This article was published on August 20, 2011

The future of work? Hiring yourself out online.

The future of work? Hiring yourself out online.
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Editor-in-Chief at TNW.

Here at The Next Web, we recently highlighted a growing trend amongst startups to offer human beings for hire. It seems that every week new companies emerge that allow people to offer up their skills, or just their personalities, to others who will happily pay for them.

This isn’t just another startup trend though, this could be the beginning of a new way of buying services and selling ourselves – and it may even help save the economy.

Below, we explore why self-service labor markets could be so important in the future. First though, who are these startups and what are they offering?

TaskRabbit – the odd job marketplace

TaskRabbit is a good place to start. A marketplace for people and tasks, it allows individuals to post jobs they need doing and find others who are happy to carry them out.

Many of the tasks listed at present are of the ‘odd job’ variety – putting up shelves, cleaning and such like – but despite the mundanity of the tasks, this is very much a 21st Century labor market, with an online dashboard for users to manage their tasks and ‘Task Rabbits’ (the people who carry out the jobs) to find new ones. The service can also be accessed via an iPhone app and is currently available in the US, in Boston; the San Francisco Bay area; New York City; Los Angeles, and Orange County.

As we recently reported, Task Rabbits are often retired individuals with skills and spare time; stay-at-home parents who want to contribute to the household but maintain flexibility, or part-time (or even full-time) workers looking for extra cash in a poor economic climate. Tasks tend to be posted by busy professionals and small businesses looking for additional casual labor.

MyGuidie – easy access to tour guides

Another section of the ‘humans for hire’ startup movement is tour guides. We recently highlighted MyGuidie, a Polish startup that offers professional city guides and passionate amateurs the chance to show strangers around the city of their choice.

Guides can be given scores by those who have already used them, helping build their online reputation. Customers place a 15% deposit online, and pay the remaining fee in cash on the day of the tour. We recently covered MyGuidie when it raised its first finance via a Polish auction website, selling a 1% stake in the company (and an iPad 2) to an American first-time investor for $6806. An innovative way of funding, indeed.

Skillshare – anyone can be a teacher

Skillshare is a community marketplace for offline classes, letting you learn anything from someone who has the skills to teach you.

Currently available classes include ‘How To Launch your Startup Idea for Less than $5,000’; ‘Take Better Pictures With Any Camera (Even Your Phone)’, and ‘Painting I: Introduction to Traditional Oil Technique’, and classes can cover a wide variety of categories, from Fashion & Style, to Sport & Wellness.

Earlier this week, Skillshare announced that it had raised a $3.1 million Series A funding round, showing that investors believe that this is a business with real potential. As the New York Times reported at the time, the startup has 600 ‘teachers’ signed up just four months after it launched, charging an average of $20 for a place in a class. Even after Skillshare takes its 15% cut, teachers can reportedly make over $1000 from every class they arrange through the site.

Skillshare’s manifesto pitches it as a company that will usher in a ‘learning revolution’, debunking the idea that a college/university degree is the key to success.

Pal Locale – the all-rounder

Pal Locale, as we noted last week, is billed as “a community of pals available for rent by the hour.” Although it hasn’t launched yet, it looks best thought of as an ‘all-rounder’, allowing people to offer themselves out to do just about anything. Want to rent someone for an hour to show you the sights in a city you’re passing through? Or to teach you a new skill? Or just to take you out for the evening? Pal Locale wants to have you covered.

Do these startups have a long-term future?

Startups that offer marketplaces for people and their skills are best thought of as a kind of ‘AirBnB or Couchsurfing for humans rather than property’. Given the traction that the online short-term accommodation rental business has gained in the past year, it’s only natural to see startups riffing on the idea by extending it to people and skills.

In the current economic climate, it makes sense to offer platforms for people to sell themselves. The likes of AirBnB and Couchsurfing, not to mention longer-standing examples like eBay and Craigslist, have shown that the Internet is the best marketplace there is, and there’s clearly money to be made in allowing users to ‘self-serve’ each other with products and services – it may even become a necessity.

Jeff Jarvis recently wrote about ‘The jobless future‘, noting how technological progress was wiping out the need for a wide range of jobs without the prospect of enough new jobs emerging to replace them.

“Our new economy is shrinking because technology leads to efficiency over growth…

Pick an industry: newspapers, say. Untold thousands of jobs have been destroyed and they will not come back. Yes, new jobs will be created by entrepreneurs — that is precisely why I teach entrepreneurial journalism. But in the net, the news industry — make that the news ecosystem — will employ fewer people in companies. There will still be news but it will be far more efficient, thanks to the internet.

Take retail. Borders. Circuit City. Sharper Image. KB Toys. CompUSA. Dead. Every main street and every mall has empty stores that are not going to be filled. Buying things locally for immediate gratification will be a premium service because it is far more efficient — in terms of inventory cost, real estate, staffing — to consolidate and fulfill merchandise at a distance. Wal-Mart isn’t killing retailing. Amazon is. Transparent pricing online will reduce prices and profitability yet more. Retail will be more efficient.”

We’re rapidly approaching a future where big business simply won’t need anywhere near as many people as it used to. However, if people don’t have jobs, they can’t spend money – and what happens to the economy then? What happens to us?

Self-service labor markets like the websites we’ve detailed here are one way that people can make money directly from each other. While none of the startups we’ve mentioned here pretend that they’re offering participants anything more than the chance of a little extra income (there are no promises of being able to make a full-time living from them), they are clearly well positioned to capitalize on a future where many more of us may need to become self-employed  service providers, offering whatever skills we have directly to those who need them.

There’s no telling what the future of the economy holds, but peer-to-peer transactions look set to be a big part of it, simply by necessity. However, while we can expect more startups like the ones above to emerge to tackle the supply side of this equation, the unknown quantity remains demand. Do enough people want to buy services directly from others to make businesses like these viable on a large scale? That’s the gamble that the likes of Skillshare and TaskRabbit are taking.

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