Will the sharing economy eventually turn us all into contractors?
By NOAM SCHEIBER for The New Republic
Nov 26 2014
The last few years have brought an explosion of startups, like Uber and TaskRabbit, that effectively act as middlemen. These companies don’t actually employ the workers who ferry passengers around town or assemble strangers’ Ikea furniture. Their online platforms merely connect people who want to provide these services with people who want to pay for them. As a result, the Ubers and TaskRabbits of the world don’t have to provide most of the benefitswe normally associate with full-time employment, like health insurance and a living wage, or even stable work.
Pretty much the only consolation is that the Uber model only really affects small-time operators who can be easily paired with individual customers — the cab driver or the handyman. There’s no Uber for people who toil away in larger companies, which is after all where most of us work.
Um, well, until now. Over the last year or so, a handful of startups have begun helping companies find workers to complete their odd jobs, too. One, called Zaarly, had a more traditional sharing economy focus before it shifted to address the staffing needs of small businesses. TaskRabbit has started cateringto businesses as well. Though the efforts vary in their particulars, the basic model is to make it frighteningly easy for companies to outsource work. If the model catches on, most companies may one day employ only a small cadre of full-timers, which they beef up with freelancers as the need arises.
Perhaps the most ambitious worker-on-demand startup to date is a company called Wonolo (short for “Work. Now. Locally”), the year-old brainchild of two San Francisco entrepreneurs. The idea is for companies to post job listings to an online platform the same way people in need of a house cleaner post a job to TaskRabbit. After it’s posted, one of the app’s users (known as “Wonoloers,” which the app vets extensively) can claim the job and report to work as soon as a few minutes or hours. Suppose, for example, that an online retailer suddenly realizes it’s short a few order-fulfillment jockeys — the people who roam warehouses and locate the goods that need to be boxed and shipped. The retailer can post the jobs on Wonolo and bulk up its workforce that same day.
Wonolo’s co-founders, Yong Kim and AJ Brustein, came to their creation through a non-traditional path, at least for a startup. Last year, the Coca-Cola Company selected them to be part of its in-house “Founders” program, which brought one pair of entrepreneurs to a dozen of the company’s locations worldwide. Coca-Cola gave Kim and Brustein some capital, as well as the full run of its facilities and all the executives therein. All it asked in return was that they start a company that helped solve a problem Coca-Cola encountered.
For weeks, Kim and Brustein struggled to figure out what that would be. “We were sitting in an office in San Francisco, staring at the wall,” Kim told me. But as they spent time with the company’s operations team, they noticed a recurring theme: a stream of jobs Coke needed done right away, but for which it couldn’t always anticipate the demand — like, say, stocking shelves in stores.