Not long ago, Chris Mok worked in the advertising department for Macy’s in San Francisco, booking models for the department store’s catalogs. Then, in 2009, he was laid off along with 1,400 people as part of a reorganization. For a while Mok helped his wife with her floral business, and after the company used TaskRabbit to help them deliver leis, he applied to become a contractor with them. Users post errands they need done, along with how much they're willing to pay; Mok bids for the right to do them, with TaskRabbit taking a cut of the sale. Now he works as a TaskRabbit full time, assembling furniture, painting, and hanging flat-screen televisions, among many other jobs. Mok, 47, says he loves the service for the chance it gives him to work, make money, and manage his own schedule. "Now I feel like I could make a career out of being a handyman," he said. "But I had a nice job at Macy’s."
As more contractors like Mok make TaskRabbit a full-time job — 10 percent of the company's contractors already have— the company is taking steps to become a full-service temporary employment agency. The San Francisco startup is introducing a service today that lets businesses hire contractors for traditional "temp" jobs, like administrative assistant and call center work. It’s the company’s latest effort to rethink jobs and careers in a US labor market still rife with long-term unemployment, where many businesses are hiring temps rather than investing in full-time employees and the benefits they require.
"Really what we want to do is revolutionize how people work — and also how people find people to do work," said Anne Raimondi, TaskRabbit’s chief revenue officer. For many Americans, finding work has never been harder. Last month, 37 percent of the unemployed — 4.4 million people — had been without a job for more than six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s down significantly from April 2010, when 6.7 million people were classified among the long-term jobless, but still more than triple the number from before the recession started in 2007.
"Really what we want to do is revolutionize how people work."
TaskRabbit was created in 2008 after its founder, Leah Busque, realized she needed to buy dog food but didn’t have time to get it herself. Working by herself at first, and later with a staff of 65 funded by nearly $40 million in venture capital, Busque built a marketplace for getting errands done. "Neighbors helping neighbors — it’s an old school concept upgraded for today," the company says. "We call it service networking, and it’s changing everything." The service has now launched in nine cities, has just under 11,000 contractors available, and has a goal of adding 1,000 more each month.
But beneath the friendly neighborhood exterior lies a darker reality — people often come to TaskRabbit looking for work after being laid off from corporate jobs where they had steady incomes, health benefits, 401(k) matches, and a clear path for career advancement. The education levels of the company’s contractors help tell the story: 70 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, 20 percent have master’s degrees, and 5 percent have a PhD.
Five percent of TaskRabbits have a PhD
Now TaskRabbit will begin placing at least some of those contractors into longer-term assignments. "It’s essentially replacing going to a temp agency — which our customers were trying to do already," Raimondi said. About 35 percent of the tasks posted on the site each month come from businesses; many are seeking temporary office managers and administrative assistants. TaskRabbit’s new service streamlines the process by handling all the necessary paperwork for tax withholding, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation.
It’s a move to disrupt traditional staffing agencies like Manpower and Kelly Services, undercutting them on price while providing both employer and contractor with a more transparent set of facts from which to make decisions. (Employers can view contractors’ LinkedIn profiles before hiring them, for example, something that is impossible at most temp agencies.)
This is the gig economy at scale, where workers have increasing options for short-term work even as their prospects of returning to the full-time world diminish. Employers have added 184,000 temp jobs in the past year, according to the BLS, 7.4 percent more than the previous year. Meanwhile, without giving specific figures, TaskRabbit says that in the past 12 months it quadrupled its user base and quintupled its revenues.
Susana Jung managed logistics for a renewable energy company in Silicon Valley before being laid off about four years ago. After taking some time off, she began searching for work online only to find that available jobs paid far less than she expected. "What they asked you to do, for the amount of pay — it was terrible," she said. Jung signed up with TaskRabbit after her brother told her about it, and now runs errands for the company full time. She is no longer actively looking for a corporate job. "TaskRabbit has really been good to me," she said.
With its ranks growing quickly, TaskRabbit's focus is turning to how it can make the freelance life more attractive. The next step: benefits. TaskRabbit is having early conversations with employers and contractors about what they would like to see in a health insurance plan. "More people are going to be managing their careers in a very different way going forward," Raimondi said. "And benefits are a very important part of that."
The next step for TaskRabbit: health benefits
Perhaps the best sign for TaskRabbit is that many contractors say they would continue taking jobs through the service even if one of their temporary gigs turned into full-time employment. (One TaskRabbit is an engineer at Google who does lawn care on weekends to help pay off his student loans faster, according to the company.) Mok is among those who say he expects to remain at TaskRabbit even if he starts his own handyman business, which he has considered.
Last month US employers initiated 1,199 layoffs of more than 50 workers, affecting 116,849 people. Even the happiest TaskRabbits — and everyone interviewed for this story roundly praised it — acknowledged that they sometimes missed the stability and benefits afforded by traditional jobs like those. The company won't say what the average worker makes using the service, saying it varies widely depending on the number and types of jobs a contractor is willing to work. But in many cases it is likely to be less than they would make in the white-collar business world — the most successful contractor made $5,000 in a month, the company says.
"I like to think of it as a great backup — I’ve always got TaskRabbit to fall back on," Mok said. "You just go on the website. Even if you don’t have any work lined up for the day, you can pretty much keep yourself busy if you just start."