Tim Fung first had an inkling of the business that would become Airtasker when he was moving house in his native Sydney, Australia, in 2011.
He asked a friend who runs a factory to bring his truck over to help move boxes and they spent the whole weekend packing, moving stuff to the new house and cleaning everything up. When they were done, Fung thanked his friend, who turned around and said that was the fourth time someone had asked for help moving house recently.
“It got me thinking, why do we ask our friends and family to do these jobs for free when there are people around who would do it for money?” Fung says. The company, founded in 2012, has since grown it to 2 million users in Australia. It recently opened a new office in London.
It provides a platform for users to list jobs that other members bid to do, with Airtasker taking a 15 per cent cut, a bit like a personal outsourcing service. Recently the chef Marco Pierre White has been using Airtasker to ask people to try restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne for as much as $500 per tasker, with over 600 people making an offer to complete the task.
The UK may prove a trickier proposition. Airtasker launched here in March amid a backlash against the gig economy. Taskrabbit, its closest UK rival, has been held up alongside Uber and Airbnb as the evil architects of a new kind of freelance work that does not specify minimum wages, minimum amounts of guaranteed work and sick and holiday pay. This so-called gig economy forces workers to make their living piecemeal and has been blamed for rising numbers of stress-related illnesses.
Airtasker says it is different from the agency models used in the gig economy because the workers themselves choose the scope of the work and their price. Only the person posting the job can see how much people are bidding, to stop the platform becoming a race to the cheapest price for menial jobs. Fung calls this a “community marketplace”, and says Airtasker is more like Gumtree than Taskrabbit.
“Traditionally it would be, ‘I need a babysitter, I’m going to ask a friend, or put an ad on Gumtree, or put a note on the community notice board,’” Fung says. “You’re hiring someone because one person said they were good, whereas on Airtasker you have background checks and recommendations and that’s a better outcome than making an assessment based on one person’s opinion. Also if you’re an awesome babysitter, at the moment you don’t get monetary recognition for that.”
Not everyone is so sure about the difference. “The idea that this app is empowering because people are never forced to take a job ignores the reality of the labour market,” says Duncan McCann, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, a think tank. “Ultimately there is no requirement that people will be paid the minimum wage and taskers (those bidding on the jobs) are still incentivised to bid as low as possible to secure work for themselves. To me this smacks of tech being developed by people who do not really understand the nature of precarious work nor the real world pressures on those looking for jobs.”
I ask Fung if there’s also something a bit sad about monetising the tiny favours and kindnesses that characterise relationships between families and friends. “I wouldn’t say your friends and family are super-stoked when you ask them to help you move for the weekend,” Fung says. “It’s not trying to say don’t ever do that, it’s just giving you options.”
Summer Breakfast with Ash and Ed sent regular Airtasker Sean on a KFC chicken blitz to deliver chicken on behalf of the show! What a gig! 🍗 pic.twitter.com/iCJoMCqKNJ
— Hit Network (@HitNetworkAUS) December 11, 2017
Fung, now 34, started out studying tourism and hospitality. He had planned to become a hotelier, but got into investment banking at Macquarie, a bank headquartered in Sydney, where he worked for five years before becoming a celebrity manager for Chic, a management company co-founded by Peter O’Connell. “While I was there, he gave me the opportunity to work on the Amaysim,” Fung says of the phone startup offering Australians SIM-only deals. “That was like my startup MBA: seeing a company start with a Powerpoint deck and end up as a company that employs 120 people.”
That makes Airtasker the second company Fung has grown from nothing to one employing 120 people. It has received AU$63m in funding to date with the most recent round of AU$33 million in October led by Skyfield Capital. Fung says it is yet to make a profit.
One of the most popular uses of the app is to build Ikea furniture, amounting to 35,000 tasks per year. The relationship has resulted in a partnership with Ikea in Australia where customers can book Airtaskers to come and assemble their furniture. “The service that Ikea offers in Australia, is a very white glove service, you pay a bit of a premium and they will have a customer service manager do it for you,” Fung says. “The way Airtasker works is more about connecting you with the guy up the road who is a handyman. It can be more efficient and cheaper.”
$500 to cuddle this guy. Legit! Retweet to any dog lovers you know. This boy needs some love https://t.co/b2k4JOaj3a #puppypal #Puppies pic.twitter.com/cPjdu82xfN
— Airtasker (@Airtasker) September 8, 2017
But still, Fung says, it’s totally safe. Part of the 15 per cent service fee goes towards police and safety checks for the Airtaskers on the service, so that users can be confident about the people they are inviting into their home. Another portion goes towards marketing for services advertised, which Fung says gets rid of expensive proprietary websites and fliers and includes financial services like handling the merchant account and insurance.
“When people say we are making money from them doing the labour, when you look at the supply chain to create the relationship… all those things are bundled into part of your income,” Fung says. “If [your business] works out, that’s great,” Fung says, “but if not, you pay nothing.”
Nonetheless, Airtasker’s 15 per cent service fee has come under scrutiny. So many people have asked what the service fee covers that the company wrote a post on its website “providing context and transparency” where it said Airtasker is committed to “growing the pie” rather than “taking a bigger slice of the pie”, meaning it is motivated to work with its users, rather than to extract money from them.
Alice Casey, senior development manager at think tank Nesta, has helped developed the ShareLab fund, which is exploring how platforms like this one can help tackle social challenges. She says the most exciting innovations are bringing values and ethics directly into their operating models, like Stocksy United, a platform coop that shares profit and control with its community: “Steps towards putting more control in the hands of gig workers are welcome, but all casual ‘tasker’ work platforms have still got some way to go before they can truly call themselves community platforms in any meaningful sense.”
Fung says there’s room for everyone in the marketplace as new models of work evolve. “It’s a fundamental requirement for members of a community to be able to meet other members of the community and work together,” he says. “I’m almost certain Airtasker has to exist.”