Digital Life
2:25 pm
Wed October 17, 2012

Going Online To Outsource Your Chores

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Once upon a time, you could find odd jobs posted on the community bulletin board or in a classified ad in a newspaper. In the age of the Internet, Craigslist took over. Now, Silicon Valley start ups offer new ways to farm out the tedious and the time-consuming. Cherry will send someone over to wash your car wherever you happen to have parked it. Postmates provides couriers. And TaskRabbit will assign just about any job you can think of to the lowest bidder. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter Brad Stone worked for a day for each of those agencies, an experience he described as a short, back-breaking, soul-draining journey.

If you've ever used one of these new jobs services on either side of the transaction, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Brad Stone joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you with us today.

BRAD STONE: Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And your third TaskRabbit job found you in somebody else's apartment. You were hired to clean it and, well, apparently it hadn't been cleaned in quite some time.

(LAUGHTER)

STONE: Maybe the word clean is very generous in that context because I didn't even know I worked for about an hour and a half. I didn't make much difference, but yeah, I got a little cocky in my experiment and decided I would go clean somebody's house.

CONAN: And you forgot to plug in your Roomba.

STONE: Yeah, the Roomba. I actually lost the Roomba. It went under the guy's bed and ran out of batteries.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So the idea is that not only do you get paid for this, you bid for it, right?

STONE: That's right. Well, let's take a step back. Silicon Valley is sort of infatuated with this idea that we can geekly call the excess capacity company. And so there are companies like Arabian B(ph), where you could rent out your home or your permit or you Getaround, where you could rent your car. And there's a corollary of companies where you can actually kind of rent out your spare time or your expertise. And so on TaskRabbit, you find, you know, people bidding for jobs for babysitting or putting together IKEA furniture or cooking. And there are many other companies.

And you mentioned, too, Cherry, where, you know, people come together to wash cars and Postmates, which is basically creating a marketplace of delivery people.

CONAN: And sort of FedEx for a single city.

STONE: That's right. I mean, that's - and setting a new standard for laziness, too, because you can use the Postmates app to get groceries or order a burrito and somebody just picks it up and zooms it over to your house.

CONAN: So in other words, we're farming out the - we're outsourcing fast food?

(LAUGHTER)

STONE: Yeah, we're definitely setting a new standard in that respect. But, you know, there is a promise here, which is maybe, you know, for the unemployed or for the underemployed. They could, you know, they could parcel out some of their spare time, you know, they, you take - you load up these apps on your smartphone, you find a job that's really near you, you bid on it and maybe, you know, in a way, it's not full employment. As I found, it's not great pay. But, you know, it's something and it's a new kind of work.

CONAN: And do people make a living at this.

STONE: Well, I certainly didn't. I, you know, I fled back to the safety of my cubicle as soon as I could. But I did talk to people that do. And they generally tend to have a real expertise and then just bid on those kinds of jobs. I was all over the place. I was a weeding somebody's lawn, you know, washing cars. I was collapsing boxes. I didn't make a lot of money. But I talked to a guy who, you know, a handyman, who is an expert at IKEA furniture, and he did say he was making a pretty good living.

CONAN: And it's interesting. Your experience throughout was that you, well, I guess you're interested in getting these jobs so you could write your article. But you kept undervaluing yourself.

STONE: That's right. There's an art to it and you - I think, you have to make a couple of mistakes and then you learn the right way to do it. And I only just made the mistakes until I was, you know, I was actually losing out on a lot of bids, maybe partly because I was admitting that I was a journalist. But also, I was getting under bid. And so, you know, I went to try to win this job, to break down this guy's boxes. And it was, you know, he said it'd be about an hour's worth of work.

So I thought, you know, $40. That seems reasonable for an hour's work. Well, you know, I was like, by an order of magnitude, cheaper than anyone else. Of course, it took longer than an hour. And at the end, I had, to my surprise, my car was full of this guy's boxes, and I was driving around trying to find a recycling center.

CONAN: So not only break down the boxes, but haul them away?

STONE: Exactly.

CONAN: So you didn't know that part of the job came with it. Weeding, what was that like? That's no fun.

STONE: Yeah. But the people were really nice. I mean, it's funny. These, you know, these things are working very well in San Francisco. And in San Francisco, we go for everything. So it remains to be seen how well they do, you know, outside our little bubble here.

But, you know, the people that posted that job, you know, they had done this quite a bit. They loved, you know, having their TaskRabbits over to do things that they didn't want to do or couldn't do. In fact, the woman had arthritis, and so she was, you know, posting jobs that she was incapable of doing. And, you know, and they were great. But I was, you know, halfway into it, I was thinking: What the heck have I done? This is not - you know, this is not what I went to school for. But...

