May 6, 2011 -- One afternoon not so long ago, New Yorker Andrew Schut hit up six Chinatown restaurants in a row -- not to satisfy an outsized appetite for dim sum, but to take pictures of the toilets. Oh, and make some cold, hard cash along the way.
After spotting a Craigslist ad in March, Schut, a 47-year-old medical device consultant, signed up with Gigwalk, a startup that lets iPhone users earn money for easy tasks they can complete on the go -- "gigs" such as taking pictures or collecting basic information about local places. In the past three months, Schut said he's earned nearly $2,200 for about 320 gigs. Some, like the toilet gig, pay just $4, but others, like scoping out the swank W Hotel in New York's Times Square, can pay up to $35.
"I moved to New York last year. Gigwalk was an opportunity to check out a ton of restaurants and different hotels and places," he said. "For me, it's the fun of exploring the city and I can pick up some extra money doing it. It certainly beats sitting in a cubicle all day."
The company, which launched in private beta in October and opened to the public this week, lets large companies and small businesses "post a gig" for locations in seven major metropolitan areas in the U.S., including Boston, New York, San Francisco and Chicago.
The mapping company TomTom, for example, might ask mobile workers to verify street addresses or traffic signs. MenuPages, another Gigwalk customer, might ask a smartphone-carrying explorer to snap a few pictures of an up-and-coming restaurant and its menu. "Gigwalkers" earn from $3 to $90 for each on-the-fly freelance assignment.
Ariel Seidman, Gigwalk's CEO and co-founder, said his new company grew out of frustration. At his previous job at Yahoo, he said everyone told him it would be impossible to collect useful amounts of local data.
"But there are all of these Android and iPhone owners," he said. "Why don't we ask them to do it and give them financial incentives along the way. ...That could be very powerful."
So, in July of last year, he left Yahoo to launch his company, which says it turns the world's iPhones into an "instant mobile workforce."
Seidman declined to provide hard numbers about the number of customers and Gigwalkers currently connected to the site.
But he said the startup has completed "many, many thousands of gigs at this point." And traffic is high enough that a well-priced gig in Manhattan (that pays about $10) would attract a Gigwalker in a matter of hours, he said.
For some people who join the site, it's a way to earn a second income -- potentially a couple of hundred dollars a week, he said. For others, it's just a casual way to check out their neighborhood or a new place, while getting an extra reward.
As Gigwalkers complete more (and more complicated) assignments, they earn "street cred," which gives them access to the higher-paying, choice gigs. So-called "elite Gigwalkers," like Schut, get the pick of the litter.
"It's kind of exploratory, as well as you make a little bit of money on the way," he said.
For the business customers posting the gigs and paying for the data, it's a low-risk way of gathering on-the-ground information about their industry.
For example, a cellphone company could use the gigs to find out how local retailers position its product on the shelf, he said. The app is only available for owners of Apple's iPhone in the U.S., but it plans to expand to the Android platform and, eventually, other countries.
Gigwalk: Take Pictures With Your iPhone and Get Paid for Them
Schut, who is one of the highest-paid members of the site, said that as long as Gigwalkers take a friendly attitude, businesses seem fine with the drive-by photos and data-collecting visits.
But he said people sometimes are uncomfortable with Gigwalk missions.
"You have to be sensitive to that," he said. "Fortunately, you don't have to take pictures of people."
Jenzie Hallifax, a 27-year-old event technician in Orange County, Calif., said she tries to be discrete and blend in with other patrons when she visits restaurants and other venues.
"There was a time when I was approached by a security guard and it was scary," she said. "But it was an empty lot so they are going be curious."
For the most part, she said she hasn't had problems completing the tasks and has earned about $1,000 for about 100 gigs.
"It gives you the opportunity to earn some money when you're out and about," she said.
And it gives Gigwalkers a new appreciation for the value of everyday data.
"It was funny to go into the toilet and take pictures of the toilet and answer questions," said Schut. "But there's a time in life when that's really important information."