Do It For Me

Brother, Can You Spare Some Time? Zaarly, TaskRabbit and the Rise of the Convenience Economy

With a three-year lead in the market, TaskRabbit, which used to go by the less cuddly moniker RunMyErrand, has arguably done the best job building a culture around its product. Profiles often feature a photo and chatty descriptions of potential tasks. Ms. Busque claims her site gets more than $4 million of economic activity requested monthly from its 2,000 Rabbits. (New York is home to about 500 to 750 of them.) Zaarly, on the other hand, opts for a more anonymous approach, with communication done via little gray message boxes invisible to the public.

After rapidly expanding into a number of cities over the course of a year, Zaarly, which says it processes 1,000 transactions a week, now seems to be finessing its offerings. Listings in New York and around the country still tend toward procuring and selling tangible items, often iPhones, iPads and Kindles. However, both Zaarly and TaskRabbit have bigger designs: selling themselves as engines of micro-job creation.

Over coffee recently in Soho House’s refurbished sixth-floor drawing room, co-founder Eric Koester eagerly discussed how Zaarly’s updated smartphone app could help small businesses. He offered up the example of a landscaper using the app to find a nearby gig that pays less than his normal rate, but still represents income he might not otherwise have access to. “It’s the hottest lead you can get! I want what you have and I’m willing to pay for it,” Mr. Koester enthused. Ms. Busque said her passion is empowering Rabbits to “Be their own bosses. Set their own schedules. Say how much money they want to earn,” noting that top earners can pull in up to $5,000 a month. But since both startups have an average transaction size of about $50, that could easily mean fulfilling up to 100 tasks a month.

At times the rhetoric of empowerment can feel at odds with the fact that, in some cases, “entrepreneurship” amounts to floundering college graduates bidding on a chance to clean your apartment. “I’ve thought about that, too. Like is this a way the 1 percent are outsourcing their lives to the 99 percent?” said Craig Shapiro, founder and CEO of Collaborative Fund, a seed stage firm that likes to back peer-to-peer sharing technology, ideally of the “world-changing” variety, and invested in TaskRabbit’s $5 million round.

The 1 percent, of course, don’t need an app to find others to do their bidding. But in a way these startups are a sleeker version of picking up a day laborer outside Home Depot. As they graduate into non-essential services that means a taste of the pampered life that would otherwise be out of the user’s pay grades. “Certain people have personal chefs, but in my imagination they’re executives and super rich people,” said Bartek Ringwelski, the founder of SkillSlate, another Zaarly-esque market, but with a focus on skills like plasma TV installation or fire breathing (two examples Mr. Ringwelski offered). “On SkillSlate, people don’t want to publish prices on their profiles because they often have a fulltime job where they charge $150 an hour as a personal chef. They’ll do that same exact work for $20 an hour because money is money and there’s not a lot of demand for paying people exorbitant amounts for very skilled things right now. So you can get these incredible values that were previously not available.”

The reality of the convenience economy seems more ingeniously opportunistic than flatly exploitative. “I would say it’s much more evenly split,” said Fancy Hands’ Mr. Roden. “The assistants are all the 99 percent and the users are too.”

In fact, in the case of TaskRabbit, Zaarly and the like, a buyer is just as likely to be a seller. Mr. Miller, for example, signed up for TaskRabbit after misinterpreting a message from his partner. “He felt that I really needed to use it to find a TaskRabbit to help me out with my own life,” said Mr. Miller. “But when he sent me the email link, I thought he meant, oh it’s a good way for me to fulfill this other thing that I wanted—you know, the sense of community and getting a little bit of extra income. When we had the conversation, I was like, ‘I went on my first task tonight’ and he goes, ‘You’re a Rabbit?!’”

In some cases, buyers and sellers even live in the same household. Corwin Ip, a 31-year-old IT manager at a prestigious advertising firm, started calling himself a Rabbit four months ago after coming into some unexpected expenses. “I proposed to my fiancée and she said, ‘I want a destination wedding,’” he explained. “All I saw was dollar signs. Like, oh, man, I really gotta go find a second job or something!”

