Serfing the Web: Sites Let People Farm Out Their Chores
By EMILY GLAZER, NOVEMBER 28, 2011
"Manage our worm bin!" That was the help-wanted note new mom Rachel Christenson posted a few weeks ago at online marketplace TaskRabbit Inc. Neither she nor her husband wanted the "gross" job of dealing with an overflowing compost bin, so she clicked her mouse in search of someone who would do her dirty work. After about 11 hours and a few crazy questions like, "Are your worms nice?" Ms. Christenson, 27 years old, found a taker. Douglas Ivey, a 45-year-old research scientist, drained the "worm juice" from the bin, put back the compost, mixed in newspaper and hosed it all down. The price? $31. "That guy was bold," says Ms. Christenson, of San Francisco. "He just jumped right in." "It was completely disgusting," says Mr. Ivey, who added, "I don't mind. Actually, I find the really gross jobs pay pretty well." A new crop of websites and smartphone applications are allowing people to farm out chores to a growing army of temporary personal assistants. These microemployees are taking the division of labor to once-unthinkable extremes.
One recent advertisement on TaskRabbit sought someone to play a joke on a friend who's a customer-service representative. "It's his bday today, and we need someone that will make a prank call multiple times each hour for a 4 hour time period," read the ad. "The goal is to keep him on the phone as long as possible." Thousands of unemployed or underemployed workers have parlayed one-off job requests into part- or full-time work. The gigs are especially popular with stay-athome moms, retirees and students. Workers choose their jobs and negotiate their own rates. Erika Dumaine, 24, logged onto TaskRabbit this April and saw the following plea for help: "Buy me shoes ASAP. I stepped in dog poop." So Ms. Dumaine, now a full-time nanny, bought and delivered a requested new pair of navy blue Toms shoes from Nordstrom's to the poster, Guillermo Rauch. (Her payment: $17.) Aura Montano, a 21-year-old nursing student, stood on the Brooklyn Bridge holding an "I heart Anie Lewis" sign one Friday evening in August so she could attract the attention of Eric Lewis's wife and hand her flowers as she walked home from work. (She earned $19.) Some investors see dollar signs. Zaarly Inc., an online marketplace for micro-labor and goods based in San Francisco, recently raised $14.1 million from Google Inc. investor and venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Actor Ashton Kutcher and clothing designer Marc Ecko have also put in money. In October, Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman joined the company's board. After launching six months ago, Zaarly is processing more than 1,000 transactions a week for jobs that cost around $50 a pop. Chief Executive and cofounder Bo Fishback, 33, says about half the requests involve tangible goods, and the rest involve some sort of service. One of his favorites: a person who hired someone to buy a Michael Jackson-themed dog costume for a puppy.
Sometimes the situation can be dire. John Burks, a 30-year-old actor who also runs an arts organization in Chicago, accidentally dropped his keys in a sewer during a rainstorm over the summer. To replace all the keys—including ones to his home, office and Mercedes—could cost well over $100.
After Googling "lost keys down sewer" to see what tactics others had used, Mr. Burks thought he could recover his keys with a fishing rod and a magnet, but had neither. His girlfriend at the time knew someone who worked at Zaarly, so he posted the job on its site. Liz Langer, a 27-year-old neuroscience graduate student and top Zaarly "fulfiller," spotted the job and within an hour arrived with the needed tools. Fifteen minutes later, they fished the keys out of the sewer. (Price: $80.) "It's like stranger than fiction," Mr. Burks says. "I thought there was a very small chance that anything like that can happen." Mr. Ecko, founder of his namesake billion-dollar fashion company, posted a request for a cake resembling a can of Barq's Famous Olde Tyme Root Beer for his now seven-year-old son's birthday. His son got the cake "and I came off like a hero," he says. Mr. Kutcher, 33, who has received Hebrew lessons and cups of coffee through Zaarly, says every request he's posted—anonymously, he emphasized—has been fulfilled. "Companies like this are really tackling things like unemployment in an efficient, viable way," Mr. Kutcher says. Some micro-laborers find a lot of little tasks can add up. Alanna Greenham, 56, was cash-strapped and unemployed in San Francisco. Then last April, while sending in her 30th job application, she came across a TaskRabbit ad. After submitting an online application, completing a video interview and going through a Social Security number trace and a federal criminal background check,
Ms. Greenham joined the San Francisco-based company's crew of about 2,000 "TaskRabbits." She does odd jobs via the service every day, aiming to clear at least $25 an hour. So far, she's completed about 250 jobs and has racked up around $1,500 a month. Recently, Ms. Greenham drove a truckload of goods from San Francisco to a warehouse in San Bruno, Calif., where they were shipped off to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Her cargo? A big silver tricycle, a batch of Jester clothes and a large, tent-like dwelling called a yurt. Her price? $100. TaskRabbit won't disclose specific revenue per task, but says its average service fee is 15%, paid by the person posting the job. Amazon Mechanical Turk, a service of Amazon.com Inc., lets people work from home, like virtual temps. Companies such as Microsoft Corp. and LinkedIn Corp. place jobs on the service, often to help them manage or categorize content, says Sharon Chiarella, vice president of Amazon Mechanical Turk. About a year ago, Chris Berry, a special-education teacher in Granite Bay, Calif., began actively using the service, launched in 2005, in hopes of making extra money to support his wife and four children. Mr. Berry, 39, earned more than $10,000 from tasks that paid as little as 10 cents a pop. He says he sometimes completed more than 1,000 jobs a day, ranging from writing golfing tips to doling out parenting advice. "I don't see myself stopping any time soon," he says. "I could be on Facebook playing games or something, but this is kind of fun."