TECH in AMERICA (TiA)

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How Silicon Valley’s Obsession With Narrative Changed TaskRabbit

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TaskRabbit was once a quaint company with a reasonable ambition of connecting people who had spare time with paid errands. Then it went to Silicon Valley and was respun as “revolutionary.” But does it help?

By: Danielle Sacks, courtesy FastCompany

Leah Busque was raised in a town so small that it had no streetlights. When she was 18, she left home in Massachusetts for rural Virginia, to study at a tiny women’s college where dairy cows roamed the campus. With her degree in hand, Busque returned home to marry her high school sweetheart. She was 22. She got her first job and loyally worked at the company for seven years. Then TaskRabbit happened.

“Gun to your head, which do you choose?” Busque is asking now, grilling her staff in a conference room at her company’s San Francisco office. Five years ago, she founded TaskRabbit as a sort of eBay for errands; anyone can use it to find and pay a stranger to take care of the dreck in their lives, from cleaning dishes to waiting in line for a new iPhone. The company’s bunny logo is undergoing a redesign, and Busque is moving around the room, metaphorical gun to heads, soliciting feedback on the new options. She has a natural leader’s touch, maintaining a schedule that’s like a well-oiled series of speed dates with her company’s designers, engineers, marketing folks, and investors–making her a person who believes in the value of a paid helper.

Busque is also a coder; she built the original TaskRabbit product herself, which makes her that rare tech CEO armed with both technical and communicative chops. “You very often need two cofounders to fill those two roles, and she has both,” says TaskRabbit adviser Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling The 4-Hour Workweek. “She’s not the only entrepreneur in the world who can do that, but we’re talking top 5% of entrepreneurs in the country.” And in true Ferriss style, in the two days I’m in Busque’s office, she squeezes in a mentoring lunch and the company’s quarterly bring-your-kid-to-work day before leaving with her husband–now TaskRabbit’s VP of technology–for Europe to attend another employee’s wedding.

Busque and her new dog; its predecessor inspired TaskRabbit.

As Ferriss well knows, Silicon Valley is a place of storytelling: Ideas and people thrive when they stand for something, or at least stand in for something larger. As a young woman with a compelling backstory and the talent to match, Busque has climbed to the top echelon of Silicon Valley society. The past six months have been one high-profile appearance after the next–a spot at the podium at South by Southwest, onstage following Hillary Clinton at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, and an exclusive seat at Dialogue Retreat, a secretive gathering for handpicked leaders to discuss everything from technology to the future of religion.

Her celebrity fits neatly with the narrative her company has embraced–a tale that Silicon Valley types are giddy about, and that has helped TaskRabbit’s stature grow. When I first met Busque in early 2011, this story hadn’t fully taken form. She told me then that her vision for the startup was to “help neighbors connect with other neighbors in real time to share their certain skills when they need help.” Noble as that was, it hardly plugged into the world-changing ambitions of Valley VCs. But the company took a higher calling by last July, when TaskRabbit announced its total capital infusion had increased to $38 million–thanks to the $13 million it raised in Series C financing, led by tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s high-profile investment firm Founders Fund. “As soon as we met [Founders Fund], I knew we had a very strong shared vision for this business,” Busque announced at the time. “To revolutionize the world’s labor force.”

That language is used often now, both by Busque and her constellation of advisers and funders. TaskRabbit currently has about 11,000 runners in 10 markets–that is, 11,000 people who have signed up and cleared background checks and are ready to profit off of whatever tasks the general public wishes not to do. That’s a fine number, but it’s no revolution. So as Busque’s business continues to evolve, she’s now forced to grapple with a second layer of self-inflicted pressure–not just how to draw people to TaskRabbit but how it can possibly ever match the ambitions projected onto it.


TaskRabbit began life in 2008 as RunMyErrand.com, and it was Busque’s solution to a mundane problem: One evening, she and her husband were about to go meet friends for margaritas when she realized they were out of dog food. If only there was an easy way to find a neighbor who might already be at the store, they thought–someone they could pay to pick up the chow.

Before she began working on a website to turn that idea into a business, she met Scott Griffith, then-CEO of Zipcar. He was impressed: “She’s smart, she doesn’t purport to know it all, and she really wants to learn from VCs and investors,” says Griffith. He persuaded her to quit her steady job at IBM–where she had spent seven years–and offered to be an adviser to her startup, as well as provide office space at his car-sharing company’s Boston headquarters. But RunMyErrand didn’t gain much traction. When she was 29, she was one of 25 entrepreneurs accepted by fbFund, Facebook’s 12-week startup boot camp run by super angel investor Dave McLure. Off she flew to Silicon Valley. “It was the first time I’d ever been out on the West Coast,” says Busque. She came back realizing that she’d built a company to match another coast’s values; it “fit much better into the very busy San Francisco lifestyle than the frugal, prudent lifestyle of Boston,” Griffith says. So Busque and her husband moved West.

