BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Hey, neighbor!
It’s the timeworn overture that can mean one of three things: Either there’s a bit of juicy neighborhood gossip to be had, a friendly barbecue invitation on offer or somebody needs to borrow something.
Last summer, Niskayuna resident Bill Noto realized he was at risk of becoming the guy who constantly asks for that last one.
It started when his lawn mower broke, and the prospect of paying to fix or replace it felt daunting.
It also seemed a little silly. He has a small lawn, and it needs to be cut only occasionally. Wouldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere?
“I had this realization like, ‘Why do I even have a lawn mower?’ ” Noto said.
So he did what any programmer would do in this day and age: He wrote an app for that.
The resulting marketplace for expensive, but infrequently used stuff is called Heynay — as in, Hey, neighbor, I broke my lawn mower. Can I borrow yours?
Noto, who works as a manager at GE in Niskayuna, said the idea of spending lots of money on infrequently used stuff is abhorrent to big companies. An MRI machine purchased from GE has to be used regularly, so it generates revenue. If it doesn’t get used, it’s a bad investment.
But individual buyers often sink big bucks into things like power tools, electronics and sporting equipment without expecting to use them that often.
“It’s just inherently inefficient,” said Noto, who developed the app outside his GE work.
Heynay, if it works, would help solve that problem. People who make the big investments could make a few bucks renting out their fishing poles or video camera, and people who want to cut down on clutter can spend a little when they borrow.
“The vision is to radically transform how people consume stuff,” he said.
Of course, this is already happening. If you just ventured out from under your rock for the first time in a few years, do Google search for “Uber” or “Airbnb” to find out what the sharing economy’s all about.
(That second one, incidentally, was partly the brainchild of a Niskayuna native, Brian Chesky, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1998 and is now a kabillionaire.)
While cars and spare bedrooms have been spoken for, a few different startups are still battling to be the market leader in helping you rent out the stuff in your garage. Noto hopes that’ll be Heynay, making him and his two co-developers fabulously wealthy in the long run.
There are, of course, a couple of problems.
First off, Heynay isn’t worth much until lots of people start to use it. Renters will start creating accounts when sellers start posting their stuff, and conversely, sellers will get interested when renters show up and create a market. But while that darn chicken and egg fight it out, there’s not much going on yet at Heynay.
“I’ve used it to rent my neighbor’s car starter. She used it to rent my [Apple] watch. That’s the sum total,” Noto said with a laugh.
There are about 100 active users and about an equal number of items listed. The app has been downloaded about 300 times.
Here’s the other issue: neighbors tend to be, well, neighborly. And if you let the guy next door use your power tools any time for a beer and a handshake, you don’t need Heynay.
Noto and his partners are counting on a couple of factors to help overcome people’s troublesome niceness. First, when the guy next door uses your power tools every other day all summer long, that can become annoying. Asking him to pay a few dollars, plus a security deposit, makes it less likely to disrupt your relationship in the long run.
And second, your immediate neighbors might not have what you’re looking for. Imagine asking a complete stranger to take her snowshoes for a spin. She’ll look at you like you’re crazy.
That’s where Heynay comes in: by connecting people, charging a security deposit, and establishing a late fee, it creates the necessary communication and trust for sharing to take place. Using the app costs 10 percent of whatever fee you decide to charge for your stuff, which goes to pay operational costs like hosting and processing.
So, when Heynay eventually catches on in the Capital Region and beyond, what can you rent? Pretty much anything, other than weapons, drug paraphernalia, pets or other humans. And Noto hopes you’ll even enjoy it.
“We feel good when we find a baby-sitter down the street,” he said. “It’s a community builder.”