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Doing small jobs for less: Help-for-hire start-ups are catching on

Start-ups that quickly connect consumers with folks willing to complete odds-and-end tasks are catching on in L.A. and disrupting long-standing business models.

June 28, 2013|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

Dawn McCoy used to have to call a handyman for home repairs, a taxicab for a ride to the airport, a caterer to help out at a dinner party.

Now, she turns to mobile apps and websites that quickly connect her with folks who complete the tasks for a fraction of the price charged by professional services.

"You feel like it's your peers helping you out," McCoy, 35, said. "And you don't have to be a millionaire to have someone help you."

In a city filled with personal assistants and others willing to do odds-and-ends jobs, it's no surprise that a slew of help-for-hire start-ups are taking off in Los Angeles.

Such companies are built on the premise that most people have things they need done — pet-sitting, a car ride, a place to stay, house cleaning, errand runs — and the assumption that there's probably an average Joe nearby willing to do it for a price. The start-ups are bridging the two sides with simple ways to find, book and pay for such services, making it easy for users to never have to call a professional.

Going out of town for the weekend? With Santa Monica Internet start-up DogVacay, you can drop off your pooch at the home of a fellow dog lover; hosts watch your pet and set their own rates starting at $15 a night.

From there, you can hitch a ride to the airport via a ride-sharing app such as Lyft, Uber or Sidecar. Once you get to your destination, you can crash in a stranger's spare bedroom that you booked on Airbnb, a popular website that people use to temporarily rent out their apartments or homes to travelers.

Forgot your toothbrush? Hire someone on TaskRabbit to run to the nearest grocery store and pick up one for you.

The start-ups are disrupting long-standing business models, catching some business owners and even city officials off guard. But techies say the trend known as collaborative consumption or the sharing economy isn't a fad.

"At its core, it's access trumping ownership and sharing underutilized assets," said Johnny Brackett, a spokesman at TaskRabbit in San Francisco.

McCoy, a writer and actress from Mid-Wilshire, uses TaskRabbit as often as five times a month, setting her own prices for tasks she needs done; users can also accept bids from TaskRabbits who want the job.

She has hired people to give her rides, hang photos and install kitchen cabinet knobs in her home, design her website, wait on guests at a party, put up and take down Christmas decorations and pick up food.

"I end up using it for everything," she said.

More than 12,000 people have signed up to be "TaskRabbits" who run errands such as delivering a sandwich, assembling furniture or waiting in line for the latest iPhone, and the company is adding 1,000 new TaskRabbits a month, Brackett said.

Such start-ups are catching on with busy, tech-savvy consumers who want things done efficiently and cheaply. In many cases, the prices are much lower than what one would spend for the same task or service through a conventional company thanks to low overhead costs and an on-demand, Web-based business model.

For those worried about hiring a stranger they met on the Internet, the start-ups conduct background checks on hosts and task completers and strongly urge both sides to review each other after every transaction. Payment is done online so users don't have to deal with cash, and the companies typically take a cut of each transaction.

Users say hiring regular people from sharing companies has also resulted in friendlier service and more comfortable interactions. Drivers for Lyft — whose motto is, "Your friend with a car" — drive around town with a giant pink mustache affixed to their cars and greet passengers with a fist bump; pet owners say they feel more comfortable knowing their dogs are staying in a real home instead of caged up at a pricey kennel.

On the other end, the start-ups are enabling people with time on their hands to make some extra cash and work flexible hours.

As they've grown in popularity, the companies have, intentionally or not, pushed aside conventional businesses such as taxis and hotels. In some cases, the start-ups have butted heads with local governments and business owners.

This week, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation sent cease-and-desist letters to Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, accusing the "rogue taxi apps" of illegally operating in the city without the proper permits and licenses and ordering them to stop picking up passengers. The next day, taxi drivers drove around City Hall to protest the companies.

Airbnb, which has become a hit among travelers, has encountered similar challenges. In May a judge in New York fined an Airbnb host $2,400 after he temporarily rented out his apartment to a traveler via the site. The judge ruled that the host violated a law designed to dissuade landlords from operating their buildings as illegal hotels; the decision is being appealed. Officials in San Francisco, where Airbnb is based, have also voiced concerns about the service.

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