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.”
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.’”