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.
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.
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.
The narrative may be set, but TaskRabbit's actual business still needs refining. That's why Busque is meeting today with one of her earliest investors, Ann Miura-Ko of Floodgate, who is sipping her morning Vitaminwater. TaskRabbit has refocused itself a couple of times already--first catering heavily toward women, then shifting so as not to alienate men. Now it seems that TaskRabbit's fastest-growing customers are small businesses looking to hire everyone from part-time receptionists to data-entry people, which means Busque is recasting part of the business to resemble a temp agency. "That model hasn't really been innovated in decades," Busque says. "You have these big players in the space that are still operating the way they were 25 years ago, with tons of overhead."
Busque has also discovered that the most common postings on TaskRabbit are for deliveries. So TaskRabbit--like many other services--now offers one-hour delivery. "But," says Busque, looking for guidance from Miura-Ko, "my vision for this business isn't to become a deliveries company, so I'm trying to figure out, where is the line?"
Defining that line defines the competition. On one side are other generalist hire-a-personal-gofer startups such as Fancy Hands ("Do what you love, we'll do the rest!"), Gigwalk ("Hire your smartphone army!"), and Zirtual ("Virtual assistants for busy people!"). On the other are targeted startups like Lyft, on which anyone can offer his services as a cabbie, or Exec, on which anyone can pose as a housecleaner for hire. Busque wonders if these niche sites might threaten TaskRabbit. Miura-Ko mulls it over: "[They] leave very little to the imagination on the part of the consumer. So I know exactly what I'm supposed to do when I come in, pricing is kind of set, I know how to think about it, I know how to work."
Arguably, the most successful marketplaces have been built by entrepreneurs who started in this narrow fashion, became trusted for a specific service, and only then mushroomed into something bigger. Best Buy started with audio gear; Amazon began with books. Founders Fund loves TaskRabbit's broadness, but consumers don't always understand it. "One problem that we're fixing on the customer side is making sure people know what they can get done on TaskRabbit," says Anne Raimondi, TaskRabbit's new chief revenue officer, who came from eBay. Five years into TaskRabbit's life, consumer ignorance of the site's very purpose might seem alarming. But TaskRabbit is busy with the business of mushrooming. Up until recently, the company has decided after careful analysis where to launch--which has led it to such startup-friendly locales as Austin and Seattle. Now, however, its engineers are working to create an automated way for the platform to grow zip code by zip code, with "Rabbits" flipping the switch in their own neighborhoods. As of April, the company claims it is now adding 1,000 Rabbits per month.
Toward the end of her meeting with Busque, Miura-Ko suggests yet another direction for the company. "I sort of think you guys should be this 'people-powered API,'" she says. In this version every retailer from Trader Joe's to Five Guys could use TaskRabbit's API to rent Busque's outsourced band of delivery people. "I think this notion of a people-powered API is fundamentally disruptive," concludes Miura-Ko. "There's a sea tide coming in where people expect things to be delivered to their house. If we believe that's true, TaskRabbit sits in the middle of that movement." Sounds like another revolution for TaskRabbit to manage.
"My dear, just bear with me, will you please?" says the sixtysomething Scottish woman who has picked me up in her gray sedan. There's a jumbo-size hot pink mustache pinned to her bumper, which in San Francisco is widely recognized as shorthand for Lyft. The startup is backed by both Founders Fund and Floodgate and its stated goal--would you believe--is angling to revolutionize traffic. But the VC narrative isn't all industry and revolution--there's a soft side here as well. Says Miura-Ko about Lyft and TaskRabbit: "It's that sort of connection that becomes increasingly important in this type of economy." Every Lyft driver is supposed to give her new passenger a fist bump; it's the human connection we apparently miss in yellow cabs.
