Leah Busque: How Taskrabbit grew by leaps and bounds
One thing many entrepreneurs have in common is the way they respond to problems they find irritating or annoying. Instead of just accepting the frustrations they encounter, they try to do something to fix the situation. The result can often be a new kind of business.
For Leah Busque, founder of online errand-running business Taskrabbit, the event that caused her to start a company happened one evening when she and her husband had just called a cab to take them to meet friends for dinner.
"We realised we had run out of dog food," she says.
At the time the couple lived in Boston, Massachusetts, where Ms Busque worked at IBM as a software engineer.
Worried that all the shops would be closed on their way home, she and her husband began discussing the problem.
"My husband's also in technology, so we've always had these very geeky conversations," she says.
"And that night it turned into, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there was just a place online we could go, say we needed dog food, name the price we're willing to pay?'
"We were certain that there was someone in our own neighbourhood that would be willing to help us out, and it was just a matter of connecting with them."
Before she left the house that evening, Ms Busque used her phone to register an internet domain name for her new business idea.
A few months later, she left her job at IBM to work full time on the project.
Researching the market
Once they've hit on what they think is a good idea, many entrepreneurs keep it to themselves, fearful that others might steal it.
Leah Busque took the opposite approach. She says she talked to "anyone who would listen - family, friends, the guy sitting next to me on the bus, the person in the coffee shop, it didn't matter".
She noticed that out of hundreds of conversations "no-one said, 'You're insane. This is not a good idea.' Everyone was like, 'Why doesn't this exist yet?'"
Convinced there was a real potential market, she pressed on with her plan.
"Ignorance is bliss, I think, when you're first starting out," she says. "I wasn't thinking about starting a company, about raising money, about hiring. I was just thinking, I have to build this idea in my head."
Piloting the idea
Ms Busque began by putting an advertisement on Craigslist, an online classified advertising service, seeking people to help her try out her idea. She was surprised by the response.
"I thought I would get all these college students involved that would want to make extra money… but that actually wasn't the case at all," she says. As well as students, there were enquiries from retired people and out-of-work professionals such as lawyers, pharmacists and teachers.
But, Ms Busque says, the idea resonated most of all with working mothers. This group seemed not only to be interested in part-time work as errand-runners, but also in becoming customers of the service.
"They were trying to balance work and life and kids, and they would love for someone to deliver their groceries or pick up the dry cleaning," Ms Busque says.
For her experimental run, Ms Busque spent many hours in local coffee shops interviewing about 100 people, picking 30 of them to take part. The experience helped her later on, when she was developing a more automated vetting and background-checking system for errand-runners.
Ms Busque's plan involved creating an online marketplace, where customers who wanted small tasks done could connect with people willing to carry them out.
Customers would invite bids for various jobs. The company would offer guidance on pricing for many popular tasks and would take a percentage of the price paid, to cover its costs. A reputation ranking system and profiles of errand-runners would help customers to choose the right person for their job.
After a successful small-scale trial, Ms Busque set about building an enterprise.
A chance conversation led her to contact Scott Griffith, who was chief executive of car-sharing business Zipcar at the time. Mr Griffith liked the sound of her plans and offered her space in the Zipcar offices while she got the business off the ground.
"It was an incredible opportunity," says Ms Busque. "I got to watch [Scott] run a 200-person company and grow it and scale it and raise money of his own right before my eyes."
Despite this help, turning an idea into a business was not easy, particularly in late 2008 and 2009.
"It was a really tough time to be raising money," says Ms Busque. "We were in a recession. Investors were not investing. And so that was incredibly stressful and took up a lot of time and energy and a lot of late nights wondering if we should continue or not."
Growing the business
Ms Busque persisted in her efforts to find backers. A breakthrough came after she spent several weeks attending a business incubator programme in California, run by social networking giant Facebook.
"It was kind of like a start-up boot camp - I just learned so much," she says.
Partly through connections she made through the incubator programme, she was able to put together a round of seed-funding, so she could take her business to the next stage.
It was Ms Busque's first visit to the west coast of the US, and she found the atmosphere of Silicon Valley inspiring. She decided to open a second base in San Francisco, which is where the company now has its headquarters.
The firm now operates in several US cities. It is also looking to expand overseas and is planning to launch an operation in the UK soon.
Taskrabbit is just one example of a player in the so-called "sharing economy", where firms attempt to use the internet to make better use of facilities that have spare capacity. Other examples include car-ride sharing firm Zimride, wi-fi access sharing business FON, and Airbnb, which enables home owners to rent out spare rooms as holiday accommodation.
Compared with, say, a manufacturing business, an internet-based company might seem fairly easy to set up. It also means that online businesses might find they have more competitors than traditional ones.
Certainly, Taskrabbit has not found its path to be completely smooth. In July, the company had to lose some staff.
Taskrabbit has expanded from domestic errands into offering help to businesses - a field currently dominated by some huge temporary employment agencies. Ms Busque says she's not worried about competition from big players.
"The temporary labour industry is one that hasn't been reinvented in decades, and so it's prime for disruption," she says. "We're really excited about tackling that market."
It remains to be seen whether Leah Busque and her errand-runners are equal to the task.