How DHL Pioneered the Sharing Economy

Global delivery company DHL started its business by offering free plane tickets to people on the street. For the trouble of giving up their baggage allowances, passengers were handed a free round-trip plane ticket to Hawaii.

Founded as a courier service in 1969, DHL used the spare capacity in travelers’ luggage to transport high-value documents. To understand why it made sense for DHL to provide free tickets to travelers, it helps to understand the massive changes entailed by the containerization of ocean cargo in the 1960s.

First implemented in the mid-1960s, the ocean container dramatically improved the efficiency of international shipping. But containerization also brought about an unexpected downside: When goods are shipped by sea, a piece of paper known as the “original bill of lading” must serve as title to the merchandise. Created by the manufacturer overseas, this piece of paper must be delivered to the purchaser in the destination country.

The massive capacity of containerized ships meant that many more shipments would arrive in ports in a much shorter span of time. That was a problem: The documents necessary to clear cargo arrived much later than the cargo did. Goods started piling up in ports, frustrating importers, truckers and port terminals.

That’s where DHL came in. The company offered businesses the chance to transport documents by air. No, it didn’t invest in airplanes then. Instead, it found people who were willing to carry documents in their luggage in exchange for a free plane ticket. Waiters, secretaries and professors were sent on red-eye flights from San Francisco to Honolulu if only they would carry suitcases stuffed with these bills of lading. Once these high-value documents were on the ground, the company’s network of local couriers would take responsibility for delivering them to clients.

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