When faced with financial uncertainty, taking control of your own income is an empowering human instinct. During and after the financial crisis of 2008, many newly unemployed turned to the company I founded, TaskRabbit, to fill in income gaps, replenish savings, or gain flexible income while starting up a different type of business. Others turned side hustles into careers with the help of Shopify and Etsy. Still more plugged into the burgeoning array of on-demand companies to monetize their cars and homes. Many eventually found their way back into traditional employee roles, and some decided to continue on as solopreneurs.
This time of immense financial uncertainty will be different.
With more than 44.1 million Americans filing for unemployment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this country is experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. That’s more than a quarter of the American workforce out of work. Some economists are predicting that a large percentage of the jobs lost are gone for good.
These numbers indicate that the old models of employment didn’t work for everyone during a time of crisis, and they beg some important new questions: How many of today’s unemployed will actually have jobs to go back to? And how many of them will want to become employees in the traditional sense again?
I believe that this recession will encourage a larger share of Americans to take charge of their own earning. Some will start companies that employ other people, but many more will decide to build companies of one.
Increasingly, building a company of one means bringing your skills and talents online. Millions are ready to harness the reach of the internet and the efficiency of technology, but they aren’t interested in becoming web developers first. This means now is the time for no- and low-code companies to deliver infrastructure to make it possible for anyone to create their own work.
Shopify helped lead the first wave of companies abstracting away complexity for independent retailers. Instead of wrangling separate vendors for website development, inventory management, order processing and fulfillment, payments, customer management, and point of sale—it’s all stitched together into a single platform. Understandably, Shopify reported a 62% increase in new stores between March 13, 2020 and April 2020.
Likewise, companies like Patreon allow creators to monetize their followings by letting fans support them with a monthly membership fee. Patreon also reported a surge in new users—more than 30,000 new creators during the first three weeks of March alone. And we’re starting to see new no- and low-code companies like Ikaria (a portfolio company of my venture fund Fuel) make virtual event hosting accessible to anyone. This means solopreneurs can build a business by offering cooking classes, meditation workshops, or coaching sessions—with all the ticketing and hosting logistics handled for them.
What do these companies have in common? They’re built around the idea that anyone who wants to start a business should have no barriers to doing so. They assume the burden of the “back office,” like invoicing and accounting, so that entrepreneurs can focus on their products or their services. And they don’t require the new entrepreneur to know a single line of code (or to hire someone who does).
As an investor, it’s exciting to think about the new tools and platforms that will be developed for these independent workers to quickly and easily get their businesses up and running. Companies like Webflow, Airtable, Clearbit, and Figma (the latter two are Fuel portfolio companies) are already demonstrating the impact of no- and low-code products within an enterprise context. Once these kinds of products are targeted to individuals, there will be immense opportunity in the independent economy.
Imagine a future in which any individual can take a specific skill or service—cooking, yoga, dog walking, gardening, grocery shopping—and go into business for themselves without having to take out a loan, hire a developer, or take business classes. Think of what happens to our economy if each one of those 42 million unemployed (not to mention the students graduating into an uncertain economy) can choose to earn differently. When the back office infrastructure and client-facing interaction—like website, promotions, and payment—is plug and play, then anyone can choose to play.
These new tools encourage a greater number of people to question their assumptions about work. They embolden a growing legion of entrepreneurs to reimagine the way they earn. Ultimately, they empower more people to advance their own financial futures and contribute to our collective recovery.
Leah Solivan is the founder of TaskRabbit and a general partner at VC fund Fuel Capital.