“It all started with a dog,” explains Leah Busque, an ex-IBM Software Engineer. “My husband and I were getting ready to go out to dinner. We had already called a cab to come pick us up when we realised we were out of dog food… My husband thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there was some place online where we could post our need?” This predicament inspired her to found what ultimately became TaskRabbit.com, an online marketplace for odd jobs. The business model is simple enough; people post tasks on the TaskRabbit website, and registered users (‘TaskRabbits’) name their price, bidding each other down for the right to complete it. Once the customer selects their TaskRabbit and is satisfied by their work, payment is made through the website and TaskRabbit take a 15% cut of the money exchanged.
As with any service in the sharing economy, establishing mutual trust between users is crucial. Prospective TaskRabbits go through a demanding application process, including a video interview, criminal background check and an online test based on the website’s code of conduct. Once enrolled, TaskRabbits earn points and ‘level up’ by completing tasks and gleaning positive reviews. This incentivises people to do a good job, since high level TaskRabbits are more likely to be chosen by users and make more money. TaskRabbit has experienced impressive growth in the five years since its inception. Funding of $37m has helped it to expand into nine cities across the USA, and allowed it to acquire a slew of competitors and complimentary services along the way.
Following their early successes, it is unsurprising that TaskRabbit have started spawning international imitators that all follow an near-identical model of “Collaborative Consumption” – Germans, Canadians, and Singaporeans can post their excess errands to PeopleAG.de, ayoudo.com, and flagahero.com respectively. Founded in Sydney, Australia, AirTasker.com can perhaps boast the greatest success outside America. The site has been hit 5 million times, and claims to have handled tasks to the tune of A$600,000 ($626,700) in its first year alone.
The UK is yet to unearth a TaskRabbit of its own, though many start-ups are vying to become the dominant player. The opportunistically named TaskPandas.com started in London in early 2012, but made a point of quickly proliferating itself across the UK. Their website claims to have already created £100,000 ($151,000) worth of work for its ‘Pandas’. ‘Sorted’ places a heavy focus on its mobile presence (the website’s URL is ‘GetSortedApp.com’) in the belief that busy people are more likely to demand a paid helping hand whilst on the go, rather than when sat at home on a computer. TaskHub, meanwhile, angles itself as a social enterprise – a service where neighbours help neighbours and even complete tasks for free if they so desire. It has received the backing of Telefónica, a Spanish telecoms giant, and currently resides in the London Wayra Academy, a business ‘hub’ conceived by Telefónica to facilitate the growth of tech start-ups.
All of these companies will face challenges as they grow. Trust between users is tricky to establish when the platform has barely emerged from Beta, and it isn’t obvious which party would be liable in the event of a rogue user. And with expansion, comes prolific users – TaskRabbit claims that some earn up to $5000 a month. How much of this should end up in government coffers, again, is not obvious. These concerns are going to have to be addressed. Between the inimitable rise of the sharing economy and less than sanguine labour market conditions, the already diverse user base of these websites is only going to expand.