Monday, September 17, 2012

This company has an app for independent contractors

Put Task Rabbit on your radar screen. It's a new company that matches people (or companies) who want tasks done with people (independent contractors) who want to get paid to do them. 
There's technology involved, of course. The "independent contractors" (red flag, eh?) who do the work are interviewed by video, they bid on jobs using their smartphones and they get paid the same way. They never have to actually go to a physical place -- e.g., a temp agency -- to get hired.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek describes how it works:
...they take advantage of smartphones. Workers can load one of these companies’ apps on their location-aware iPhone or Android device and, if the impulse strikes, take a job near them any time of day. Employers can monitor the whereabouts of their workers, make payments on their phones or over the Web, and evaluate each job after it’s accomplished.
An entrepreneurial buzz surrounds TaskRabbit  and similar startups, Bloomber reports:
Leah Busque, a former IBM (IBM) software engineer who started and runs TaskRabbit, says thousands of people make a living (up to $60,000 a year) on her site, which operates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and five other cities. “We are enabling micro-entrepreneurs to build their own business on top of TaskRabbit, to set their own schedules, specify how much they want to get paid, say what they are good at, and then incorporate the work into their lifestyle,” she says. 
Venture capitalists have bet $38 million on TaskRabbit and millions more on similar startups. Other distributed labor companies, with names like IAmExec (be a part-time gopher) and Gigwalk (run errands for companies) are being founded every day.
What's it like working as a TaskRabbit? The author of the Bloomberg story, Brad Stone, described it as "ignonimous" and "grueling." (Isn't that what you'd expect from a company that hires "independent contractors"?) Stone washed cars for a start-up car wash chain called Cherry:
Travis VanderZanden has an ambitious goal: to build the first nationwide car wash service. His year-old startup, Cherry, is tackling the $19.5 billion car wash market by harnessing a small army of unskilled workers with free time, outfitting them with washing kits and iPhone apps and sending them out to clean cars where they’re parked. “There’s a huge unemployed population in this country so we have no shortage of people applying to be a part of this,” he says. The service is live in San Francisco and San Diego, and there are plans for rapid expansion.
And he delivered small packages for another startup called Postmates:
The startup, says founder Bastian Lehmann, aims to be a “Fedex within a city.” Customers submit orders via Postmate’s “Get it Now” smartphone app to have something delivered—groceries, say, or a sandwich. The job is then routed to nearby smartphone-toting couriers who compete to be the first to press “accept” and take the job. Unlike infamous dot-com era flameouts or Webvan, Postmates holds no inventory. The courier has one hour to buy and deliver the goods in murderous city traffic. A timer on the phone helpfully ticks down the seconds, Jack Bauer-style.
A TaskRabbit contractor did an interview a while back describing its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side,
I've picked up about $3,000 in three months from TaskRabbit, so TaskRabbit is paying my rent.
On the minus side,
...the TaskRabbits themselves are guaranteed no protection.  They have no insurance.  They walk into unknown situations and often get paid less than minimum wage to do unthinkable tasks...It's up to us to take care of ourselves, it's up to us to decide what we will and will not do... 
Because it's very much people wanting peasants, anonymous elves to come in during the night and do the dirty work, and they don't want to pay very much, and the markup on the task is actually much higher than what they claim it to be. They claim the markup is 15%. It's actually more like 70%...No one is obligated to pay minimum wage, and that happens again and again and again.  I have worked 12 and 15 hour days doing really strenuous physical labor and had $80 to show for it.
Are you thinking what we're thinking? So was our interviewee....
...part of the strategy of TaskRabbit (is)  to keep us apart from one another.  We can't message each other on the website.  The only way you get to meet another TaskRabbit is if you post a task, and I think they do this to keep us apart because they don't want us fixing the process. They don't want us unionizing.  They don't want us to get together and say an Ikea run is $50 minimum. 
But the thing is, I think TaskRabbit could really benefit from a union.  They could really benefit from some organization because we really are out there.  We could face any number of uncertainties or dangers, or hazardous conditions, and we have no recourse.