Lauren Goode

Outsourcing Chores to Strangers Online

I recently returned home from several days of work-related travel to mountains of mail, unpaid bills, heaps of laundry and an apartment piled with boxes, thanks to a roommate moving out.

It was just the impetus I needed to finally try Web services that help people find other people to do their onerous chores. These fast-growing online communities are made up of part-time or unemployed workers, creative types who work job to job and students looking to fill their gaps in time and simultaneously fill their wallets.

So, over the past week, I posted a dozen different chores across three Web sites. You may have heard of TaskRabbit, one of the largest services, with more than 4,000 “Rabbits” — people hired to run errands — in 10 U.S. cities. I tested this service along with a new competitor, Done, which adds a philanthropic twist to task completion; I also tried out Agent Anything, which dispatches college students to do your dirty work for you.

By the end of the week, I had used Done the most out of all three, and felt that its beautifully designed site and professional-looking profiles for Doers made it stand out from the pack. However, Done just launched in March, so it’s currently limited to around 200 Doers in and around New York City, and is still working on creating a mobile app. Agent Anything is also limited to the New York area, and its mobile apps are in the works. Among the three, only TaskRabbit has an app, for iPhone.

I also had a positive experience with TaskRabbit, and found the Rabbits to be fast responders. My least-favorite service was Agent Anything. While I like the idea of helping college students find work, the site’s bare-bones profiles of workers made me hesitant to hire anyone.

Different tasks cost different amounts. If you type in what you’d like done, the sites suggest a ballpark price. In order to make money, these services tack an extra percentage onto your payment. TaskRabbit, on average, tacks on an 18 percent service fee; Done charges 10 percent, and Agent Anything’s markups vary. A $10 mission payment might end up costing $12.50, while a $100 mission might cost you $110.

The first task I posted was a trip to Goodwill to drop off a pile of clothes and other items for donation. I initially targeted a Rabbit who had gotten excellent reviews from other customers. But she wasn’t available, so then I posted the job to all Rabbits, and within a couple hours I had a handful of offers.

I ended up hiring a person named Brian through TaskRabbit — he could work within my time frame, was willing to run errands around the city in the pouring rain, had good reviews and included a couple pictures of his dog in his profile. (Could a person with a dog still turn out to be dangerous? Sure, but the pictures added a reassuringly personal touch.)

Brian made the trip to Goodwill, brought me back a receipt, and indicated through his account that he was finished. I then received an email asking to submit payment. The whole process was pretty painless.

The next task: Hiring someone to clean my apartment, which was a mess of moving boxes and not-so-cute dust bunnies. My proposed fee was slightly higher than TaskRabbit’s suggested fee of $60. Within a day, I had several offers from all three sites; some people said they’d do it for a lot less, others said they’d clean for up to $100. Since this task involved having someone in my apartment for a couple hours, I spent the equivalent amount of time perusing profiles.

I ended up choosing someone from Done — a Fashion Institute of Technology student who managed to make rubber cleaning gloves look fashionable. This is where Done’s profiles really stood out compared to the other sites. Its large photos, clearly defined areas of specialization and personal details about the Doers gave me a sense of confidence about who I was hiring.

Unlike TaskRabbit, Done doesn’t allow you to add tips when you pay, but the company says it’s working on adding a tipping function.

Also, Done says that for every task completed, the company makes a donation through Unicef. But aside from this statement on its site, there was no indication during my transactions that my payment was indirectly going to charity. Done says that by the end of July it will note the specific Unicef gift being donated on the user’s receipt.

One of the last tasks I sought help for was something I’d normally do myself: Dropping off laundry and finding a couple bottles of inexpensive wine to bring to a friend’s place that weekend. But I was curious to see how quickly someone else could get it done in the middle of the day.

I ended up going with Danny from Done — a self-described “liberal arts dork and orchestra nerd” — because he could get to the job in about a half hour. There was an interested Rabbit that I likely would have given the job to first, but I was using the TaskRabbit mobile app at the time, and the app wouldn’t let me answer a question she had asked. By the time I was able to correspond with her, the Doer had already bid on the job.

But $20 was a high price to pay someone for running those errands, because it turns out that both the wine store and laundromat offer free delivery. For these kinds of local tasks, I wouldn’t outsource again.

Since Done and Agent Anything haven’t yet expanded nationwide, I also posted a couple of long-distance jobs, like a ride to suburban New Jersey from Manhattan to see how far the workers were willing to go. An Agent responded immediately and asked a good question — whether I’d need a return ride — but I couldn’t see which Agent was posing the question. A TaskRabbit bid on the job a few minutes later, but proposed a higher fee.

A legitimate concern for the person posting the tasks is how the workers on these sites are vetted. TaskRabbit says it uses a multi-step vetting process that includes background checks and video interviews, while Done verifies through in-person interviews, and uses a company called HireRight for background checks.

Also, once you accept a person’s offer to complete your task, more information — such as a direct phone number or a personal email address — is provided, so you can get in touch with the person directly beforehand and try to get a sense of who they are. I either spoke on the phone with or had a few personal email exchanges with each of the people I hired.

Agent Anything doesn’t screen its Agents aside from verifying, through their email address, that they’re affiliated with a college or university. Also, the Agent profiles only include one small photo. Agent Anything says it is considering expanding the profiles.

My experiences with Done and TaskRabbit were positive, overall, and I’d likely use them again if I was in a jam, especially Done. I’d also be inclined to hire the same people again. But Agent Anything needs to require its Agents to build fuller profiles, and all three services could afford to focus on mobile applications, especially with competing services popping up that offer on-the-go task services.


Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik