Leah Busque, the founder and chief product officer at TaskRabbit, is a former IBM software engineer who started her company to solve a problem she had one very cold evening in Boston. She ran out of dog food at home and wished there was someone she could pay to run the errand. She thought: 'it's a simple problem, there should be a simple solution.' That was February 2008. She went online that evening, registered runmyerrand.com, quit her job at IBM four months later, and spent the next year building the initial service.
Nine months into the effort, Leah got an initial round of angel funding from the early investors in Zipcar: Baseline Ventures, First Round Capital, and Maples Investments. An invitation to participate in the fbFund — Facebook’s incubator program — led to a $1.8 million seed round investment that allowed her to make the move from Boston to San Francisco in June of 2010, where she relocated the office and renamed the service to TaskRabbit.
We caught up with Leah recently to talk about how she views TaskRabbit in relation to the other emerging sharing services, and how the current economic climate is affecting her business.
Leah Busque: We're an online and mobile marketplace where people can go to outsource jobs and tasks that are done by background-checked and fully vetted community members called “TaskRabbits.”
We're focused on being a service network that connects neighbors and community members to help each other out with small tasks, and essentially bring old time neighborhood camaraderie to the web. There are a lot of other marketplaces popping up, especially around transportation like AirBnB and RelayRides, where you're sharing homes or cars. When you think about sharing businesses and why we see some of them taking off: it's all about people making profit on their high value assets.
What other high value assets do you have? You, as an individual, as well as your unique skills, are your greatest asset of all.
Who were the first communities to use TaskRabbit?
LB: What's interesting is when I was bootstrapping, I focused on how to bring this idea to market. I felt like if I could be focused it would help. I did a closed beta launch with the Charlestown Mother’s Group. It was a great way to understand the value-add. Word spread across the city and I recruited TaskRabbits in those different areas. I thought I'd have students, but we've ended up with lawyers and other highly skilled professionals using their entrepreneurial impulses to build their reputations, supplement income, and hone their skills.
That brings up an interesting point. Has the recession affected how people are using the service?
LB: One of the trends I’m seeing is that people are starting to rethink and redefine what work means to them. The TaskRabbits become empowered. They begin to act as micro-entrepreneurs — setting their own schedules, naming their price and selecting only the jobs they want to work on. Many TaskRabbits have made this their fulltime gig because it offers unprecedented flexibility and fits their lifestyle so much better. They have a consistency in enthusiasm and engagement.
What's the most effective method of community growth?
LB: We tried all different kinds of marketing. Peer-to-peer word of mouth is the key to organic growth. People have a great experience with the service, either working as TaskRabbits or employing TaskRabbits, and they tell their friends.
What's your design process?
LB: To be quite honest, coming out of IBM I had zero design background. It was all back-end code. When I started building the site, I needed to ramp up and understand that design is the most important thing when you're building a consumer-facing product. We went through a lot of design iterations early on. Four years later, I can't tell you how much we value the design interaction and customer discovery process. Really understanding how people are interacting with the service has been really important for us.
Any larger project we want to tackle always starts with customer discovery. We've sat in people's houses to understand how they would use the service. We learned a lot from early interviews. We start with mockups and prototyping. From there we go into quick sprints and design and discovery.
The whole process is very iterative. We are pushing code every night and look to make small changes over time. We try to break things down to smaller buckets that we can test quickly and get feedback on.
Does the service rely on people creating new habits or behaviors?
LB: I think what we're doing is taking an age-old problem — that there's never enough time in the day to get everything done — and providing an innovative solution. In the past, people relied on their neighbors for help with everyday tasks. Unfortunately, the advent of the web has siloed us a bit from our community. I see companies forming around this idea of the resurrection of the neighborhood, and I think that is exciting.
Technology is at a point where it can mimic human behavior, which is interesting to see develop. These are things you used to do with your neighbors. And we're getting people comfortable again with doing them online.
Another big pattern is the emergence of location-based technologies. Three to five years ago, these technologies were relatively nascent. Now, geo-location has become a critical piece of our (and many other) platforms. Knowing that you are being connected with people in your local community builds trust and makes people feel more connected. And it makes the Internet not feel so vast and anonymous.
How do you encourage people to overcome any reluctance they have to trusting others online?
LB: Again, geo-location helps in inspiring trust. We also build trust through TaskRabbit vetting process. All of our TaskRabbits go through a four-step vetting process before being allowed in the network. This includes an online application, a video interview, a criminal background check, as well as a quiz. Our proprietary reputation engine is really important for marketplace models. Social graphs and social components are incredibly important — that's a big pattern I'm seeing. It is important for people who use our service to see which one of their friends use certain TaskRabbits. They're more likely to use the same TaskRabbit to help with their tasks. Our messaging system is also important. People communicate before the task, make clear agreements and set expectations. Community members post tasks and the TaskRabbits bid on them.
How do you tune your reputation system?
LB: Quite a lot is known, researched and understood. eBay nailed that 15 years ago for product-related exchanges using a reputation system. We do a background screening on each of our TaskRabbits, and employ badges and a point and level system to display community reputation. That has provided a lot more context for people, and allows them to make decisions about whom they want to work with. TaskRabbits are proud of what they're doing. They want to showcase their accomplishments.
Do you think there could be one reputation system for the emerging sharing service ecosystem?
LB: I think that all these networks are going to have their own reputation engines that are important to them, and that there's also a need for augmentation. It's better for the ecosystem. I would love for a TaskRabbit to take their reputation over to AirBnB. I think there's a natural connection through all of these services and marketplaces.
We have an interesting way of interacting with some of the other services. For example, AirBnB needs help exchanging keys so they utilize TaskRabbits to help them. What's exciting for me is that we have the ability to aid and help and cultivate a lot of the other communities across the board. I feel we're coming to a point where there's groundswell of activity. I've seen this marketplace develop and I think it's a major trend that will continue to develop over the months and years ahead.