By Caleb Garling
Animations by Justin Cassano
I’m pretty handy with tools and home improvements, but man, if this goddamn drawer in my kitchen hasn’t given me enough fits. In the end, I break, enlisting someone to help me out. A few clicks and a day later, he’s there at my door: a stocky handyman with a beard, sporting a Yale baseball cap, a masters in architecture, and a law degree. His name’s Adam, “Tasker Adam W” to be more specific, and he politely asks me whether he should take off his boots.
Tasker Adam W fiddles with the sliders on my drawer of doom, unscrewing and re-screwing the left-hand one. He points out that I could probably save a lot of the ker-chunk when the drawer opens if I just cleaned the rollers a little. Finally — finally — after some more jiggling, and a little double-checking with an angle ruler, Tasker Adam W has the tracks running better than I ever could.
He does this a lot. Adam recently moved to the Bay Area to be an architect. Originally from a West Virginia family that was no stranger to tools, he’s been picking up handyman work through TaskRabbit, the on-demand employment app, for the last month. That’s how I found him. “I did this stuff for friends for free for 20 years,” he says.
Doing a couple jobs each day, Adam estimates he’ll pull in close to $3,000 this month, which has provided financial cushion to be pickier as he looks for full-time architecture work.
Tasker Adam W is doing okay. But he never worked for the version of TaskRabbit that died in July.
Founded in 2008, TaskRabbit was one of the pioneers of the peer-to-peer marketplace — the same basic idea that powers companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and the rest of the renting economy. (Please, let’s stop calling it the “sharing economy”: Sharing doesn’t involve money.) It heralded a techtopian dream of a friction-free world where workers and employers operated under ideal conditions: Find a job when you need it, find a worker when you desire one, all at the right price. And with investors pumping in more than $37 million to get it going, TaskRabbit seemed like it might be getting somewhere. In 2011 Wired called it “revolutionary”; last year Bloomberg Businessweek declared that “in the future, we’ll all be TaskRabbits.”
But the dream turned out to be tougher in reality. This past summer, before Adam started doing his handyman act, TaskRabbit zigged. It’s what Silicon Valley calls a pivot — start-up speak for retooling its business model — and it usually happens for financial reasons. What it meant in practice was a set of severe changes to the system’s mechanics that many of the taskers I spoke to said destroyed much of their freedom.
Overnight, the platform shifted from an open-bidding market — a kind of eBay for jobs — to something much more like a temp agency. Previously, if you needed someone to, say, install a door, you described the job and “rabbits” (the not-exactly-flattering name for workers, which the company has now ditched in favor of “taskers”) would bid on the work. You selected the worker you wanted and they came to do the job. By most accounts it was pretty effective.
Now, however, potential employers enter a four-hour time window, select from one of four main job categories, and enter a description. They then select from a list of taskers whose hourly rates fit the bill, or let TaskRabbit’s algorithm choose one.
Trouble is, this doesn’t mean the tasker wants this particular job, it just means TaskRabbit thinks the tasker wants to do a job in this category and is available. In the past, this wasn’t an issue: Taskers chose which job description to respond to. Now they just get notifications saying they’re needed. They are, effectively, on call.
Tasker Adam W doesn’t mind, because he’s looking for work almost every day. But many loved TaskRabbit because it let them work exactly when and how they wanted. Now they find themselves having to decline jobs they didn’t ask for.
“We don’t have that flexibility,” says Marcel Prather, a veteran D.C.-area tasker. “I’m still able to make money, but it’s a very, very different experience. I wouldn’t have chosen to work with TaskRabbit if they’d started this way originally.”
Marcel’s been on disability for a condition that mostly affects his legs and eyes, and TaskRabbit quickly became his chief source of income. But the changes have left him scrambling to stop getting matched with an extremely arduous job — or at least be sure he’s doing it at the right price. “I’ve set my rates pretty high so I don’t get screwed,” he says. But now he has to set a single rate for everything — which means he misses out on bidding for jobs that would be easier for him to cope with.
He’s not the only one who’s angry. That sense of being your own boss is gone for many. “Anyone left working for TR is an indentured servant,” wrote one commenter on a popular TaskRabbit Facebook group. “I would have used ‘anyone that continues to be a Tasker,’ but that’s not what you are; you are a TR worker. You are not growing your own business, you are growing TR as a business.”
It’s almost impossible to find anyone in the group with a positive experience, much less a compliment, about the changes. Among workers, there’s a general sense of camaraderie and support for one another, and vitriol for TaskRabbit itself. Taskers commiserate on scheduling mishaps, the new optional uniforms, and the 20 percent cut TaskRabbit takes from each job (it used to be 15 percent). Some conversations focus on people’s experience going with TaskRabbit competitors like Postmates and Thumbtack.
It’s often the same for those who use the other end of the system — the employers. Whitney Morris has posted almost 50 tasks, mostly for staffing up promotional events. One of the great advantages of the old system, she says, was that you could post very specific niche jobs — the in-between jobs — and the bidding system would find a great match. The changes have driven her bananas, and she finds it far more difficult to fill the little jobs that make her events run — like the right people to direct parking, check IDs, tidy up, or work the information booth.
