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A Chinese company tried making umbrella-sharing a thing. It didn’t go well.

A group of tourists holding umbrellas walks through a narrow ally under a traditional Chinese gate
Umbrella sharing is the latest trend in China.
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

If you’re in Chinese city on a rainy day and need an umbrella, you might be able to use an app to find one hanging on a fence that you can rent. At least, that was the idea behind the startup company Sharing E Umbrella — until nearly all of its shareable umbrellas were stolen in just a few weeks.

The Chinese company placed 300,000 rainbow umbrellas around 11 cities in the country, including Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangzhou, according to a report last week by the Paper, a state-run Chinese media site.

Most were never returned.

Several rainbow umbrellas hang on a white fence next to a street
Sharing E Umbrellas hanging on a sidewalk fence.
Image from The Paper.

Launched in April with a 10 million yuan (approx. US$1.4 million) investment, Sharing E Umbrella could now be in serious financial trouble. Each umbrella costs around $9 to replace, so if all 300,000 were stolen, that would be a bill of $2.7 million.

But Zhao Shuiping, the company’s founder, said he still plans to unleash 30 million umbrellas across the country by the end of the year.

In an interview with the Paper, Zhao said he was inspired by China’s bicycle-sharing industry and thought he could do the same with umbrellas. “We were all baffled by the model of dockless bike sharing; it made users think anything on the street can be shared now,” said Zhao.

But while China’s bike-sharing industry has been booming, it too has been hit by stealing citizens. Wukong Bike, a five-month-old bike-sharing startup, collapsed after 90 percent of its bikes were stolen, reported Financial Times. And the founder of the Beijing-based 3Vbike said he started with 1,000 bikes but was left with only a few dozen four months later, according to the Shanghaiist, an English-language blog on China.

Zhao wasn’t the only one inspired by the bike-sharing industry. Apparently there are 14 other umbrella-sharing companies in China, according to Sixth Tone, a Chinese state-run, English-language media outlet.

But it’s a baffling business model dependent on unpredictable weather and forgetful people.

As Sixth Tone notes, many cities in China experience the most rain in the summer. But when it’s not the rainy season, there’s a question of whether there will be enough demand for the umbrellas for the businesses to stay profitable.

And it might just be cheaper in the long run for people to simply buy their own umbrellas and try not to forget them at home. For example, Sharing E Umbrella requires a deposit of 19 yuan, or about $3. Then there’s a fee of 0.50 yuan ($0.07) for every 30 minutes you use it.

If Chinese cities are suddenly full of the same rainbow-colored umbrellas, now you know who to blame.