For his first task, Mr. Ip, a former Marine whose day job involves moving infrastructure to the cloud or mobile phone rollouts, ended up assembling Ikea furniture for a young couple on the Lower East Side (“Hipsters? Eh, I don’t want to put a label on that,” he demurred over the phone) before taking the subway back to Forest Hills, Queens. He’s since earned a couple thousand toward his Hawaiian nuptials.

“She’s a Tasker,” said Mr. Ip when Betabeat asked if his fiancée was also a Rabbit. “I told her what I was doing and then she was like, ‘Oh, I can get these things done!‘” he said, adding, “I obviously don’t bid on those.”

The latest iteration of the convenience economy follows an industry trend toward financially incentivized peer-to-peer cooperation—a feel-good niche of the free market that folks like Mr. Shapiro like to call “collaborative consumption.” For example, where 2003 brought us Couchsurfing, an online platform to connect travelers with an available couch, 2008 brought us Airbnb, a chance to get paid for lending out said couch. “People making money is always a good business model,” said SkillShare co-founder Mike Karnjanaprakorn, whose New York-based startup helps professionals hold one-time classes within their area of expertise. Like Airbnb, SkillShare is also backed by Collaborative Fund.

On SkillSlate (yes, we know, it’s hard to keep them straight) Mr. Ringwelski said he noticed popular services shifting from “needs” like a plumber to fix a leaky roof to “wants,” like a personal chef. “I think where the industry is going is almost like a trade of skills.” Mr. Ip, for example, quickly traded-up for carpentry tasks that exercised skills he couldn’t otherwise utilize. “I don’t think Ikea furniture assembly is building something,” he said, bluntly.

The idea of “hyper-sharing” with a network of our peers, as Mr. Karnjanaprakorn put it, rings a little lofty when we considered a comment from Fancy Hands founder Mr. Koden about the “scavenger hunt” of trying to find gigs that fit the schedule of one’s day job. But it does explain why no one we spoke to seemed to feel awkward about giving up a New Yorker’s cloak of anonymity to enter stranger’s apartment and roll up their sleeves.

We introduced ourselves to MaKenzie Morrissey, a 27-year-old recent transplant from Oklahoma who was manning the coat check at a startup fund-raiser the other week and wearing a TaskRabbit T-shirt. “I’m a Rabbit,” she said, by way of introduction. On the phone later, Ms. Morrissey, a petite former bar manager who plans on applying for medical school next year, estimated that she’s probably made around $600 over the course of 30 to 35 tasks. She makes the most on cleaning tasks, but enjoys working events, where she says, “I’ve met a lot of writers and actors and things like that—or bloggers,” who work as fellow Rabbits. She has also rubbed elbows higher-up the masthead with Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapaport.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it? I think so, I didn’t sign any clause,” Ms. Morrissey hesitated over the phone. “It was for a small dinner party. He had auctioned himself to make dinner for people at his son’s school. So I worked the dinner party while he had cooked for everybody. They were nice people.”

“I’ve actually thought about it a lot—I use TaskRabbit a lot. Why do these people do this?” said Mr. Karnjanaprakorn. “Because they really don’t make that much money. They really just like helping people. There’s nothing else I can think of.” He mentioned a friend who tasked a Rabbit to deliver him cupcakes and sing to him on his birthday. “She took a picture and sent it to the person who bought it [for me]. I was like, I don’t think anyone would have done that if they genuinely don’t care.”

But it doesn’t mean that everyone understands their remunerative hobby. “I wouldn’t want to tell people at work,” said Mr. Ip about his hours spent as a Rabbit. “It’s just a little weird to say, ‘Yeah, well, this what I do outside of work.’ I told one person and the first thing he said was, ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’ So I try to keep the two lives separate.”

He added, “Most people who work only one job say, ‘I do one job and when I get home I’m tired and I don’t want to do anything else.’”

ntiku@observer.com

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com

Comments

  1. Lisa says:

    Love these new companies!  Don’t forget WeGoLook.com- very similar to Zaarly, TaskRabbit and AgentAnything- over 7,000 nationwide agents are ready to be dispatched by the consumer, property owner, business professional and online daters. Check it out!

  2. Florence Iwuoha says:

    Very useful sites. If you are based in the UK check out http://www.mytaskangel.co.uk

  3. duffman says:

    just read an entire seinfeld script thanks

  4. duffman says:

    just read an entire seinfeld script thanks