While most of us spent good chunks of our childhood playing shops or doctors, Leah Busque was busy heading up Pollution Solutions. “Really, it was just an excuse to boss around my little sister and cousins,” laughs Busque, who is the founder of TaskRabbit, one of the first sharing economy platforms.
Pollution Solutions was Busque’s response to some information she gleaned from her dad: “I’d asked him what the highest title in a company was, and he said chief executive. So I went off and founded a company that I could run!”
Looking back, she says, she always “had the inclination to be entrepreneurial. I’ve always had the confidence to bring my ideas to the forefront and figure out how to get things done.” But it wasn’t until February 2008 that Busque would register an internet domain name for her own business. RunMyErrand.com was the precursor to TaskRabbit, which enables you to outsource household and skilled tasks to people in your local community. It now has 30,000 taskers, with 250 in London and the Home Counties. Users post a task, and then invite vetted taskers to complete it. All of this can be done via TaskRabbit’s app, and a full-time tasker can earn up to £3,200 per month.
After graduating from college in 2001, Busque spent nearly eight years working as a software engineer at IBM. But five years in, she was starting to feel “a little bit antsy.” Despite enjoying her job and the technology she was working with, she “felt there were other skills that [she] wanted to be using on a daily basis, which the role didn’t offer.”
It was in February 2008 that Busque had something of a revelation. Waves were beginning to be made in the tech space: the iPhone had just come out, Facebook was just breaking out of its university cradle, and location-based platforms like Foursquare were just coming onto the scene. “As a technologist, I became really excited about those things – mobile, social and location – and being able to connect real people to get real things done.” Concepts like “the sharing economy” and “collaborative consumption” didn’t exist, but Busque quickly started envisioning a world where they would.
One evening, she and her husband were getting ready to go out, but they also needed to get some dog food. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if there was somewhere online where we could go, name what we were after and what price we were willing to pay, and someone in our neighbourhood who could help us out – who was maybe at the store at that very second – could respond. It was just a matter of being able to connect with them.’ It was such a simple problem – why wasn’t there a simple solution?”
Four months later, she had handed her notice in at IBM. Many colleagues were sceptical, but that didn’t deter Busque, who spent the next 10 weeks “locked in [her] house, building the first version of the site,” before launching it in Boston, where she was living at the time. “It was a massive shift to go from 400,000 people to a team of one – me. I cashed out my pension from IBM, and my husband and I worked out that that would float us for about six months and then I’d have to go back to work.”
Busque never did go back to work – or, rather, to work for someone else – but 2008 was a tough time to get started. “We were gaining a lot of traction, but no-one was writing cheques.” She spent months bootstrapping the company, but in 2009 was offered the opportunity to participate in fbFund Rev, a small incubator programme run by Facebook. This saw TaskRabbit raise $1.8m (£1.2m) in seed funding. After that, cash came thick and fast. The firm moved to San Francisco in 2010, and in 2011 it raised over $22m. Following another funding round, led by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, it’s now raised close to $40m.
In late 2013, TaskRabbit launched outside the US – in London – and the experience indelibly changed the shape of the company. In what was now a bustling market, to keep ahead, Busque decided to strip out all the coding and, in effect, start from scratch. “The product that we launched in London was the inspiration for everything that came after.” Following the London pilot, the platform in the US was completely re-launched. “Technology changes enormously in five years. We knew a different product experience was necessary.”
As several of its rivals had done in the meantime, TaskRabbit focused on home services: cleaning, moving and handymen. It also tightened up the process for taskers doing jobs. Fortunately, things went well. In London alone, all its key metrics at least doubled.
Coming to the UK has highlighted to Busque just how much the needs of one big conurbation differ from another. Flat-pack assembly and gardening are very popular in London, she says. Meanwhile, New York is a very delivery-oriented city, while San Franciscans need a lot of moving help.
But does she think there are limits to how far we can push collaborative consumption? It doesn’t take much imagination to be sceptical of the likelihood of widespread demand for sharing food or clothes. But “it’s all about timing,” says Busque. “The easy things have been done – real estate and transportation. Typically, it’s about high-value assets that are under-utilised. But I can make the argument that someone’s free time and their skills are their highest value asset. We can help them optimise those things.” She also believes that we’re just at the beginning in terms of finding collaborative consumption categories.
And for TaskRabbit, growth has only really just started. This year, it’s expanding across Europe – to Manchester, Dublin, Zurich, and Paris to name but a few of its new locations. Even when it comes to competitors, Busque has only optimism: “they help to validate the market and make consumers more aware” she says. “Their existence also proves my vision of what was possible, and means that it’s paid off.”
Company name: TaskRabbit
Job title: Founder
Number of staff: 53
Born: Shirley, Massachusetts
Lives : San Mateo, California
Studied: Mathematics and Computer Science at Sweet Briar College
Drinking: Tequila and red wine (definitely not at the same time)
Eating: Mexican food
Currently reading: Give and Take, by Adam Grant
Favourite Business Book: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Talents: Ballet, coding, piano, mother
First ambition: To help people live smarter
Motto: How can I push the company forward in the next 24 hours?
Most likely to say: “No boca” – I have a 14 month-old girl who is always putting things in her mouth
Least likely to say: “Not possible”
Awards: Young Global Leader (World Economic Forum), 100 Most Creative People (Fast Company), fbFund recipient, The Next Big Thing in Tech (New York Times), Innovators under 35 (MIT Technology Review), 35 Women Under 30 Who are Changing the World (Glamour)