Tim Fung, the co-founder and CEO of Australian crowd labor platform Airtasker, has what you might call the exemplar resumé of gen Y’s multi-careerism. Fung has done finance; he was a talent agent with a celebrity management firm; he helped start Australian telecom service Amaysim — and these are just some of the highlights.
It was during his stint at Amaysim that Fung and his coworker Jonathan Lui, itching to do something disruptive again, decided to take a look at what was happening in the mobile app space. “That’s when we came up with the idea to start Airtasker,” Fung says.
“Basically, we just felt that reputations were all moving online, and that was going to enable a bunch of commercial transactions that hadn’t been possible before,” Fung explains.
Fung and Lui believed that there were three “big areas” in peoples lives that would be especially affected by the digitization of reputation: the home, the car, and the job. “They’re the three biggest assets that people own,” Fung says. “We saw the home getting disrupted with Airbnb. We saw the car getting disrupted with Getaround, and GoGet here in Australia, and Lyft and Uber in the U.S.”
That left the job to be disrupted. Services like oDesk and Elance already existed, allowing people to pick up computer-based freelance work from all over the world, but Fung and Lui saw an opportunity to apply that model to local commerce — to tasks that need a physical location or presence. “For example, tasks like photography, like store inspections, like market research, product testing – all of these things often require a physical component to them, or at least a local component to them, meaning that you don’t want someone in India or the Philippines,” Fung elaborates. “That’s not appropriate for this type of task.”
And thus, Airtasker was born.
What is Airtasker?
“I guess the analogy is that we would say we are like an oDesk for the real world,” Fung says. Essentially, Airtasker is much like any other crowdsourcing labor-platform — e.g., TaskRabbit or Gigwalk: it connects people and businesses with other people in the local area who are willing and able to perform specific tasks in exchange for payment.
The major difference between Airtasker and other crowdsourced labor platforms is that Fung and Lui choose to pursue an open marketplace-style platform, rather than a more curated approach — more eBay than Target, if you will. “When you go onto eBay … you realize that it’s a marketplace and that you’re dealing with another real person, as opposed to when you walk into a store, you know that you’re dealing with a big corporation that’s supposed to have a different set of expectations,” Fung explains. “What that means is that these companies, if they want to provide all those expectations, they generally have to narrow their scope. They can’t create a sort of vibrant marketplace with lots of different skills. They have to focus just on one niche.”
Gigwalk, for example, takes the more curated approach, specializing in providing companies with laborers for short-term, unskilled, retail-related gigs. Similarly, TaskRabbit’s niche was providing a race-to-the-bottom bidding model to yield the cheapest labor possible. Though TaskRabbit recently changed its approach, the service is still quite curated.
Fung says the curated model is more like a temp agency or a promotional staffing firm than a marketplace, in that someone needs a short-term project to be completed and they look to the staffing agency to lend them workers to complete the project on demand, in the same way TaskPosters on TaskRabbit look for unskilled laborers to complete their projects on demand.
But in Airtasker’s open-marketplace model, “the behaviors of the users actually determine who’s going to get a good job and who’s not going to get a good job,” Fung says. He compares Airtasker to Airbnb: “For example, on Airbnb, anyone can sign up and list their property, but you’re not going to get found and rented unless you put up nice photos and have a nice profile.”
So it is with Airtasker: anyone can sign up and look for jobs, but they aren’t going to get jobs unless they can prove themselves as capable and trustworthy to other users. It isn’t about being assigned a job or outbidding the competition — it’s about demonstrating your worth and being chosen on the marketplace.
The Benefits of an Open Marketplace for Crowd Labor
Fung stresses that the Airtasker open-marketplace model is not necessarily better or worse than the more curated, on-demand models of other platforms. Rather, he says, the models are simply different, in the same way that eBay isn’t necessarily better than Target, just different.
Still, Fung says Airtasker chose the open marketplace model for a reason. “When you create a marketplace, there’s so much more people and opportunity, you bring in new skills, and you bring in some stuff that you may not be able to find in an on-demand marketplace,” he says. “I guess that’s why the prices are slightly higher: the scope of what can be achieved is different.”
The prices are certainly slightly higher on Airtasker, where the average task is worth $25 per hour, with an average job size of $120 total per task.
“We wanted to chase something really big,” Fung says of the decision to use the open-marketplace model. “It sounds cheesy, and everyone probably says this, but we wanted to do an eBay-for-services-type of approach. We feel that if you build the processes and the infrastructure for people to curate themselves, then eventually you’ll get to exactly the same quality as the other approaches, but it would be self-sustaining.”
The open-marketplace model fits well with Fung’s vision of the future of labor, in which crowdsourced talent will “absolutely” become a major fixture on the employment landscape.
Career structures have changed over time, Fung says: your great-grandfather may have had one job his whole life, and your grandfather may have had three, and your father may have had five, but you’re probably going to have 15-20, according to some estimates. Crowd labor is a natural outgrowth of this trend.
“There’s more fluidity or liquidity in labor these days,” Fung says. “Fifty years ago, to go and get a job was really complicated. There was no data available on people, so you would have to go in and meet people, do ten interviews, you probably had to know the boss’s son, and you got a job. It was very difficult to move around to other jobs, because of that lack of information.”
Now, Fung says, moving jobs is much simpler, because our reputations and work histories are all online. “It’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, cool, I’ll look that guy up on LinkedIn, check out a couple of references … and then that transaction can happen.’”
“We think that will just happen more and more and more, as all of this data becomes more transparent,” Fung continues. “Basically, over time, what you’ll see is casualization of labor forces becoming a huge trend, so that will basically enable massive amounts of specialization, which is a really, really good thing. It means you can just focus on what you’re really, really good at.”
For now, Fung is understandably stingy with details about Airtasker’s future, as the relatively young company (it began in 2011) is still building up and out. That being said, Fung does drop a few hints about what’s in store: mini-apps which sit on the Airtasker API to make searches for specialized tasks — e.g., cleaning, handyman jobs, etc. — easier and more focused; a communication system to allow businesses that use Airtasker to keep track of all their tasks and laborers; and plans to extend the Airtasker service into the U.S.