TaskRabbit Kicks Off Errand-Running Service in San Francisco, Boston ‘Burbs

TaskRabbit—known until this April as RunMyErrand—was one of the darlings of the Bay Area investing community when it emerged from the inaugural session of Facebook’s fbFund incubator program last summer. Founding CEO Leah Busque headed out to Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters in June 2009, and by October her Boston-born startup had picked up checks totaling $1 million from Menlo Park, CA-based Maples Investments and San Francisco-based Baseline Ventures.

Now the company is formally kicking off its service in San Francisco, which is also its new corporate home. That means overworked professionals, in a city that’s full of them, can go online and hire TaskRabbit “runners” to do whatever needs to be done—walking the dog, going grocery shopping, picking up the dry cleaning. It’s an idea Busque (pronounced “buss-key”) calls “service networking”: using the power of online social networking to get things done in the real world. And the startup’s expansion to the City by the Bay after more than a year of operations in Boston is a sign that TaskRabbit’s investors think it could be the next big thing for busy urbanites.

At the same time, TaskRabbit is expanding beyond downtown Boston into the suburbs of Greater Boston, including the South Shore, the North Shore, and the Metro West area. The startup’s network of trusted runners in Massachusetts—all of whom have been subjected to background checks—now numbers more than 300, Busque says.

Leah Busque, CEO of TaskRabbitTaskRabbit actually began matching customers (“senders”) with runners in the Boston suburbs this spring, but hasn’t officially promoted the service until now. “The timing for the experiment was good because we had all of these requests coming in from the suburbs, and we also knew that in the coming weeks we would be looking ahead toward San Francisco,” Busque says. “So we thought this would be a great way to get the platform and the technology ready for the bigger market launch here in San Francisco, and allow us to work out some tweaks as we go along in the Boston ‘burbs.”

To make the service work well for Boston’s suburban residents, Busque says, TaskRabbit had to add functions such as the ability to filter available jobs and available runners by city. That feature will come in handy as the company pursues plans to expand to Bay Area communities outside of San Francisco.

After a couple of weeks of testing in San Francisco with an invitation-only group of about 50 beta users, Busque says San Franciscans seem to be using the service in pretty much the same way as Bostonians. “One of the most popular tasks in Boston—and it seems to be the case in San Francisco as well—is the idea of personal shopping, just being able to pre-order items from Best Buy or Target and having a runner go to pick them up,” she says. “It’s probably part of the general trend of getting things on-demand—the convenience of shopping online but also getting it the same day.”

Of course, that’s a need that was also served well by Kozmo, a dot-com era startup that raised about $250 million in venture funding and rolled out a popular 1-hour delivery service in cities like San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, before imploding disastrously in April 2001. Busque says she’s a “huge fan” of the Kozmo idea, but not of its business model.

“They actually carried inventory and built warehouses and stored goods and hired a huge delivery force, so they had a ton of overhead,” she says. “Their model was completely different from the TaskRabbit model, which is 100 percent crowdsourced, with virtually no overhead costs and connections facilitated purely through our online platform. But I really do feel like the same sort of cultural phenomenon of on-demand delivery is in play for us, and people get really excited about what we can do.”

Those people include Tim Ferriss, of The 4-Hour Workweek fame, who was an advisor to Busque during the fbFund session and liked her idea enough to connect her with Mike Maples, the “super-angel” founder of Maples Investments (which also changed its name recently, to Floodgate). It was to be closer to Ferriss, Maples, Baseline, and TaskRabbit’s other mentors and advisers that Busque and her husband Kevin moved to San Francisco last month. The company has set up temporary shop at Dogpatch Labs, the Pier 38 venture incubator space run by Waltham, MA-based Polaris Venture Partners.

That decision provoked some discussion and disappointment back in Boston, but Busque says it was the right thing for the company. “I have all this support in the Bay Area, through our mentors and investors and advisers,” she says. “And I always knew that I wanted San Francisco to be our second city, especially after spending the summer out here last year and realizing what a great market this would be. Also, I wanted to make sure that our second city launch went off without a hitch. I’m kind of a control freak, so the thought of hiring someone out here to do it was too much for me.”

By the fall, Busque says, TaskRabbit hopes to have recruited runners in additional Bay Area cities, starting with the South Bay area. And that’s about as far as the company’s modest $1 million war chest will take it. “We’ll be looking to raise another round of funding by the end of the summer or the fall time range, which will support our growth into the next few markets,” she says.

For some idea of where TaskRabbit might pop up next, Busque says, just look at cities where there are lots of Craigslist and Zipcar users—places like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Seattle. “We probably track with Xconomy’s expansion pretty well,” she remarks.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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