From left, TaskRabbit’s chief revenue officer, Anne Raimondi; COO, Stacy Brown-Philpot; and Busque

There is no better embodiment of the Valley’s fast-life ethos than “lifestyle designer” Tim Ferriss, a human homage to hyperefficiency. Busque met Ferriss in 2009 through fbFund, and she prepped by studying his book The 4-Hour Workweek. Following their 15-minute meeting–always on the move, this guy!–Ferris became a TaskRabbit adviser and user, particularly when he needed to take ice baths after Brazilian jiu-jitsu training: “It’s 10:30 p.m. and I need two bags of ice. I’d have to get out of my house, put on all my clothes, park, stand in line. I don’t want to do any of that,” he says.

Ferriss introduced Busque to VCs at Floodgate and Baseline Ventures, which became her seed investors. The company’s narrative was still nascent. “I saw it less as a disrupter and more of an effective way for people to save time and do it in a crowdsourced way,” says Baseline founder Steve Anderson. “You could call eBay a disrupter, but it wasn’t. It just brought garage sales online.”

Two years later, a VC from Founders Fund saw Busque speak at Le Web in Paris. The firm is best known for being an early investor in Facebook, and for Thiel, its eccentric billionaire and staunch libertarian founder. It only backs startups with the potential to become not just “multibillion-dollar companies, but monopolies with huge network effects,” explains Lauren Gross, a Founders Fund principal. Busque has internalized that mission. “They are looking for those game-changing, cancer-curing, rocketships-to-the-moon ideas. That’s all they invest in,” she says.

Founders Fund puts muscle behind its ideologies. Thiel is a funder of the Ayn Rand-inspired Seasteading movement; the goal is to build self-governing city-states on oil rigs, to show the bounty that unencumbered capitalism can breed. Thiel has also footed the bill for a program that lures students out of college in exchange for $100,000, because he believes traditional education is broken.

Last spring, Founders Fund went on a retreat to Hawaii, where the VCs ponder society’s biggest challenges. “It’s often during those retreats that we come up with some of our best ideas,” says Luke Nosek, a partner who cofounded PayPal with Thiel. The conversation turned to labor and how Founders had yet to make any bets on companies poised to change that system. Some of the partners had been meeting with Busque off and on for several months and were increasingly convinced that, as Nosek puts it, “she’s going to create the dominant labor marketplace.” What intrigued them about TaskRabbit was the seemingly infinite nature of the peer-to-peer platform: It could be all things to all people–while earning a 20% commission on top of every transaction. “As the network of things it can satisfy gets bigger, that makes it more and more dominant in the marketplace,” says Nosek. “It essentially gives it an insurmountable competitive barrier.”

As its name suggests, Founders Fund typically invests only in startups that are run by their founders. But when it started chatting with Busque in late 2011, she was just TaskRabbit’s chief product officer. She had stepped down because she believed a CEO with an operations background could help grow the company. But in June 2012, Busque reclaimed the CEO title, and soon thereafter Founders Fund invested $10 million of TaskRabbit’s $13 million round.

“Their pitch to me was ‘We are big-vision investors. We have investments that are going to cure cancer; we have investments that are changing the way agriculture and farmers work across the globe. The one place we do not have an investment in is labor. And we feel like you guys are the one company that is changing the way people are thinking about labor,'” she says. “I would say Founders Fund really helped me articulate and dig into that vision even more because they saw it.”

Gross puts that all on Busque: “I think [her driving mission] is to change the future of the labor market.” And how will that happen? By Founders Fund’s logic, the work available on TaskRabbit will free people from the shackles of low-paying jobs, like frothing lattes at Starbucks, and empower them to craft their own careers. But the jobs on TaskRabbit are almost all menial; one of the most frequently posted gigs is assembling Ikea furniture. I ask Nosek and Gross if they really believe anyone is going to build a career assembling Swedish particleboard. “People do!” insists Nosek. Shortly after, he has to cut out early from our discussion. His private yoga instructor is waiting for him back at his house.

Thank you, TiA

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This entry was posted on June 19, 2013 by in WOMEN IN TECH.

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