Online Services Take Aim at Small Jobs

Some online services now act as middlemen in parceling out small tasks. With a few clicks on a keyboard anyone can summon an assistant to pick up the groceries, help put together Ikea furniture or perform some other small task.

The trend was discussed in the October 2011 issue of Inc. magazine.

TaskRabbit.com allows buyers, or “senders” to post a task, such as picking up groceries, yard work or putting together Ikea furniture. People online known as “TaskRabbits” or “runners” make an offer on the job, and the lowest bidder is automatically assigned it. Buyers pay online by credit card. TaskRabbit.com’s application process includes an online application, background check and phone screening interview.

The company began in 2008 and says senders often receive responses to their inquiries within 10 minutes. It operates in Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York; Orange County, Calif.; and San Francisco. It recently named Eric Grosse, former president of Expedia, at its CEO.

 Another site, Zaarly.com, allows people to sell and buy both things and services. For example, a person could hire someone to walk their dog.

Amazon.com has its own service known as Amazon Mechanical Turk for “work that requires human intelligence.” These can include identifying objects in photographs, data cleansing or audio transcription. “Traditionally, tasks like this have been accomplished by hiring a large temporary workforce (which is time consuming, expensive and difficult to scale) or have gone undone,” according to Amazon.

Mechanical Turk takes the tasks, which must be broken down into small bits, and distributes the pieces to anyone logged on and willing to do them. One recent online task on Mechanical Turk called for workers to confirm that specific URLs were associated with specific companies. Workers received 2 cents per URL.

SI Review magazine has already covered firms that let staffing buyers hire independent contractors in “the cloud” either by the hour or by the task without having to meet them in person or have them onsite to do the work. Such firms include Elance.com and odesk.com (See the August 2011 issue of SI Review).

However, sites such as TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk break down work into very small bits.

These services may represent another aspect of the staffing industry if they grow to be popular. Could they prove real competition to traditional staffing firms? Probably not immediately. TaskRabbit, in particular, seems aimed at consumers while traditional staffing firms are oriented on a business-to-business model. And it seems the jobs offered by TaskRabbit are too small to generate much interest from even the most efficient staffing firms.

Mechanical Turk might represent competition for some commercial staffing operations. But it’s difficult to imagine any high-level professional work being done on these platforms.

Longer-term, however, they do represent a formidable business model for some types of work—particularly in the office and IT space. At a minimum, staffing firms should be watching developments in these services closely, and those with the resources to do so might consider following their lead.

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