The man behind the pick-up counter at the French electronics store Darty hands Lee Ann Galindo a shopping bag and takes her prepaid bill. Galindo, a 35-year-old Venezuelan studying biology in Paris, gives the bag a little up and down movement with her arm and exclaims, "It's not so heavy." Then she opens the box inside. "It's really quite small," she notes. When she gets home, she will remove the contents, a video projector about 11 by 8 inches in size, and pack it in her suitcase alongside her clothes. A few days later, she will take the train from Paris to Santander, Spain. At the station she will meet up with a man she doesn't know and give him the projector. She most likely will never see him again.
This might sound like a scene from a bad James Bond movie. In fact, it's a transaction resulting from a new French start-up named Jib.li, an Internet platform for "crowdshipping," or connecting travelers with extra room in their suitcases and people who have objects they need transported. Jib.li means "Bring me" in Arabic, and the company is the brainchild of Chakib Benziane and Ryadh Dahimene, two 20-something students who attended high school together in Algiers and met up again as computer science majors in Paris.
The idea for Jib.li came to them in late 2011 as they were having dinner in a restaurant on the east end of Paris. "We were there with Algerian friends," Benziane recalls. "It's a community that travels all the time, and the question always comes up -- do you know somebody who can take something to or from Algiers for me? Suddenly it hit us that we were onto something."
They found two other partners, also students, one from the family that owns La Martiniquaise (a major French spirits company) and who had cash to invest. With seed money of 75,000 euros and a team of interns, they created a Web site where users can meet others to "carry stuff, send stuff or ask to buy stuff." The beta version went live in October in English and French. Travelers can post the itinerary and dates of an upcoming trip (whether by air, land or sea), or else people with an object to send can post an advertisement describing the thing and where it has to go. When there's a match, the two parties directly negotiate the details and a price for the transaction, beyond which Jib.li takes a 4.99 percent commission. The "shipper" then makes an electronic payment, which Jib.li blocks until the delivery is complete.
Four months after the site's launch, the company had about 600 users from around the world, from Paris to New York to Buenos Aires, and about one-third of posted ads were finding participants. "The idea responds to a real need," says Sebastien Matykowski, managing director of a French consultancy specializing in financial valuation. "We all have to send things, and the traditional means can be expensive and limiting. This gives people a way to do so quickly and cheaply, while helping others to pay for a trip."
The goods people have attempted or managed to send include cell phones, laptops, clothing, cymbals, maple syrup and jelly beans. Food is a popular item, especially among expats. In fact, Lee Ann Galindo's first experience with Jib.li involved food -- an Italian friend prepared a mushroom risotto for her birthday, so she posted an ad on the site and found a traveler willing to transport it from Milan to her doorstep in Paris.
Her correspondent in Spain wanted to purchase his video projector in France because of a significant price difference between the two countries. For the services she rendered -- ordering the projector and paying for it online, picking it up and transporting it in her suitcase -- Galindo asked him for 10 euros, a token amount. As she explains, she didn't do it to get rich. "Where I come from, it's just a matter of fact -- you're going somewhere, somebody asks you to bring something, you do it. It's not a question of money."
In fact, many Jib.li transactions have taken place without any money changing hands. (The company itself has decided it won't take a commission for those it considers humanitarian, such as bringing medicine to a country where it's difficult to obtain.) Benziane and Dahimene don't consider this a threat to their eventual profits, since their business model has two sides: the commission on transactions, and creating a database of travelers. Once they have enough users, they believe this list will be a valuable tool for targeted marketing or partnerships with hotel chains.
For now, the pair highlight the notion of community. "The post office, FedEx and UPS are efficient but impersonal," Dahimene says. "And they have developed a monopoly on this kind of transaction. We are transferring power, bringing it back to the level of normal people and saying, why not do it yourselves?"
Moreover, there are places where the post office does not function very well. Some Namibians told them that in their country, people often go to the local bus station and give their packages to the driver to deliver to friends or family at the destination, paying him a small fee for the service. The concept is the same, Dahimene notes. "If we furnish a platform, we facilitate their lives."
The duo also point out that Jib.li offers a more ecological way to transport things than conventional methods such as UPS, where an item is treated like an actual traveler with its own packaging and place in the plane. When people fly with unused space in their luggage, it has already been paid and accounted for in an airline's baggage allowance and estimated fuel consumption. "We are trying to use resources that are already there instead of adding more," Benziane says. "A freight plane is one more plane in the sky."
