• December 25, 2014

Help for hire: Internet startups clicking with customers

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Posted: Thursday, July 4, 2013 4:30 am | Updated: 1:54 pm, Mon Aug 19, 2013.

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 startups 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 startups 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, Calif., Internet startup 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.

Disrupting models

The startups 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 Los Angeles writer and actress, 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 startups 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.

Check backgrounds

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 said hiring regular people from sharing companies 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 said 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 startups 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 startups have butted heads with local governments and business owners.

Last 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.

© 2014 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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