Task Rabbit and the Uberization of Work

Leah Busque

[Photo by Aya Brackett]

It was a snowy night in Boston, in early 2008, and Leah Busque was out of dog food. She couldn’t go to buy some at that hour – she would be late for her dinner engagement. Then it struck her: ‘Why can’t I connect with someone local, who might be at the store right now, and say, “If you buy our dog food, I’ll pay for your time”?’

Within four months she had quit her job as a software engineer at IBM and finished coding a platform she called RunMyErrand. It launched in September, just as the economy was collapsing. Suddenly, leaving her cushy job at IBM didn’t seem that clever.

Today, however, Busque, 36, oversees a team of 50 at her San Francisco headquarters, as well as three people in London. Her company, renamed TaskRabbit, operates in 19 American cities and London. It supplies part-time work to about 30,000 people, who collectively earn hundreds of millions of dollars (although these are Busque’s numbers and she provides no proof). And she is credited as a pioneer in Silicon Valley’s latest grand disruption: the job market.

‘The future of work is changing,’ she tells me in her boardroom one afternoon in October. Petite and bespectacled, wearing a sharp canary dress, Busque has the kind of confidence and authority that comes with running a surging start-up. An assistant is hovering at the door and two schoolgirls are shadowing her for the day – all of us are rapt. ‘The crash changed how people felt. Thirty-four per cent of Americans now consider themselves freelance. In the UK it’s 12 per cent. And those numbers are rising. The idea of an economy where people set their own schedules and rates is here to stay.’

What TaskRabbit does is match freelance labour to local demand. Workers are characterised as entrepreneurs. As Busque says, ‘Every tasker is the CEO of their own business!’ If you want your house cleaned or a shelf put up, then, for a 15 to 30 per cent fee, the platform will find you a ‘tasker’. (‘We find “rabbit” a bit demeaning,’ Busque says.)

The task needs to be low-skill – core categories are cleaning, basic DIY, personal assistance and moving help. Someone could come round to your house for an hour or so and put up flat-pack furniture. But there is room for imagination. Taskers are also often hired to stand in line for things – the latest iPhone, say. One of the company’s proudest stories is of a mother who hired a tasker to visit her son in hospital as he underwent chemotherapy. ‘[It is] a great example of TaskRabbit’s core mission,’ the company blog reads. ‘Bringing people together to help each other.’

From a small town west of Boston, Busque graduated in computer science, married her high-school boyfriend and spent seven years at IBM before striking out as an entrepreneur. Inevitably, the move brought them to San Francisco, where they now live with their daughter, Amelia.

Busque’s original model was nothing like the TaskRabbit of today. It was inspired by eBay. Taskers would bid for gigs in an auction, and win points for quick responses and referring friends – points they could convert into T-shirts or business cards. It felt like a game, a fun way either to get a job done or to earn some extra cash, depending on your perspective. At the time – what Busque calls ‘the scrappy bootstrap beginnings’ – she did more or less everything. ‘We ran it out of our house. So I’d literally roll out of bed, code up a new feature, answer customer-service calls. And if a task wasn’t getting done, I’d get on my scooter and go do it myself.

‘By 2013, we knew that mobile was the future, and we weren’t really offering that experience,’ she continues. ‘People wanted fast-paced, on-demand, streamlined. And we got a lot of feedback that taskers were spending hours bidding when they could have been working.’

So when Busque opened her first non-US office in London in November 2013 – responding to local demand, she says – she decided to road-test a new system. No bidding this time – instead, taskers would set their own rates and schedules, and when a new job was posted that matched their profile, the platform would send them an alert. The first to click got the job.

There would be no more racing to the bottom – all tasks would pay at least the minimum wage and last for at least an hour. And each task would be insured up to $1 million, just in case the cleaner destroyed the client’s Persian rug. TaskRabbit’s game days were over – now it was an app-run temp agency for the home-services sector.

The London model was so successful that TaskRabbit has adopted it throughout America. Clients were happier and London taskers were earning 400 per cent more than their American counterparts – up to £3,200 per month. For some, it has been life-changing.

‘I love the flexibility – you can pick it up and drop it,’ says Juan Carlos Cerna, 48, a tasker from north London and an evangelist for Busque’s company. ‘I think the ad campaign is “TaskRabbit comes to the rescue”, because we do the jobs people need help with. But TaskRabbit came to the rescue for me.’

Cerna has two daughters, aged 14 and nine, with his ex-wife, who has a full-time job. An events organiser, he suffered a series of redundancies and struggled to find a job that would afford him a nanny. TaskRabbit allows him to set his work schedule, see his children and pay his bills. (A lot of taskers are stay-at-home parents and retirees.)

