People will still power an AI workforce

Stacy Brown-Philpot | CEO, TaskRabbit

By Lauren Goode | Nov. 3, 2016

The idea for TaskRabbit was conceived back in 2008, when its soon-to-be founder Leah Busque realized she was out of dog food and didn’t want to go out in cold weather to buy more. At the time, TaskRabbit was on the leading edge of the on-demand services that would come to reshape our economy. Less than a decade later, smartphones have become nearly ubiquitous in the US, the Uber-for-x model applies to dozens of startups, and “two-day shipping” seems like a long time. The idea that we can outsource almost any onerous or time-consuming task is no longer a new one, and the growing size of the freelance workforce has brought to light questions about worker rights, safety, and benefits.

But what does the future look like for the gig economy and companies like TaskRabbit, as technologies like artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, and even delivery drones hover in the not-so-distant future?

Stacy Brown-Philpot, formerly TaskRabbit’s chief operating officer, took the helm of the company this past April. While she was COO, TaskRabbit made significant changes to its business model, going from an auction model to fixed prices for specific services, something Brown-Philpot claims helped the company grow more than it had in three years prior. Before joining TaskRabbit, Brown-Philpot had a decade-long career as a director of sales and operations at Google, and earned an MBA from Stanford University.

While some technologists make bold predictions about the ways in which artificial intelligence will impact our lives in the near future, Brown-Philpot thinks people, not robots, will still be performing the kinds of tasks her company provides. The notional of a work schedule as we know it will erode as freelancers and contractors make their own schedules. And, Brown-Philpot thinks more businesses will offer portable benefits for contractors, a controversial topic in today’s “gig economy.”


The Interview

What does a day five to 10 years from now look like to you?

Five to 10 years from now, in my home, things will be largely solved so that I can spend more time with my family. You can imagine a world where you often spend time thinking about all the things that you need to do, but there will be so much automation that some of those things will be figured out for you.

You [will] know that your mother is coming to visit in a week, and [that] a tasker is going to go and show up and clean the house. Or your refrigerator will make an API call to TaskRabbit that the filter needs to be replaced and then the scheduling will already happen and you’ll get that filter replaced.

In the future, when I come home, most of the things that I need to worry about are solved so I can spend time with my family. The devices are connected, but as humans, you’re more connected because you can actually connect in the things that really matter for families.

What’s the greatest challenge in creating that fully automated future?

I think the biggest challenge is reaching that point of automation in a way that the common technologies across these different services can talk to each other — that you can build the services on top of them. We’ll move into a world where there are specialized services but the challenge is getting the technologies to talk to each other in an easy and efficient way.

Five years from now, what do you think we’ll be calling this phenomenon of apps essentially connecting people with services and things that they need on demand? Will it still be called "the sharing economy" or "the gig economy"?

I don’t have the phrase for it yet. Part of it is really just the future of work; this is just how we get things done. Today, if you think about the fabric of America really changing, getting affordable services and help in an affordable way… today, we need a phrase for it. Tomorrow… it will just be how we get things done. You’re going to go from sharing economy to connected home to some automation to specialized services to just life and how we get things done.

In a recent interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, you say that TaskRabbit pays your taskers well above minimum wage.

Yeah, [we pay] five times the Federal minimum wage and an average hourly rate of $35 an hour.

What is the future of minimum wage? It’s something that comes up a lot, especially now in such a contentious election. Is minimum wage going to change dramatically, and if so, is that going to happen because of the private sector?

It has to happen. I think that people need a livable wage. When you think about the last 12 months, there has been such an increase in anxiety and actually an increase in just hopelessness in this country. What we’re trying to inspire and do is create hope and hope is about opportunity.

It’s about pride in what you do and it’s about making a meaningful income. If that means that things like the minimum wage need to change because private sector companies like ours are building hope, are building opportunity, are building the way for people to make a meaningful income, then so be it. But in order for us to thrive and survive as humans, we need to have those things. We need to have pride in what we do.

We need to be able to feed our families and take care of our families. And so all of the systems and the infrastructure that supported the structure around work 20 years ago have got to change in order to make that reality possible.

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Do you think it’s realistic that the minimum wage would go up five years from now?

I think it’s realistic that companies like ours will continue to push the envelope on what it takes to make a meaningful income. Ninety percent of our taskers today are part-time, so they have a job somewhere else but that job isn’t filling the gap. So I hope that five years from now the gap that we continue to fill will be so big that the government and other people will realize that this is something that’s not going anywhere.

Twenty to 30 percent of people in the US and Europe have some independent or freelance job. Sixty million people in the US by 2020 will have some freelance job. This really isn’t going anywhere, and maybe it will take 10 years, to your point, that the structures need to evolve and change to really support this growing workforce.

Will support beyond minimum wage, things like benefits, change for contractors in a significant way in the next five years?

