alternative to industry giant eBay.

Rentalic.com
Rentalic.com is the brainchild of 2000 University of Wisconsin-Superior alumnus Punsri Abeywickrema. Submitted art
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Punsri Abeywickrema is quickly making a name for himself in the online realm. With Rentalic.com, the 2000 University of Wisconsin-Superior alumnus has created a "greener" alternative to industry giant eBay.

The concept behind his site is simple: Instead of selling your stuff (and potentially realizing you still had a use for it a couple months down the road), rent it out instead. That way, your seldom-used items will pay for themselves and you're doing your fellow community members a financial "solid" by allowing them to sidestep a full-on retail purchase for something they may need only once.

Like Abeywickrema told us, "It's a wonderful feeling to make a few extra bucks from the things just sitting around collecting dust at your home."

To find out more about this innovative site, we sent a couple questions to the UWS grad, who now lives in San Francisco:

Budgeteer: How did Rentalic come to be? How long had you been kicking around the idea before you actually built the site?

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Abeywickrema: I got the idea to build Rentalic in the fall of 2008 while I was re-doing my backyard. I needed a wheelbarrow and didn't really want to own one as I didn't have space to store it. So, I borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbor. However, I couldn't finish the job that weekend -- so the next weekend came along and I felt bad about borrowing it again. I ended up renting one from a local store while my neighbor's wheelbarrow was just sitting across the fence.

I started thinking, This must be a common problem with everyone. People know that the neighbors or the guy down the street has the stuff they could use but don't want to come across as a freeloader, so they don't borrow it. After talking about this problem with friends, family and colleagues, it became clear that it is a common problem that everyone faces.

That's when I started assembling the team to build the site. I started building the team and started designing the site in November 2008 and we started website development work in February 2009.

It's actually hard to believe there's not already a site like this out there -- did you take notes on any similar rental sites that came and went? If so, what kinds of issues did you need to address to ensure your site stayed in it for the long haul?

I was also surprised that there was not a known site to do this since this was a common problem in society. There had been a site during the dot-com bubble time, but it went out of business. I think that during those days, the Internet was not mature enough: underlying infrastructure was not built at that time to support it. Also, the main factor for success in this is building a proximity-based item inventory and a good user base that would actively use the system. So far, nobody has been able to build a critical mass.

For us, I think time is right due to a few reasons:

  • Economy: People are more conscious about their spending habits. If they can easily rent something and save some cash, they would go for it rather than buying new. Also, this provides a way to generate some additional income from the stuff that people have sitting in their closets, garages, storage, etc.

If a lot of people in our society adopt this kind of concept, it will reignite local micro-economies and move our economy to the next level of "service-oriented" economy, where individuals in our society become service providers. It helps to keep the money within our community rather than shipping out of the country to purchase more goods. This could have greater economic impact in terms of restoring our troubled economy. We all talk about reducing deficit and cutting down on spending; now with Rentalic, we empower everyone to help with that effort, not just the government. Restoring the economy starts at everyone's home and we at Team Rentalic provide a wonderful tool (Rentalic.com) that masses of people could use to contribute toward making our economy better while making their own economy and the environment better.

  • Environment: People are more and more environmentally conscious. Environmentalists all agree that re-using and sharing what we already have is the best way to reduce the carbon footprint (rather than building new products). Building new green products is good, but it takes years and years to get a net benefit. However, if people reuse what they already have, it will increase the usage of things, bring down consumption and have an instant benefit to the environment.
  • Mature Internet infrastructure: PayPal provides a wonderful payment platform, and a set of very flexible payment APIs (application programming interfaces) helped us build a secure transaction flow. ... This would have not been possible even a year ago. So, the time is really right for us in terms of online transaction processing technologies. Also, Internet security and other Internet technologies are mature enough to support this platform.
  • Social networking: Social networking makes it easier to spread the word about the existence of our service, and it helps us figure out connections between people and helps build online trust.

I guess the question I thought of first when I checked out the site was: What happens if the stuff you rent out comes back broken? How does Rentalic ensure renters aren't sitting high and dry if their property is lost or stolen?
Rentalic provides a couple of features to protect the owners of the goods:

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  • Security deposit: At the time of listing an item, the owner is given the option to specify a security deposit. This security deposit would be transferred to the owner at the time of the transaction before the owner hands over the goods to the borrower. Once the items get returned, owners can reimburse the security deposit back to the borrower. (See a transaction flow video on how it works at www.rentalic.com/how_it_works.)
  • Ability to restrict the listing in such a way where the borrower has to send a reservation request for rental and the owner can view their profile and approve or disapprove the reservation request. At the time of listing on the new item listing form, there's a question: "Who do you want to rent this item to?" If the owner selects "review and approve potential borrowers," borrowers cannot make a reservation until the owner approves his/her reservation request. Now, for potential borrowers, this is an extra step so I encourage owners to use this option only for high-value items and not for everything. For low-value items, the security deposit should be sufficient to protect the owner.

Who sets the rates on Rentalic? I saw someone selling a parking spot in Duluth for a laughable $30 a day.
It's the owner who sets the prices. Once there are a lot of people on the system, the free market will find itself and find the fair market values for each of the items. This is how eBay also started. Letting the markets come to its fair market equilibrium is the best way rather than mandating prices. Rental prices for the same item could differ from area to area, depending on the season of the year and many other factors. The market will eventually find its fair value and people who put unreasonable fees will find their items not getting rented.

Finally, on a lighter note, it looks like you're out in San Francisco these days. Is there anything about the Twin Ports area you miss? What were some of your favorite haunts when you were a UWS student?

What I miss most are all the friends I made there while I was at college and the friendly Duluth/Superior community. Also, going canoeing in the Brule River in the summer, playing volleyball on the shores of Lake Superior and having a snowball fight with friends at midnight during a snowstorm are some fun stuff that I miss.

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
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