Creating good will, habits and trust
In order for their site to take off, they need what they call "critical mass," and their objective for the end of this year is 50,000 users worldwide. They take heart in the fact that similar sites have popped up in India, Argentina, and Belgium, showing there's real potential. Their business model is Airbnb, the online platform where individuals can rent out rooms or homes on a short-term basis, and one of the fastest-growing companies in Silicon Valley. Dahimene explains, "We studied how they executed their strategy, because in the beginning they had the same problems as us. They had to create a habit among users."
Thanks to the Internet, there has been a boom in the so-called sharing economy, peer-to-peer exchanges that involve everything from renting out a couch in your home to sharing your car. Jib.li is one more example of people monetizing underutilized assets. If Airbnb is a challenge to hotels and RelayRides takes business from Avis and Hertz, Jib.li hopes to do the same to DHL and FedEx.
But where there's sharing, there must be good will. Charles H. Green is founder of the American company Trusted Advisor Associates and an expert in trust-based business relationships. He sees collaborative consumption as a significant trend, yet says that it is critical for any company riding the wave to address issues of risk and trust. Airbnb learned this the hard way when users complained of renters trashing their apartments. Ultimately, the company responded by creating an insurance policy and a consumer hotline. Similarly, RelayRides, which matches car owners and renters, screens potential renters and offers owners up to $1 million in liability insurance.
When he heard about Jib.li, Green’s first reaction was, "Boy, that sounds like a good set-up for smuggling." Indeed, this particular model sets off alarm bells, especially after a court in Argentina convicted a physics professor from the University of North Carolina for smuggling cocaine in a suitcase he believed belonged to a bikini model he was courting. Despite his claims that he was duped into taking it and unaware of the contents, the professor is still serving time. (The transaction had nothing to do with Jib.li.)
According to Matykowski, the question of liability remains Jib.li's major flaw. "You can quickly find yourself in a legal grey zone regarding responsibility or even complicity for transporting anything illicit, like drugs or trafficked organs," he says. "Even if you're carrying somebody's expensive vase in the trunk of your car and it breaks, whose responsibility is it?" He would like to see the company furnish some sort of contract between users.
However, Green says, the most effective way to create an environment of trust is through a "factor of intimacy," or offering people ways to share personal information. "The times when Airbnb works best are when both parties are aggressively willing to share something about each other -- open up on Facebook or have a phone call or leave notes or exchange some kind of communication. We shake hands, I say where are you from, that's how trust gets built up. All kinds of game theory and economic behavior basically say the more you know someone the less likely you are to screw them over."
As far as safety is concerned -- knowing that the cell phone you've been handed isn't actually a bomb -- carrying an item onto an airplane for somebody else is not the problem it used to be. In the United States, checked bags are X-rayed just like carry-ons, and the Transportation Security Administration has confidence in its screening protocols. David Castelveter, the TSA's Director of External Communications, says, "It has been some years that we have relaxed the requirement to ask the questions: 'Have you packed your bag and has it been in your possession all the time?' That's because today we have the wherewithal to screen passengers and their luggage to ensure, as best we can, that they do not pose a catastrophic threat to the aircraft." He adds that security practices are pretty standard for all member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Recently, Benziane and Dahimene were putting the finishing touches on a new feature they claimed would clear up any security issues, though at press time it was still a secret. They note, however, that Jib.li is only a platform, and they cannot share responsibility for the safety or legality of every transaction. "There is no such thing as zero risk," Dahimene says. "Users must take their own precautions." They insist that what they are proposing is not different from what already takes place; people have always carried objects in their luggage for others. The ideal scenario is one like Galindo's, where she bought and picked up the video projector she would be transporting, and they hope to see more like it.
They also agree with Green that it is important to personalize transactions. As Benziane explains, "We want it to feel like there are real people behind the ad. That it's not anonymous, like Craigslist." The site plays up this aspect with user names, photos and profiles with ratings. And it integrates social networks -- if you use your Facebook account to post on Jib.li, you can share the ad with your friends and the friends of your friends.
The two founders are avid Jib.li users and have no qualms about entrusting their precious belongings to a stranger. In fact, there are times they prefer to do so, particularly when that person shares the same interests. "I once had my mother bring my guitar back from Algeria," Dahimene says. "Even if it was my mother, I was afraid for the guitar. She doesn't know how to carry it like a musician does."
Photo: Flickr/Katie Hargrave