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

2/10/09Follow @wroush

When a good idea is ready to be born, it can surface in several minds at once. That appears to be what’s happening right now around Boston, as four local Web-based startups launch online marketplaces that match people willing to do small jobs with people who need jobs done. In each case, the founders point to the free-falling economy and ballooning unemployment rates as part of the inspiration and fuel for their experiments.

We’ve told you recently about Assured Labor, a site that lists reviews of service providers such as dog walkers and helps potential clients connect with them. We also took a close look at fixR, a site where clients post information about paving or roofing jobs and the like and contractors submit competing bids. Both companies have global ambitions, but chose Boston to launch beta version of their sites. And now there are two more job-matchmaking players in town: Labortopia, where service providers can create profiles and clients can leave reviews, and RunMyErrand, where “senders” post tasks as simple as “pick up 30 pounds of dog food at Stop & Shop” and “runners” can sign up to do the jobs.

All four companies say they’re reacting in part to the opportunities created by the economic crisis, which has put a stop to much construction, renovation, and consulting work—meaning contractors are looking for better ways to advertise their services to potential clients—while also throwing many average people out of work, meaning they’re available to do odd jobs.

But the same time, entrepreneurs seem to be waking up to the limitations of existing online marketplaces like Craigslist and social-networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, which weren’t designed to handle quick negotiations between people who likely live in the same physical community. The new sites they’re creating mix elements of the old-fashioned text-based “Help Wanted” ad, such as a basic description of the job, with added features like mobile messaging, competitive bidding, and online payments, as well as Web 2.0-style profiles and customer reviews.

RunMyErrand founder and CEO Leah Busque has an apt term for the new phenomenon: “service networking.” While RunMyErrand is a place to outsource small jobs, “what we are actually doing is harnessing the power of a community,” Busque writes on her blog. “Social networking has obviously become quite popular in recent years, and capturing this essence and leveraging it to get real things done in people’s every day life is some pretty exciting stuff.”

Browsing RunMyErrand errands on Google MapsBusque, a former software engineer in IBM’s Lotus division, says the idea for RunMyErrand occurred to her and her husband Kevin one cold day in February 2008, when they were about to leave their Charlestown apartment to meet friends for dinner and realized they were out of dog food for their 100-pound yellow Labrador retriever, Kobe. “Kevin is also in computers, so we have many of these really geeky moments in our house,” Busque says. “This was one of those times, where we said ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a place online where we could post that we needed dog food, and if somebody in the neighborhood had time to drop by with it, that would be great.’ Craigslist is great, but it doesn’t really have that sense of urgency that was part of this situation.”

By the end of the evening, the couple had decided that there was a business opportunity in the concept. “Even five years ago the technology wasn’t really available to build what we wanted, but with social networking being so popular now, and mobile applications, and all these different ways to facilitate connections, we felt we were on to something—this new standard that we began calling service networking,” says Busque. (Kobe never got his dinner, by the way.)

At RunMyErrand, senders first sign up for an account, use a credit card to load up on credits, then post errands. Runners can scan pending errands on a Google map, which shows which jobs are available nearby. The first runner to respond to the posting gets the job. After an errand is completed, 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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