In case you have been living under a rock, Apple is releasing a new iPhone and if you stop by an Apple store this Friday you can get one. That is, of course, if you get there early enough. For most releases of new Apple gadgets people line up early and often in order to have the newest device a week before their neighbor. But waiting is a hassle. Or, perhaps, a market opportunity (TaskRabbit: We’ll sell ya a spot in the iPhone 5 line, CNET, Sep 13):
San Francisco-based TaskRabbit has rolled out a new program that lets people in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as New York, purchase four hours worth of wait time in line at an Apple retail store for $55. That’s more than a quarter of the price of Apple’s entry-level iPhone 5, and $55 more than it costs to pre-order the phone from Apple’s Web site and carrier partners.
Surrogate waiting is by no means a new thing. What kind of neat here is that it is being intermediated on (potentially) a large-scale by a “distributed workforce” company. Here is how TaskRabbit is described in a recent Businessweek article (My Life as a TaskRabbit, Sep 13).
The idea of posting or finding jobs online isn’t new. Craigslist, the pioneering Internet bulletin board, allowed the primitive, gentle folk of the 1990s to find day work, not to mention cheap dates. These new services are different, partly because they’re focused and carefully supervised, and partly because they take advantage of smartphones. Workers can load one of these companies’ apps on their location-aware iPhone or Android device and, if the impulse strikes, take a job near them any time of day. Employers can monitor the whereabouts of their workers, make payments on their phones or over the Web, and evaluate each job after it’s accomplished. The most capable workers then rise to the top of the heap, attracting more work and higher pay. Lollygaggers who don’t know how to recharge their Roombas fall to the bottom of the barrel.
Distributed workforce entrepreneurs and their investors are thinking big. They compare their startups to fast-growing companies such as Airbnb, which allows people to rent out their homes. In this case, the assets for rent are people’s skills and time. Leah Busque, a former IBM (IBM) software engineer who started and runs TaskRabbit, says thousands of people make a living (up to $60,000 a year) on her site, which operates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and five other cities. “We are enabling micro-entrepreneurs to build their own business on top of TaskRabbit, to set their own schedules, specify how much they want to get paid, say what they are good at, and then incorporate the work into their lifestyle,” she says.
So it is a little like Uber (a company about which we have posted several times) in that it allows (potentially) efficient matching between demand and idle capacity. The difference is that TaskRabbit is less specialized. It is not just about transportation but everything from assembling Ikea furniture or standing in line at the Apple store.
So how will this all work? Judging by the description for both buyers and TaskRabbits on the company’s site, there some details that are a little up in the air. All they tell the buyer is “Please meet your TaskRabbit at a mutually agreed upon time.” At the same time, they tell those waiting that they are not buying the phone. They are just waiting until the buyer shows up.
This raises a whole series of questions. For example, what happens if the parties fail to coordinate? Can the TaskRabbit just accept any offer to let some random person take his spot? What happens if the line moves surprisingly fast and the TaskRabbit is in the store in under four hours? What if the line is absurdly slow and four hours just ain’t enough time? On this last question, the company suggests that the TaskRabbit and the buyer can negotiate an appropriate tip for added time but I’m not sure I want to be part of that negotiation. The TaskRabbit has earned his or her money by waiting four hours but still physically holds the spot. Unless the buyer can get there and continue to hold it (or find another surrogate), it is useless. The TaskRabbit would then seem to have a pretty strong hand to play.
So what does this all mean? It suggests that paying for someone else to do your waiting is easy to describe in theory but not necessarily easy to execute in practice. There are some settings in which it would be straightforward. If a lobbyist wants to be assured a seat a crowded Congressional hearing, she can likely hire someone without many of the issues I described above for a couple of reasons. First, this is likely a repeated problem for the lobbyist so it is worth her while to line up (so to speak) a reliable waiter. Second, a seat is easy to exchange. If the waiter gets into the hearing before his client arrives, he just needs to warm a chair until the lobbyist shows up. Finally, the hearing has a concrete starting time. All of these conditions fail with the iPhone line. Buyers are in the market infrequently and the surrogate cannot complete the transaction for the client. Further, while everyone knows when the Apple store opens, but just when the surrogate reaches the front of the line is uncertain.