TaskRabbit CEO: Better Job Market Hasn’t Dampened Appeal

When Leah Busque founded TaskRabbit in Boston back in 2008 (under the name RunMyErrand), the terms “sharing economy” and “collaborative consumption” weren’t part of the tech lexicon, much less the national one. Home rental service Airbnb was founded around the same time, and car-for-hire king Uber wouldn’t even exist until the next year.

Six years later, a lot has changed. Busque moved the company to San Francisco, raised a total of $37.7 million, and watched as sharing economy startups began popping up everywhere. Though TaskRabbit has stayed a generalist, allowing consumers to hire runners to pick up their groceries, build their Ikea furniture, photograph their weddings, and perform pretty much any other task, other startups have focused connecting people for very specific kinds of help, like house cleaning (Homejoy), ride-sharing (Lyft, Sidecar), babysitting (UrbanSitter), and more.

Last week, Busque and I caught up at Xconomy’s Napa Summit to chat about the size of the sharing economy, competitors that have fallen behind, why she doesn’t want to specialize in particular verticals, and the future of the company. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: How has TaskRabbit changed since we last profiled the company in 2010?

Leah Busque: There’s a lot. The latest is that we’re in 20 U.S. cities. Last time we were probably just in two markets, Boston and San Francisco. We really felt like we wanted to get the model right before we started rolling it out really quickly. We learned a lot about the supply side of the marketplace. Now we have more than 30,000 active task rabbits. That’s incredibly exciting. How many companies can say they’ve created job jobs for 30,000 people?

We’re international now. We opened in the London market late last year. We’re testing products there that we’re thinking of bringing to the U.S. in the summer. We’re on the brink on massive product launch.

X: Who are your biggest competitors and how has that changed over the years?

LB: We’ve seen a lot of the industry change over the last five years. Early on we saw folks pop up like Zaarly,  which has pivoted its marketplace focus a couple of times. We’ve seen some personal assistant companies pop up—like Exec—and get merged into other companies. What I’ve realized over the last five years is the biggest competitor [for us] is the person themselves. Am I going to outsource or am I going to do this myself? You really think about how much value you’re creating in a platform and how easy it is to use. Otherwise people are going to do this themselves or find a friend to do it for them.

X: When you started TaskRabbit, the economy was bottoming out, and a lot of people needed extra work. Were you worried that the appeal would wear off as employment ramped up again?

LB: I didn’t know how this was going to go. When I started the company in 2008, I thought, why did I quit my job? Why am I doing a startup now? Then it turned out to be serendipitous. It was a great time to start. We were helping people find jobs.

As the economy improved, what we saw happen was this trend of people who wanted to be freelancers, who wanted to be independent contractors.

We’ve only seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who want to be TaskRabbits. It’s this new trend of freelancing work and empowering people to be their own bosses, to be their own employers. I think that’s a trend that will continue.

We’re building a culture to employ them, to give them the tools to find work and connect with each other. There’s a group of elite TaskRabbits in each city who are making this their full-time job. It’s about the 10 percent of the 30,000. They’re cashing out up to $5,000 a month, two to three jobs a day. They’re keeping themselves really busy. It’s called the TaskRabbit hustle and they’re really good at it. They like having the power of work in their own hands.

X: You were really early into the sharing economy. What’s it like watching all these startups pop up?

LB: It’s been really validating to see that happen. I wish I could say I had the foresight to these this trend coming. I didn’t. Of course, now you’re seeing all these companies in the space.

With the rise of the sharing economy and collaborative consumption it’s only gotten easier for us to build our business. It’s not just us alone trying to build this consumer mindset. That’s been fabulous. It’s been really great to see and meet these founders and understand how they’re building community, how they’ve attacked mobile. We swap stories on what’s going to push everyone forward. That’s been a nice added benefit.

X: Do you think the sharing economy is oversaturated right now, or do you think there’s room for all of these companies?

LB: I think in some categories it’s getting oversaturated. I think transportation is one we see a lot. I think that’s a tough one. I think there are other categories that are just emerging. One interesting one I see emerging is around food. One of my favorite companies right now is Munchery. I literally order Munchery every single night. It’s so easy, the food is great, and you feel like you’re eating healthy, creative meals from talented chefs. I think it depends on what areas you’re looking at. I think some are oversaturated, and some are just emerging.

X: Some companies, like Homejoy, for example, have focused on particular verticals. You haven’t. Why not?

LB: The question for us is how do we enable all these categories across our platform? We’ve really taken a focus around home-service verticals. Around house cleaning, moving help, and handyman services. Those were organically our most popular services.

But there are a lot of interesting one-off categories. For our baby shower we had last year, I hired a TaskRabbit to come be a photographer. She had just moved to the Bay Area and wanted to build up her photography business, so she joined TaskRabbit. As we continue to grow and scale, we’ll continue to, in a smart and strategic way, build out these out categories for the TaskRabbit community.

X: What’s coming for TaskRabbit over the next couple of years?

LB: What you’ll see from us is really going to be around new product innovation. That’s all I can say for now.

X: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the past six years?

LB: It was really easy in the beginning to lose focus and get jerked around by some of the competitors on the scene. You realize after a while that you just really need to focus on the company you’re building, on the values of the company you’ve created. If you do that and stay the course, that’s how you’re going to win in this market, in this industry. It’s easy to get pulled in different directions and lose focus. That’s a lesson as an entrepreneur I needed to learn early on.

X: What is your favorite thing that you’ve TaskRabbited?

LB: Having the photographer shoot the baby shower was awesome. I had her put together a photo book we can share with the baby when she is older.

I didn’t post this myself, but it’s my favorite all-time. It was from a woman in Chicago who lost her keys in a lake. The TaskRabbit who picked up the job happened to be a certified scuba diver. He came in scuba gear and found her keys in the lake. I think she paid him $100. And they were her car keys.

X: How often do you use the service?

LB: I myself use TaskRabbit multiple times per week, particularly since I had the baby. She’s seven months old. Just the other day I was out of formula. I wasn’t going to be able to stop. If I do, I lose 15 minutes with the baby before I get home. I literally have 85 minutes a day with her, so the 15 minutes matters to me. I just had some dropped off on my porch so it was there when I get home.


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