I hope so. There are already smaller companies out there that are trying to separate the benefits that we get from traditional employment with the actual employment. If you separate the benefits, you can look at them individually and determine how you want to offer those services. We’ve partnered with some of them to make some of them available.

We’ve worked with the Obamacare and the health care system to make sure that’s available. We’ve partnered with Intuit to make sure tax planning is available for independent contracts and self-employed people. There are already early signs that businesses are being built around setting up portable benefits that I, as an individual, can extract and use, and build retirement, do tax planning, create a health care structure for myself.

I think over time those things will naturally continue to grow as the work force grows. The businesses will follow. I hope that the structures, from a public sector standpoint, will evolve by the time we build great companies around it.


Will the gig economy transform our notions of schedules?

It already is. You should come to a Tasker meetup. They don’t think, I work 40 hours a week, 9 to 5. The notion of a schedule is, I have two hours today, what can I get done? A client on TaskRabbit might wake up in the morning on Saturday and she’s like, I’ve got a two-hour window. I can hire somebody to come here and hang these pictures up on the wall that have been sitting here for two months because I’ve got this window right now.

[The idea being], I don’t have to plan or think anymore because I’ve got the specialized services available to me. So I think the notion of a schedule has already changed. Another thing that will evolve is, How do I think about making time for my friends and my family if we’re not scheduled in a traditional way? It will be much more integrated. Work will be much more integrated. Family time will be much more integrated.

If the average American worker’s schedule becomes totally fluid, what sort of impact does that have on other industries? I often think about that in regards to things like flight fares around holidays, where prices are currently dictated by the idea of "days off."

It’s just going to become more personalized. How I interact every day when I get home, my typical day would be very personalized. All of the businesses that make extra money [by] charging more because society has said that people get off between Christmas and New Year’s… are going to have to figure out a way to deliver a service that I’ll pay for.

I’ll have a personalized way to look at when and how I travel. And because my schedule is going to be unique to me, I’ll pay what it costs to fit it within my schedule.

My Google search is very different from your Google search for the same keyword. We could sit right side by side and do the same search and we have a different result and it’s all based on how we interact on the internet today. Those will come out of the computer and into the home and then to all the other services that we decide to transact on.

How will voice control change how we interact with on-demand services like TaskRabbit?

We spend a lot of time with our heads down on our phones. We want to see what’s going on with our friends and our family who are not where we are. But we also spend time ordering things, emailing things, requesting things, and typing things by looking down. But you can imagine [a time when] typing and pushing a button isn’t as fast as you just saying what you want.

You could imagine saying: "Alexa, please change my house cleaning appointment from Thursday to Friday." Alexa says, "Okay," and now it’s already done. You didn’t write that down in to-do list, you didn’t type it in anywhere, you don’t have to post the task, you didn’t have to do anything, and you can move on. You’re setting it and forgetting it and after the sentence is spoken, the work is done.

It’s so much easier for you to organize your thoughts. You can just speak the thought and the work will happen.

How will artificial intelligence impact the gig economy in a way that it hasn’t already?

I think there’s a boundary. Cars are machines, so we’ll automate cars. Our washer and dryer are machines. We’ll figure out how to automate [them] and put the technology in and then you’ll buy one in five years and it already talks to TaskRabbit.

But, it’s really hard to turn a human being into a machine. I used to watch The Jetsons growing up. I used to think that this woman, Rosie, the robot housekeeper, was going to exist. I think we’re far away from that happening.

The sharing economy will change because a lot of these things will be automated, but someone will have to physically take those clothes out of the washing machine and put them into the dryer. That’s got to be a human being.

Someone has to level that TV on the wall and mount it in the right exact parameters that you wanted it. That’s going to be a human being. Because people aren’t machines, the true specialized services that people need to provide will still continue to be provided in a very flexible way as part of what we today call the sharing economy.


One of my colleagues wrote an article recently about the value of doing things yourself. This idea that you can get a sense of pride or satisfaction from the tasks of everyday life. Do you think that there could ever potentially be a backlash to this idea of having every single chore — driving, building shelves — done on our behalf?

I think that human beings are often looking for a reason to relate. I remember growing up, we couldn’t afford anybody to come and do the chores around the house, so Saturday mornings… we had to clean the house and do the chores.

Part of that was the experience of interacting with the family as a unit, everyone having a role and a part. The question is, do you actually need the task of doing the chore to create the family unit and the ability to relate, or is it just that the family wants to find a way spend time together?

I separate the task from what I think human behavior is, which is, "I just want to connect with you on something that is common," or, "I just want to feel proud of something that I’m able to do and capable of doing." If it’s putting together those shelves or running a mile for the first time, you can decide which one of those things is going to make you proud of yourself and other people proud of you. It will be great to have the choice.

