"Whether the goal is to eat more smashed avocado on toast, or to save for a mortgage, the side hustle is on the up." Or so claims a cliché-ridden press release from Australian start-up app "Airtasker", a platform where anyone can set "tasks" that other users will complete for a set price.
Past "tasks" have included delivering passports to a family stranded in Tenerife, keeping someone updated on the score of "a rival football match", making a list of “"the best vegan dishes in London" for £500, and queueing up for a Hamilton musical ticket for £200.
Although they read as a bizarre set of errands an eccentric billionaire might set in a Roald Dahl novel, these are actually a selection of "the most interesting" tasks posted on the app to date, according to the press release promoting its recent arrival in the UK. "The median annual salary for London is £34,473," it continued, "but there are many people especially young people living on well below this. Airtasker can help you make some extra money on the side."
I am one of those people. I am young-ish (25) and earn well below £34,000 a year. This is the app for me. I could continue to pay nearly 50 percent of my earnings in rent like a real schmuck, or I could write the name of a few restaurants down and text the football score to someone who's unwilling to look up a live-blog for themselves for a combined total of £700. I promptly download Airtasker. Beware task setters, the side-hustler has logged on.
The app's user-interface is simple. After entering your name, email and age, you're presented a map of London strewn with pins in the location of odd-jobs other users have set. Scrolling through them, I see:
Unlock my washing Machine – Stockwell, £19
Need someone to remove dead mouse and trap – Chelsea, £25
Elderly person one off clean – Hertfordshire, £100
Clean my 3 bedroom / 1 bathroom house – £30
Fix Sofa Leg – Clapham, £40
The rail in my Wardrobe has come down – Crooked Billet, £40
LG TV is not on – Plumstead, £20
Cleaning of 800 sq ft flat – £40
GoPro movie editing – Earlsfield, £25
Someone to hang up a curtain pole – Roxeth, £20
Cleaning Ironing change bed – Charing Cross, £10
Watering plants on balcony – Southwark, £20
Water running through toilet seats when frush [sic] – Peckham, £50
There's quite a lot to process here, but let's just for a minute consider the most important thing. Someone in Chelsea has murdered a mouse, and – rather than brushing it up and putting it in a bin – wants to pay someone else to deal with the body. How they settled on £25 as a fair price to dispose of a corpse is unclear, but there you have it: £25 to clean up a rotting mouse carcass and the blunt instrument used to kill it.
Pitching myself as a "young professional looking to earn a bit of extra income", I offer my services to this user and many others wanting relatively simple jobs completed, including the guy who wants someone to open his locked washing machine, and the guy who can't turn on his TV.
"Task setters" award "task completers" an Uber-style star rating after each completed job. As a new, and zero-starred, user, it becomes increasingly clear that I'm being beaten to even the simplest of tasks (mowing a front lawn, assembling IKEA furniture, watering some plants) by multi-starred users with high completion rates – and, in many cases, an arsenal of skills as professional handymen / carpenters / craftsmen / gardeners.
This is true even for tasks that require "absolutely no conceivable skill whatsoever". One user in Canary Wharf is offering £70 for someone to simply "hang out" in his apartment and "wait for a delivery". But my message sits among some 30 others from highly-rated users with extensive tasking experience. Pitted against these guys, what chance do I, a lowly young professional looking for some supplementary income, have?
It feels a bit like that Black Mirror episode where people are rated on all their social interactions, only instead of being deemed unworthy to attend a fancy wedding, I'm not even allowed to dispose of a dead rodent. I really want to complete the task "chill out in a flat", as it fully matches my individual skill level. But I still have no luck. I'm yet to be sold on how this app can truly help people like me.
I fit the company’s target demographic, or at least the version of it they emailed to me, but I'm not having much luck in the side-hustle game. I decide to reach out to Tim Fung, the OG hustler and CEO of the company, to see where I'm going wrong.
"When starting out," he says, "try to empathise and think, "What would I want to know before engaging someone to complete a task for me?' It is important to be patient and persistent. Any new career or endeavour is going to take some upfront perspiration to get going! As the Airtasker community brings together tasks that require a range of skills, some of these tasks will require a qualified trade, but with more than 5,000 tasks being created per day, there’s usually a task to suit almost everyone – no matter what your individual skills are
"Taskers benefit from the marketplace by finding a way to monetise their unique skills, but at the same time, Job Posters get to connect with the skills available in their local community to complete tasks they don't have the time, will or skill to do themselves. It’s a win-win."
When being questioned on the rise of his app, Fung recently told a reporter that one of his strengths was a "healthy naivety", which he claimed enabled him to "jump into big projects and then fight [his] way out which results in actually doing something, rather than weighing everything up and then not acting quickly enough". Maybe he should have thought a little harder about who Airtasker really benefits before trying to pitch it as a way for young people to combat low wages.
While Airtasker seems to be offering a service for plucky young creatives to whizz from job to job on electric skateboards to fund their main hustle, in reality it appears to be mainly used by professionals for what are not really "tasks", but are, in fact, "work". The young under-earners don't get a look in, and the professional craftspeople debase themselves by conceiving of their labour as a series of Silicon Valley-ordained "tasks".
The idea of creating a mutually beneficial community of task completers and task setters isn’t entirely convincing when "ordinary taskers" and skilled workers can’t effectively co-exist on the platform. Work designed to be low-skilled and for students or side-hustlers (watering plants or erecting some blinds) is invariably carried out by over-qualified workers. It sounds more like a lose-lose than a win-win.