“The reason I used TaskRabbit is because they allowed me to get other things done,” she says. For movers or cleaners? “Those I can go through reputable companies for.” She shows me a couple of the emails she gets when the matching engine can’t find somebody. Before the changes, she says, “this didn’t really happen.”
So why is TaskRabbit troubled? I chatted with Andrey Fradkin of the National Bureau of Economics Research, who studies how digitization alters the job market. Ideally, he points out, the peer-to-peer economy functions like an online dating site: “There’s a limited supply on both sides of the market, and each option is different from the next.” But he thinks TaskRabbit is betting in the other direction — that it can build a platform so big that the lack of nuance becomes irrelevant.
“If that works, that’s great for the platform. But what that has done is taken away a lot of choice from the other side: The taskers can’t pick what they like,” he says. “I think it’s making a bet that there are a lot of people that want to earn some extra money, and they don’t care how they do it.”
Part of the problem seems to be that TaskRabbit doesn’t know exactly which market it wants to dominate. Other players in the renting economy have set sights on one or two industries: Airbnb and VRBO take on hospitality; Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and Flywheel take on taxis. But TaskRabbit has had to operate — and gain credibility — in dozens of blue-collar service industries: movers, handymen, electricians, cleaners, plumbers, couriers, yard workers, temps, and so on.
And if that wasn’t hard enough, there’s also the problem of keeping people on board. Because even if TaskRabbit acts as the middleman for the first job you book, it’s tricky to keep people using the platform the second time. After all, if you’re searching for a housecleaner or a handyman and find one you like, why go through TaskRabbit the next time you need help? Just call the person back and cut the site’s commission out of the equation. It’s against the rules, of course, and TaskRabbit makes it harder by closing down your online conversation with any taskers once the job is completed. But that’s not because it’s better for anyone using the site: It’s because, to be a functioning business—and despite the vision it sells — TaskRabbit needs to be the friction.
Other peer-to-peer firms don’t have to worry about these things. Uber users want a ride, not a driver (as long as the driver isn’t insane). Few Airbnb users return to the same city and stay in the same place multiple times —so they need the full marketplace of rentals during each new search.
Imagine if TaskRabbit was a dating app. Previously you could say “loves 18th-century historical fiction, backcountry skiing, and anything by Scott Joplin.” Now you have to say “loves books, sports, and music.” And when the app finally got lucky and paired you with someone good, it would levy a 20 percent tax on whoever proposes the date.
One day as I was working on this story, I received an email from TaskRabbit’s vice-president of marketing, Jamie Viggiano. “We saw your recent posting on Craigslist to interview Taskers about their experiences using our service,” she wrote.
Well, that was weird, because I didn’t post anything on Craigslist (although I had posted on a Reddit TaskRabbit forum). “Please know that it is our policy that all journalists work through TaskRabbit Corporate for these requests. We’d be happy to coordinate interviews.”
I’d also reached out to a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who was studying peer-to-peer economics, with a focus on TaskRabbit. She was willing to talk — until she checked with the company, after which she was not. Viggiano told me she would handle the interview instead.
Later, a spokesman said that the new categorization system had provided “exceptional” results in London (one of the places the new system was tested in), and that “since the update, Taskers are receiving up to four times as many task opportunities.” He did not, however, say whether four times the opportunity means four times as much work.
Then, when I told Viggiano that I’d gathered serious complaints from taskers, and that it may be better for me to have the conversation with CEO and founder Leah Busque, Viggiano told me Busque was unavailable, cancelled our interview, and directed me to a blog post from July about the changes. And that was that.
Janssen Kuhn used to be a street performer in New York, and used TaskRabbit to supplement his income. He could play his fiddle for a few hours and then match a quick job to earn extra cash. Then, over the summer, he attended a TaskRabbit “town hall” to discuss (or, rather, hear about) the new changes, where he says three TaskRabbit employees spoke to a room of about 50 taskers.
“I could very quickly tell that this was a very insular corporate culture we were dealing with,” he says.
“You could tell they had talking points and they wanted to stick to the script. They had this thing they really believed in — they wanted us to believe in it. But it really resembled a scene from a movie or a show, like The Office. We’re constantly asking questions or bringing up issues about this thing, and they’re constantly trying to sidestep it. We’re all just disgruntled, like ‘What the hell is this shit?’ And they just wanted to ignore that no one likes what they’re talking about. And they said to us, ‘It’s not done yet, it’s still in the beta test. We’ll listen to everything you said.’ ”
TaskRabbit went ahead with the changes just a few weeks later.
Now Kuhn is back in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, searching for freelance work to augment his music income. He doesn’t use TaskRabbit any more. “This was the best opportunity I ever had to make a somewhat reliable living,” he says. “Now there’s none of that… essentially you’re on call and you do what you’re told.”