CONAN: Yeah. For this, I studied Chaucer. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

STONE: Exactly.

CONAN: We're talking with Brad Stone. He is with us from member station KQED. He's worked for various digital assignments, people who - ways to find out you can do chores or pick up burritos or get somebody to weed your garden using your smartphone. If you've used TaskRabbit on either side, if you worked for it or if you sign somebody up to do a chore for you, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Jeannie(ph) is on the line with us from San Jose.

JEANNIE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JEANNIE: So I hired somebody to help me with a task off of TaskRabbit. It was the first time, and it was a fairly easy to process to learn. It was an interesting experience. It was just to clean out a closet. It was really cluttered and full of dust. And so, you know, I didn't want to have somebody that I knew come in and go through this closet with me. It just looked like something that a packrat would have. And so the person who showed up was great. I think this was one of her first jobs. She's, like, a graduate student in technology. And I wish that there would have - like, she would've been able to make more decisions on her own, but the useful part was that there was somebody else there helping me get this done.

CONAN: Oh. So she was helping you, and so you could say, now, that we want to keep. Keep it in that pile over there. And this...

JEANNIE: Exactly.

CONAN: ...we need to get rid of. Yeah.

JEANNIE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

CONAN: And how did the pay work?

JEANNIE: Well, the pay was really interesting. Normally, you hire somebody like that off of Craigslist or something, and then they came out and you give them cash. But in this case, the way that it works is you file a credit card with TaskRabbit. And when it's done and you would say it was done the way you wanted it to, then they give payment to the TaskRabbit person, and they take a small fee. I don't know what the fee is that they take. And this was also - I also had people bidding for this job. So I didn't have to say I'll give you $100 to help me with this. I just got people to bid on it, and then I could select the person that I wanted (unintelligible).

CONAN: Either the lowest bidder, or the person who seem the nicest, or whatever.

JEANNIE: I actually picked the first person that responded, because I just thought I don't how many people are really going to want to do this closet job, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And has the closet stayed clean?

JEANNIE: It has stayed clean. It was - that part was a really good experience. The other thing is we have a lot of animals, a lot of dogs and cats. And I really wanted the person who came in to be comfortable with that. And I was able to put that in the ad and got somebody who was very comfortable with having all the animals around.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Jeannie.

JEANNIE: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: And was that your experience, Brad Stone, that you were...

STONE: Yeah. And she raises some good points, you know. As you pointed out, eBay and Craigslist were pioneers, but, you know, those marketplaces, there were still a lot of friction. You know, particularly with Craigslist. It's not easy to pay the person, and you really don't know who they are. And on TaskRabbit, it's a pretty arduous process to sign in and get credentialed. You have go through a background check, criminal background check, and they - you actually take a couple of tests. And so there is a lot of trust upfront. They have the payment mechanism. So they're removing a lot of friction, and they're taking what was a real illiquid market and they're making it liquid.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is David, David with us from Penngrove in California.

DAVID: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, David.

DAVID: How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

DAVID: Great. I've been a TaskRabbit for about three months. And it's been, like, this incredible thing this summer for me, where I was struggling to find work. And I worked for a few catering companies, and I have a photography business that I'm trying to get moving. And I've been able to find clients through TaskRabbit, you know, by bidding on tasks to photograph parties and do event work. And one of my favorite tasks was I photographed a wedding, actually...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: ...a small, alternative wedding in Berkeley. And I never would have found that person, you know, unless they had posted on TaskRabbit. And...

CONAN: But you...

DAVID: ...it was a moving experience.

CONAN: You specialize in photography jobs, though?

DAVID: Yes.

CONAN: And...

DAVID: Yeah.

CONAN: ...that way you can do what you're doing professionally and continue to make contacts with people who, if you go out on your own and set up your own shop, maybe they'll come back to you as customers.

DAVID: Right, right, of course. And I - like, I photographed a birthday party at a bar, in the Mission in San Francisco. And I (technical difficulties) my business cards, and I got another job through that. So it's been really great for my business, you know. And...

CONAN: And do you make, well, a little extra money, or do you actually make a living at it?

DAVID: It seems like I could make a living. One week, I did make a living. I'm still struggling. But it's incredibly helpful. It's - it has made my summer, and I think it will continue to play a huge role in my survival...

CONAN: Hmm. Well...

DAVID: ...and being able to make a living.

CONAN: Good luck, David. Thanks very much.

STONE: Wow.

DAVID: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And that's one of the specialties you suggested, Brad Stone, that, well, you know, you can make this work.

STONE: It's a great story. And the key point is that he couldn't find work, and then, you know, he found at least partial opportunity on TaskRabbit. And, you know, it's funny, because it's not something that the government counts or probably knows much about. I think the TaskRabbits probably have to declare their earnings on their own taxes. But pretty soon, this will have to become part of the overall conversation about labor and unemployment.

