Star­tups tackle spe­cial­ized tasks

Dozens of com­pa­nies com­pete to take on small busi­nesses’ hol­i­day headaches.

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By Jes­sica Bruder PETER DASILVA / NEW YORK TIMES

Small-busi­ness own­ers are like Swiss Army knives: ex­pected to han­dle dozens of spe­cial­ized tasks with­out fall­ing apart. But even the sharpest en­trepreneurs have it tough this time of year — in­evitably, some will out­source part of their work­load to other en­ter­pris­ing peo­ple. And dozens of star­tups are com­pet­ing to take on small busi­nesses’ hol­i­day headaches.

Here are three time-gob­bling sit­u­a­tions and the young com­pa­nies vy­ing to elim­i­nate them:

CHAL­LENGE: Your to-do list is crammed with tiny tasks. How can you del­e­gate them cheaply?

ONE SO­LU­TION: For $5 you could drink a large latte and work through the night. Or you could hire a min­ion at Fiverr, which bills it­self as “the world’s largest mar­ket­place for small ser­vices.” Start­ing at $5 apiece, tasks in­clude de­sign­ing busi­ness cards and let­ter­heads, send­ing out hand­writ­ten cards, edit­ing news­let­ters, mak­ing short com­mer­cial videos and throw­ing darts at a pic­ture of your ri­val.

“Pretty much any­thing you imag­ine can be found on Fiverr,” said the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Micha Kauf­man, who set out in 2010 with Shai Wininger to build what Kauf­man calls “an eBay for ser­vices.”

Fiverr, with head­quar­ters in Tel Aviv and of­fices in New York and Amsterdam, has more than 1 mil­lion ac­tive buy­ers and sellers across 200 coun­tries, Kauf­man said. He would not dis­close rev­enue or the num­ber of sales his site has bro­kered. Fiverr has raised $20 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing and has 60 full-time staff mem­bers. The com­pany col­lects a 20 per­cent com­mis­sion on each sale.

THE COM­PE­TI­TION: Fiverr’s success has in­spired an army of im­i­ta­tors, in­clud­ing Gig Me 5, Gig­bucks, TenBux and Zeerk. Build­ing and sell­ing Fiverr copy­cat sites has also be­come a cot­tage in­dus­try for on­line soft­ware de­vel­op­ers.

CHAL­LENGE: You want to del­e­gate com­plex, highly spe­cial­ized tasks, but it’s hard to find peo­ple whose ex­per­tise matches your needs.

ONE SO­LU­TION: SkillPages con­nects skilled work­ers with those who want to hire them. The site show­cases an ar­ray of spe­cial­ists — bee­keep­ers, tree sur­geons, witches, clog dancers — along with pro­fes­sion­als with more con­ven­tional busi­ness skills, like pay­roll ad­min­is­tra­tors, so­cial me­dia mar­keters and typ­ists.

Iain Mac Don­ald de­cided to start SkillPages af­ter seek­ing a tree cut­ter on­line to do work in his yard. “This guy ar­rives with a huge truck, and he could have taken down a for­est,” Mac Don­ald said. “He was go­ing to charge me $3,000. It just wasn’t right.”

Mac Don­ald fig­ured there had to be a way to help make bet­ter matches. To that end, SkillPages iden­ti­fies spe­cial- ists whom users’ fam­i­lies and friends may al­ready know through so­cial net­works. Users can also view work sam­ples on­line and con­tact mem­bers di­rectly.

Based in Ire­land, SkillPages went live in 2011 and opened an of­fice in Palo Alto, Calif., this year. The com­pany’s 35 em­ploy­ees han­dle traf­fic from more than 9 mil­lion users world­wide, 1.5 mil­lion of them in North Amer­ica. The com­pany has re­ceived $18.5 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing, said Mac Don­ald, the chief ex­ec­u­tive.

SkillPages’ ba­sic ser­vices are free. To make money, it sells ad­ver­tis­ing space and of­fers pre­mium mem­ber­ships with stand-alone Web sites for

those of­fer­ing ser­vices. Next year, Mac Don­ald plans to of­fer a paid match­mak­ing ser­vice for tal­ent-seek­ing com­pa­nies.

THE COM­PE­TI­TION: Guru, oDesk and Elance also fo­cus on skilled work. LinkedIn added a “skills” com­po­nent to its pro­files last year.

CHAL­LENGE: You are over­whelmed by er­rands and other lo­ca­tion-spe­cific jobs. You need an af­ford­able gofer: com­pe­tent, trust­wor­thy, lo­cal.

ONE SO­LU­TION: TaskRab­bit is an on-de­mand ser­vice for han­dling quick jobs: as­sem­bling Ikea fur­ni­ture, pack­ing boxes, wrap­ping gifts, mail­ing in­vi­ta­tions or even car­ry­ing awk­ward ob­jects like Christ­mas trees.

The com­pany sends re­quests to a net­work of “rab­bits” — er­rand-run­ners screened through video in­ter­views and back­ground checks — who bid for the work. Last month, 80 were hired to wait on Black Fri­day lines.

Leah Busque got the idea for TaskRab­bit one night in 2008, when she was go­ing out to din­ner and re­al­ized she had no food in the house for Kobe, her yel­low Labrador. En­vi­sion­ing an on­line ser­vice for dis­patch­ing er­rand-run­ners, she quit her job as an IBM soft­ware en­gi­neer to build it.

A year later, she won a slot in Face­book’s now de­funct in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram and later moved her com­pany, then called RunMyEr­rand, to San Fran­cisco from Bos­ton.

Now TaskRab­bit has 60 work­ers at its head­quar­ters and more than 4,000 free­lancers wran­gling tasks for cus­tomers in the Bay Area and Austin, along with Bos­ton, Chicago, Los An­ge­les, New York, Port­land, Ore., and San An­to­nio.

TaskRab­bit has raised al­most $40 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing, and rev­enue nearly quin­tu­pled this year, Busque said. She said the com­pany typ­i­cally charges users 18 per­cent on top of its free­lancers’ fees. Small busi­nesses, she said, are her fastest-grow­ing group of cus­tomers.

THE COM­PE­TI­TION: Agent Any­thing, Exec., Fancy Hands, PAForADay and Zaarly.

Leah Busque (right), founder of TaskRab­bit, works with mar­ket­ing man­ager Lau­ren Sherman at com­pany of­fices in San Fran­cisco. TaskRab­bit is an on-de­mand ser­vice for han­dling quick jobs — such as as­sem­bling Ikea fur­ni­ture, pack­ing boxes and wrap­ping gifts.

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