Justin Prim isn’t just a bike messenger. He’s part of a new wave of self-employed go-getters, some making six figures, who are capitalizing on something called “the sharing economy.”
“For two years, this has been my main source of income -- just riding my bikes around, seeing the sights, picking up random stuff,” Justin said.
Online marketplaces where you rent out things you own have become booming businesses. You can rent out your home with AirBnb, Roomorama, Wimdu and BedyCasa, or your car with Buzzcar, Getawround and RelayRides, or even random stuff lying around with SnapGoods, Rentoid and Parking Panda.
But how about making money off of renting out yourself, cashing in on your own spare time by doing odd jobs?
Leah Busque is the founder of TaskRabbit, a service that does just that. It’s an online portal that links thousands of people to clients who need an extra pair of hands for errands and chores, a little extra time to wait in line, or even a stranger’s gumption to help pull off the perfect prank.
“People are really figuring out ways to get more value out of their under-utilized assets,” Busque said from Task Rabbit’s San Francisco headquarters. “We literally have hundreds of different types of jobs posted on the site on a daily basis. But what we’re really good at is around-home services: house cleaning, handyman, moving help, organization, shopping and delivery. Those types of things are the most popular.”
It’s not about people being lazy, Busque said. It’s about hiring another person to help out. A lot of the task posters, according to Busque, are working mothers “just trying to get a balance between work life and family life and just trying to get it all done.”
“I’m a new mom myself. I have a 6-month-old at home and it’s survival mode on a daily basis,” she said. “I am using my own service now more than ever.”
Busque quit a cushy job at IBM to create TaskRabbit six years ago.
“I started the company in September of 2008 at a time when the stock market was crashing, people were getting laid off left and right,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what did I just do?’ But actually, it was a really great time to start a business like TaskRabbit because we really helped people find new ways to work.”
People like 49-year-old Chris Mok, who was working in retail advertising at Macy’s in the San Francisco Bay Area when he was laid off during the recession in 2009 and wasn’t really sure what to do. Mok said he turned to his handyman skills, something he knew would pay well, and started picking up jobs on TaskRabbit.
“I had trouble with the job search and just took the reins,” Mok said.
Eventually, his TaskRabbit experiment turned into a full-time gig.
“It’s really based on how motivated you are,” Mok said. “Initially, you could make $50,000 a year. Now, I’ve actually realized you can make six figures, if you want, in the handyman business.”
TaskRabbit is attracting more and more Americans. There are over 20,000 TaskRabbits in 20 cities, 10 percent of which use the website as a full-time job.
“That’s the most exciting thing for me to see,” Busque said. “I think, as an entrepreneur myself, the ability for us to create a platform that facilitates more entrepreneurship is just really exciting.”
“As the economy has improved, we always wondered, you know: Are we going to have a drop off in the TaskRabbit community?” she added. “What we're seeing happen is more and more people like the idea of flexible work.”
But there are critics of the service. TaskRabbit takes a flat 20 percent cut of all tasks, no matter how small, and some have accused the company of keeping wages low.
When someone posts a task on TaskRabbit, they can choose whether to pay a flat fee or have TaskRabbit participants bid on what they are willing to be paid for the task. Often, the person posting the task goes for the cheapest bid. That has led some critics to argue the service is exploitative because the people who would perform the tasks try to underbid each other to score the job.
Busque argues the service is not exploiting the task performers.
“That’s actually not what we’re seeing in the data,” she said. “What we see happening is that the consumers, the task posters, the people that need the help, they’re reviewing all these bids and they’re not picking the lowest. They are looking at TaskRabbit profiles. They’re looking at their reputations, their ratings, reviews. They’re finding a balance, I think, between price and quality.”
Becoming a TaskRabbit involves a vetting process, including background checks. Once someone becomes a TaskRabbit, they fill out an online profile that describes who they are, where they are located and what skills they are capable or willing to do. The profile also keeps track of user reviews, ratings and how often the TaskRabbit has done a specific task.
“Ten years ago, there was probably a kid in your neighborhood that, you know, would have come by and mow the lawn or wash your car," Busque said. "And I think, for a time, technology actually silo’d us, and it created these barriers. And I think now technology has finally gotten to a point where it’s reconnecting neighborhoods, reconnecting communities.”