Founders Fund has hired Lyft to bring me to my next meeting, and I'm running 10 minutes late. But my driver, human connection that she is, hums melodically while she shares her story of traveling the world as a classical musician until she recently found herself out of work. She doesn't know how to get me to my destination, and while my stress reaches a simmer, she just chirps, "We'll figure it out!" like a sweet great-aunt. Then, at a stoplight, she spots another car with a pink mustache idling next to us. She honks and they give each other virtual fist bumps: two newbies doing a job once performed by full-time drivers.
Marketplaces take a long time to grow and there are bound to be bumps along the way. Busque, her team, and her investors know this. But the disparity between the claims they make and the reality of their current business is so great that you have to wonder: Do the VCs who create these narratives truly believe their growth tales, or is it all about optics? Some Rabbits say that the company has indeed "revolutionized" their lives. But let's look closely at what that means. Currently only 10% of its Rabbits earn their entire income on the platform. The company boasts that these super-users make around $55,000 a year. To earn that much, a Rabbit must perform four tasks every single day of the year (given that the average task charge is $45, and 20% goes to the company). And that's before taxes and health care.Many of these tasks are posted on the spur of the moment, which is a freelancer's nightmare. Take away the sheen of a sexy interface and the cute little bunny logo, and you're left with something that arguably locates a Rabbit a few notches above migrant worker. If TaskRabbit ever would rise to its narrative myth, its true impact would be to usher in an economy of shlepping. "Design or cooking, those are very highly differentiated talents. Cleaning is on the commodity-goods end," says Union Square Ventures partner Albert Wenger. "The commodity end of a marketplace will lead to a further commoditization of labor." In other words, the more skill-less work well-off folks outsource on TaskRabbit, the lower the wages for the Rabbits themselves.
When I return home to New York, I order my own Rabbit. His task: Wait in the notoriously long line at Grimaldi's, a famous pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge, and then bring me a hot pie. My Rabbit does this with ease. He is Juan Andres Diaz-Valetin, a 23-year-old recent grad from St. John's University, whose roommate read about TaskRabbit online. In the six months he's been on the platform, he's fulfilled Founders Fund's every narrative: He quit his job busing tables at a Ruby Tuesday, he's enjoyed tasks such as being the wingman for a guy proposing to his girlfriend, and he's even made friends--shooting hoops or watching movies with people he met while running their errands. And yet, what is his greatest achievement on TaskRabbit? "I met someone who has a real estate startup and I'm going to be working on the corporate side as well as doing sales," he tells me. Which is to say: TaskRabbit helped him rejoin the unrevolutionized labor force.
This seems like a good and reasonable goal for TaskRabbit--and to Rabbits like Diaz-Valetin, it's more than enough. In the same way that Uber isn't really revolutionizing transportation--it's just getting you a taxi a little faster for a little more money--maybe TaskRabbit really is just a glorified temp agency. "It would not be the kind of career path most people would want if that's where it stopped," admits Zipcar's Griffith. The reality is that the people who use platforms like TaskRabbit's don't care whether the company is transformative. Investors are the ones who care. The danger is that their outsize, retrofitted narratives distract from the actual work of making a sustainable business.
I ask Busque if she thinks there's pressure for every startup to have a world-changing mission. Isn't turning a simple, earthly need into a business--like how to get more dog food--difficult enough? "It's a really good question. No one has ever asked me that before," says Busque, taking a moment to reflect. "I think it depends on what's important to you and who you're answering to."
Baseline's Anderson, one of TaskRabbit's first investors, has helped more than 20 companies get acquired profitably and says entrepreneurs like Busque should answer to only one thing: "If you focus on the fundamentals of the business, the exits take care of themselves." Perhaps if TaskRabbit can figure that out, it will become a nice little service that some customers enjoy--and that Amazon or some other giant will eventually swallow up. The Rabbits would be fine with that. Founders Fund surely would. And Busque probably would too. Because if a narrative is good for anything, it's to raise a startup's valuation. Nothing revolutionary about that.
Photos by Pamela Littky