Chad Miller likes to think of running errands for strangers on TaskRabbit as a quasi-religious experience—or at least as close to spiritual as a gay former Southern Baptist from West Texas is likely to find in New York. Mr. Miller is a 38-year-old Columbia graduate who acts, writes and works full-time managing outreach for the university’s Arts Initiative. He signed up for TaskRabbit as his “tertiary job” in September, shortly after the Boston-based startup launched in New York.
“This is going to be incredibly gay as I’m saying it,” Mr. Miller laughed, “but it’s very hakuna matata, Disney-fied—you put it out there and you get a little back. The karma piece is really nice.”
Along with a bumper crop of like-minded companies, such as Zaarly, Fancy Hands and Agent Anything, that have entered the New York market in the past year or so, TaskRabbit offers an updated play on Craigslist for the iPhone-era: buyers post the dirty work they want to get done and nearby “Rabbits” bid on the jobs. Service requests range from the sophisticated—“Motivate me to write a book ” read a recent TaskRabbit request from Midtown—to the menial. “$50 for a Massage,” a Zaarly user on the West Side posted in November. “General massage,” the ad elaborated, tersely, in the description. For the most part, however, Rabbits are asked to perform domestic drudgery: assembling Ikea furniture tops the list.
It’s easy to see why democratizing the personal assistant might do well in New York, a city largely unburdened by hang-ups about, say, paying $20 to avoid wasting time in a Laundromat, even when one’s budget barely permits it.
In the past three months, Mr. Miller has made a little over $2,000 on the kind of irksome chores overextended urbanites are eager to slough off on someone else, including driving strangers to JFK, waiting in line for hours to save someone’s seat for a Conan taping and lugging furniture to a fourth-floor walk-up. The money’s nice and all, but to hear Mr. Miller tell it, the appeal doesn’t sound far off from “Love thy neighbor.”
“I’m really playing my cards low, but I grew up Southern Baptist,” said Mr. Miller. “I just realized—I’m not one for organized religion personally, but I do very much agree with the sense of community, sense of charity, and volunteerism. Short of working at a soup kitchen, which is something I did a lot when I was at Columbia, this for me is, like, the next best thing! It grounds me back a little bit more to, you know, we’re in a community—everybody needs something done at some point.”
Mr. Miller, ever the theater geek, interrupted his cheery philosophizing to affect a mock sotto voce, “I didn’t mean to sound like, ‘Now I’m St. Sebastian and the martyr for everybody.’”
While his motivation may swing toward the selfless, interview enough cash-strapped Rabbits (Midtown and Brooklyn are active hubs) and you’ll start to wonder where all these shiny, happy helpers have been hiding—and why they’re so psyched about pocketing under $100 to assemble your MALM bed frame. “Don’t drink the Kool-aid! Is that what you’re feeling talking to everybody?” Mr. Miller laughed again.
Actually, a more archetypal laborer in one of these new-fangled markets might be someone like Ivan Rivera, a 27-year-old CUNY senior who signed up with Agent Anything to supplement his job as head cashier at City Sports. Mr. Rivera, who is paying his own way through a marketing degree, has been enrolled off and on since 2003, finances permitting, and recently had to move back in with his parents in Washington Heights.
“They hate hearing how much money I’m making,” Mr. Rivera said when Betabeat asked whether his friends had also signed up for “missions” with Agent Anything, another similar startup that employs only current college students and operates primarily around New York. (Startups tend to come steeped in their own lingo.) But over the past year, Mr. Rivera estimates that gigs like delivering packages for a specialty chef or handing out fliers for a club have only earned him a little over a thousand dollars. “It’s like money you wouldn’t even think about having,” explained Mr. Rivera. “If I can make at least $30 in one week, at least I know I have a Metrocard.”
The last time the tech world tried to build a convenience economy, the markets were in an upswing. But beloved dot-com-era delivery services such as Kozmo.com or its copycat Urban Fetch were filed as a punch line in the annals of bubble lore for squandering millions on armies of bike messengers to keep keyboard jockeys in the packages of gum, cigarettes and VHS tapes to which they had become accustomed. This time around, investors are once again willing to back these kind of startups, partly because this new strain has figured out a way to leverage economic downers, like nagging unemployment and underemployment, in their favor.
Just as eBay turned your castoffs into cash, these mobile and online marketplaces figure they can turn your unused time into money. For the opportunity, Zaarly takes a 9 percent cut of the transaction. TaskRabbit, which puts its errand-runners through a rigorous week-long vetting process, including a video interview as well as a social security and criminal background check, takes a 15 percent cut.
“Now I’m sure you recall September of ’08 was probably one of the worst economic times,” TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque recounted. “The stock market was crashing, people were being laid off left and right and so it turned out that it was very serendipitous that I had had that idea [for TaskRabbit] earlier that year.”
This May, Ms. Busque, a former IBM software engineer, picked up a $5 million series A round led by Sand Hill venture capital firm Shasta Ventures. Zaarly, which was born into a frothier climate this February, got an even quicker response. Mere weeks after launching at a Startup Weekend conference in Los Angeles, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Arrington and other angel investors plunked down a $1 million seed round, followed by an eye-popping $14.1 series A in October led by the VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, with help from newbie investors like clothing impresario Marc Ecko.
“[Zaarly’s] true value is in its ability to remove friction between what we want and what we have,” Mr. Kutcher emailed us, between 140-character plugs for Two and a Half Men. “Bottom line it saves people the most valuable thing in the world … Time.” (The ellipses are Mr. Kutcher’s.)
“Everybody’s busy,” concurred Fancy Hands founder Ted Roden, a former technologist for The New York Times, whose New York-based startup uses a monthly subscription model to provide virtual personal assistants for tasks like restaurant reservations or “confrontational phone calls” with your cellphone company. “For us it’s outsourcing the stuff you’re doing everyday. It’s the old George Costanza line—‘Busy? Don’t give me busy!’”
Jordan Cooper, a 27-year-old venture partner with Lerer Ventures and founder of the open database Hyperpublic subscribes to Fancy Hands $25-a-month plan. “l ask them to find an esoteric product that was discontinued and send me a link to where I can buy it or I’ll ask them to find research a date spot to take someone when I’m in San Francisco that has organic food and is close to my hotel.” By email, he described the tasks as, “Things I could do if I wasn’t on mobile and had an extra 15 minutes in my day…but that I’d rather someone else do.”