For some people, they will still want to put that crib together for the first kid and that’s going to make them feel like a great dad. And for some people, they’re going to be on their second kid and they’re like, You know what? I want to go kick the soccer ball around and let somebody else put the crib together because that also makes me a great dad.

Let’s talk about diversity. You’ve said before that when you were growing up, there just weren’t that many black CEOs for you to look up to. Even now, there are very few other prominent black female CEOs. What do you think needs to happen in order for the tech workforce to become more diverse in the next five years?

A lot. There is progress. I’ve been in Silicon Valley for 16 years. The conversation around diversity is richer than it has ever been. People are willing to talk about it. People are willing to accept that they failed in creating a diverse workforce [from] the beginning.

People are willing to reach out and ask for help in partner with various organizations like Code2040 and others to change the dynamic in the numbers. What it’s going to come down to now is their willingness to do the harder thing. The harder thing being holding yourself accountable to results, deciding what those targets are, and being slow to hire which is really hard to say when you’re a growing company. Being slow to hire gives you the time to find the best qualified candidate and look at the diverse population of people.

I also know that the next person that we add who may be LGBTQ, who may be African-American, who may be Hispanic, will make the very few African-Americans or LGBTQ people in the company feel like they can bring their whole self to work and all of them will now be more productive because of it. But that’s the harder thing to do and that’s the biggest challenge that we have because we’re being held accountable to hitting certain revenue numbers.

When you’re a venture-funded company, you’ve got to achieve lots of heroic things to make that investment pay off and sometimes you sacrifice the real need to address diversity.

What makes hiring a diverse workforce so difficult, though?

If you don’t have an active pipeline of diverse candidates and you don’t know where to start, there is some work on your part to go and build it. It’s not hard because the people aren’t there; you have to just go and find them and you have to decide that you’re going to do it. If your natural network doesn’t include that group of people, then you’re going to have to send two extra emails, have two more meetings.

Let’s get down to the specifics of it. When we brought in our VP of legal and regulatory, Danielle [Merida], I really wanted to create some diversity in my leadership team and [reached out to] a lot of women who were parts of various associations of law professionals. So when we brought in our candidate pool for the role, we had a very diverse set of people to choose from and that’s because I’m a woman so I could focus on that.

If you’re not a woman and you don’t have access to those networks, you have now got to go build that and it might be uncomfortable.


Where do you think TaskRabbit will be in five years?

I have this vision of ubiquity for TaskRabbit. I think we can become the Starbucks for home services. Think about it: everyone drinks coffee, but Starbucks created an experience around it. There’s a lot of services and chores that you need to get done and we’re creating an experience around it which is, I can set it and forget it. I have someone who can help me out as a trusted, individual human being.

I think in five to 10 years people will still be using phones, but it will be a much more connected world where we’re doing a lot of talking to devices and machines and a lot of background fulfilling of chores and tasks so that our clients can really live their lives.

Can you paint me a scenario of what that background fulfilling of chores looks like?

I have LED light bulbs in my home. We just did a remodel in the kid’s room and we’re getting ready for the second baby. We need to change how things are set up — we need more LED bulbs. Because my light system is connected, that order will get placed somewhere.

The Tasker will show up with them. You’re probably having dinner with your family, with your kids. You’re sitting at the table, someone knocks on the door, and they go, I’m here to install an LED bulb. What LED bulb? What are you talking about? There’s four in this new room that you just added and so I’m just going to go ahead and put that in for you. Great. It’s already been taken care of and it happens.

You spend two minutes opening the door and you never actually had to place the order, you never had to think about, but it’s something you wanted to get done and you can go back to your conversation.

Is TaskRabbit selling those bulbs in this futuristic picture?

It doesn’t matter. It could be, or it could be you already have an account with Home Depot and we go to Home Depot because we’ve partnered with them and pick it up.

Amazon is already headed in this direction with their Dash Replenishment Service built into home appliances, Dash buttons, and their far-flung voice control. You can reorder your garbage bags through Alexa. Do you see that all competitive to what TaskRabbit is trying to do?

I don’t. We’ve partnered with Amazon last year, particularly around TV mounting. If you buy a TV, you [can] add the service to cart to get the TV mounted. The person who shows up could be a Tasker from TaskRabbit that mounts that TV for you. There is that last step of the human being we are not replacing.

What about autonomous vehicles? Will that impact TaskRabbit’s grand plan for the next five years?

Probably. I would love to solve the infrastructure in transportation problem. One of the biggest challenges for succeeding in smaller markets is some of these smaller markets just don’t have good public transportation. If you’re tasking on TaskRabbit, you’re probably trying to make ends meet, you’re trying to make some extra money and you may not have a car.

If you have a car, that’s great but if you don’t, you rely on a transportation system that is not as reliable as it should be. Autonomous vehicles that are affordable will solve a lot of how do you get people from point A to point B and it’ll enable millions of people to task on TaskRabbit who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do that today.

This interview has been edited and condensed


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