CONAN: How widespread is this? More than San Francisco?

STONE: Right. Well, TaskRabbit is in, I think, a half-dozen cities. You know, some of the others, like Cherry and Postmates, are slowly expanding. But it's all very new. And I think it is concentrated in San Francisco, to a lesser extent, New York and on the East Coast. But, you know, we're in the early innings.

CONAN: Cherry, I was interested in that. They will send someone to wash your car, no matter where it is?

STONE: There are a couple of really interesting things about it. That's right. You, as the customer, would order it up on your iPhone. The iPhone tells Cherry where your car is. You leave your car unlocked, and then they send, you know, one or - probably one, you know, car washer. They have a waterless system, which they won't really say anything about. It's a special solution that they describe only and repeatedly as eco-friendly. And they clean your car, and they clean the inside of your car, and then they lock it and they leave. And you pay them over the Internet. And it's kind of amazing.

And I've actually had a Cherry carwash, and it works very well. And you don't have to go wait in line at a real carwash. But, you know, I guess it sort of remains to be seen whether people will take to that. And they are just now trialing it in San Francisco, and I believe they recently expanded to San Diego.

CONAN: But you said this was surprisingly exhausting work.

STONE: Yeah. I think I lasted two carwashes. You know, take a guy out in front of the computer and have them wash cars all day, and he doesn't last long. It is. It's very tiring. And also, you know, the cars are on the side of the road. So you're sitting there kind of dodging traffic, you know, clamoring up on top of the car to wash the top, you know, dealing with all of the, you know, horrors of the insides of people's car. And so, you know, you got to give credit to the people who are jumping into this, into the Cherry labor force.

CONAN: And how much could you make washing cars? And not only washing, but, as you say, cleaning the insides of the cars for Cherry?

STONE: I think - I was sort of apprenticed to a guy who was doing it as, really, his primary job. He actually wanted to go back to school, but he was washing cars for a while. I think he was making about $20 per car, and was doing about five cars a day. So, you know, he wasn't doing all that bad.

CONAN: And as you look, these are all startups. That is to say they are thinking of expansion in various places. Which, if you had to bet, will survive?

STONE: I think this is the, as we've seen before, what we call a network effects business. And so it's the companies get the most - that get the most customers and the most, you know, what we could call maybe suppliers and labor that will do the best. And so there are companies like TaskRabbit, and there's another one I mentioned called Zaarly that do - did get head starts, that were the first, that have - at least here in the Bay Area - the biggest brands. And then the other ones that we talked about are more specialized. But, you know, I'd kind of keep my eye on the big guys like TaskRabbit, and our callers have both mentioned TaskRabbit that, you know, that have the early lead.

CONAN: Well, Brad Stone, thanks very much for your time today, and good luck cleaning your next apartment.

STONE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Brad Stone, a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. We've posted a link to his piece, "My Life as a TaskRabbit." You can find it at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: It's Wednesday and time to read from your comments. Sudhir Venkatesh joined us last week to talk about the decline in community policing from budget cuts. Sally Brogie(ph) heard the program in Worcester, Massachusetts, and sent this comment: Even worse than taking police officers off the beat, the officers in our city now drive around in their cars alone. I always see much more of what's going when I'm the passenger in the car looking about, rather than the driver paying attention to traffic.

And Alvin Case(ph) wrote from Boston: I found that where police officers actually live in the communities they serve, there appeared to be a tendency to mitigate crime just from their own knowledge of the area where they were patrolling. I don't understand why police are not given incentives to live in the places they serve, or, at very least, to learn the languages and nuances of these urban communities.

Barnard College President Debora Spar joined us on what she describes as the perfection trap for women. Sam Evans(ph) in San Francisco emailed: I traded professional life, day care, house cleaner and clean clothes to be at home with my kids. I wish working and nonworking women weren't presented as at odds or in competition with each other. I am a far-from-perfect mom, even though I'm here all the time. If you can afford to choose, do what makes you happiest.

Finally, Emma Bolton(ph) in Oakland, California, heard our conversation with two suicide prevention councilors and took us to task over a term we used on the program. She wrote today: I heard the term jumper used several times to describe a person attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. This is a very offensive and degrading way to describe a human being. By calling someone a jumper, you're shaming him or her and lumping that individual into a group of people that have already fulfilled the potential of that term. Please do the responsible thing and apologize to your listeners.

If you have a correction, comment or question for us, the best way to reach us is by email. The address is talk@npr.org. Please let us know where you're writing from and give us some help on how to pronounce your name. If you're on Twitter, you can follow us there @totn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.