As Unemployment Rises, “Service Networking” Startups Find Niche Matching Workers With Odd Jobs

2/10/09Follow @wroush

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senders can rate runners on their performance; runners get paid for completed errands and expenses in the form of credits, which they can redeem later via Paypal or a check mailed to their home.

The tasks senders post range from a few minutes’ work to a few hours. For one job completed on January 16, a sender needed a runner to drive to Ikea’s Stoughton, MA outlet to pick up a $59 swivel chair. The job paid $20; the entire $79 came out of the sender’s online credits. Last week, a sender needed a small grocery bag picked up at her office and delivered across town to a business on Boston’s Newbury Street. That job paid $10. Runners keep the entire fee; RunMyErrands makes money by levying a small surcharge on the credit packages bought be senders, according to Busque.

For RunMyErrand, there’s a bright silver lining to the economic crisis: “We can get some really amazing, really overqualified errand runners,” Busque says. “And they are happy to do it. Having the flexibility of something like this, maybe while they’re looking for another job or supplementing their income from wherever they are working, has been huge.”

Busque says that she expected that most of the people volunteering to be runners would be students, but was surprised to find that the quick jobs attract people from a range of backgrounds. “It’s really this slice of the community. We have stay-at-home moms who are at Target every day anyway, and we have retired college professors who like to get out and be active, and we have professionals who want to supplement their income on the weekends.”

And while you might think that the recession would put a squeeze on the budgets of potential senders, Busque says quite a few people are willing to pay someone else a few dollars to take care of simple tasks, especially if it frees them up to do something more remunerative. In effect, RunMyErrand and its littermates are the hyperlocal equivalent of the “personal offshoring” services that outlets like the Wall Street Journal have chronicled recently.

The idea behind Labortopia, an East Boston-based startup whose site went live last week, is similar to Busque’s. One key difference is in how it focuses on larger jobs that require some expertise, like plumbing, house painting, tutoring, translation, or Web development. Service providers can sign up for a free account and create Yellow-Pages-like profiles listing their services, qualifications, and fees. Service seekers, meanwhile, don’t need to sign up for anything—they can simply contact providers directly via phone or e-mail.

“The main idea is to make this as easy as possible for users like plumbers and electricians who may not have that much technical knowledge of the Web,” says founder and CEO Keven Dones, a former network administrator and small-business IT consultant. “Craigslist and Angie’s List and services like that are pretty complicated when it comes to registering, navigation, search, and making contact. We don’t want to take time away from service providers.” For providers who don’t have computers, or don’t spend much time in front of them, Dones says Labortopia is working on a text-messaging system that will let providers field queries via their mobile phones.

For the moment, Labortopia isn’t charging providers or seekers a fee for the matchmaking service. “There’s tons of ways we could make money, once we start getting traction and a decent database of providers,” says Dones. But right now, he says, the company’s focus is on “helping the community, so seekers can better connect with services in their local area.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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