With a 100 per cent review rating – all taskers are reviewed – Cerna now has regular clients, including barristers and hedge-fund managers. And although he earns less than he would in a full-time job – roughly £25,000 per year – he feels in control of his life. Almost all his income comes through TaskRabbit, from a mixture of building Ikea furniture, handyman work and party organising. ‘I’m an entrepreneur!’ he says.

The question that the ‘gig economy’ now faces is whether people such as Cerna are employees or temps. When the California Labor Commissioner’s Office ruled in June that an Uber driver who had sued the company was in fact an employee, the decision reverberated. If taskers are employees, TaskRabbit may have to provide benefits it does not currently provide to freelancers: insurance and so on. Estimates suggest that employees are up to 30 per cent more expensive to hire, for this reason.

Needless to say, Busque does not see Cerna as an employee. ‘We’re just a marketplace – we don’t even set prices,’ she says. But she has tried to support her taskers by partnering with mobile-phone and health-insurance companies to get them better deals.

The surest sign of TaskRabbit’s success is the number of imitators. Since it launched, scores of companies have entered the gig-economy space – really just small-scale entrepreneurship. Competing with TaskRabbit in the US are companies including Postmates, Gigwalk, Fancy Hands,Thumbtack and Skillshare, to scratch the surface. For driving, there are Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. For food delivery, there are DoorDash, SpoonRocket and Caviar. Instacart will deliver your groceries, and Washio your laundry. Busque finds ‘gig economy’ condescending.

‘I prefer “sharing economy”, which most people associate with Airbnb and Uber. Their model is sharing high-value assets that are underutilised – people’s homes and cars. I argue that someone’s free time and skill set are the highest-value assets they have.’

Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine Is Yours, a book about the sharing economy, believes that the TaskRabbit model applies equally to higher-skill work – sites such as UpCounsel offer on-demand lawyers – and that a brave new world awaits. ‘People will have portfolios of work instead of jobs,’ she says.

‘You’ll have micro-earners who are just earning supplemental money. And micro-entrepreneurs who are genuinely empowered.’ As for the idea that the gig economy was born from the financial crash and only flourishes during a weak economy, when proper jobs are scarce, Botsman begs to differ. ‘This [sharing] economy has grown through the recovery,’ she says. ‘This is where the technology wants to take us. What Leah saw very early was that social networks would become service networks.’

Others view TaskRabbit and the gig economy as part of a more ominous turn for workers, and society as a whole. ‘It’s taking us back to the 19th century, to piecework,’ says Steven Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers. ‘These aren’t jobs with a future. It’s just spare money. The platforms sell it as “monetising your downtime”. The hype that this is the new economy is not justified.’

Hill warns of an undoing of the advances in employment protections over the past century. By accelerating the age of the temporary worker, companies such as TaskRabbit make hiring and firing easier. ‘Employers get a labour force they can turn on and off like a tap,’ he says. ‘And we lose the relationship between employer and employee. It used to be a marriage, with each side helping the other. Now it’s a series of one-night stands, like Tinder.’

Silicon Valley  has a famously poor record on jobs. While its companies have low staff counts, whole industries have been ravaged in the name of disruption – music and media most of all. And its emphasis is often on the consumer experience rather than the provider; it is easier than ever to buy music, but harder than ever to make it for a living.

What also fuels skeptics such as Hill is TaskRabbit’s pursuit of corporate partnerships over the years – it has provided low-cost temps to Walgreens and Walmart, a company whose record as an employer is checkered at best. Recently, Busque signed a deal with Argos in the UK to provide post-purchase services, an arrangement she has with Amazon in the US. ‘If you order a flat-screen TV, chances are you’ll need it mounted,’ Busque explains.

‘So as part of the checkout flow, you can book a local tasker.’ She shows me the Apple watch on her wrist. ‘It’s crazy. I can literally talk to Amazon on my watch and the TV would show up, and someone would install it.’

For now, Busque doesn’t see TaskRabbit as a temp agency. ‘We’re not supplying admins or secretaries,’ Busque says. ‘Our primary focus is on the consumer play. But it’s also about the tasker. Some businesses churn through workers, and that’s just a bad way to build. We need suppliers to be happy. That’s why we’ve invested so much in the infrastructure for taskers to be successful on our platform.’

In 2014, Busque received 4,000 applications to be a tasker. In 2015, that number is 15,000. So it seems the revolution is under way. The next challenge is for others in the gig economy to avoid the problems Uber is having, and start supplying the appropriate benefits and protections to freelancers who chose to opt for a variety of gigs over one traditional job. Some companies are already moving to profit from this opportunity. (The Freelancers Union in the US has been offering schemes without profit for years.)

As my hour draws to a close, Busque stands and offers her hand. ‘We’ve seen a lot of changes since we launched,’ she says. ‘But in all that time, our fundamental mission hasn’t shifted.’

Which is what exactly?

She looks surprised for a second. ‘How do we change the future of work?’ And with that, she leaves, her assistant and the high-school girls in tow.