One night in February 2008, Leah Busque found herself in an annoying situation. She and her husband were waiting for a cab to drive them to dinner, when it hit her that their dog, Kobe, was hungry and out of food. Right at that moment, a thought popped into her mind: wouldn’t it be great if there was someone I could pay to pick up dog food for me while I was at dinner?
Busque, a Boston resident and computer programmer at IBM, grabbed her smart phone and searched for such a service. When she came up short, she registered the URL RunMyErrand.com and five minutes later hopped in the cab and went off to dinner.
For the next two hours, Busque and her husband snacked on Mexican food and mapped out an idea for a chore-hiring company that would match workers with those in need of help with such things as cleaning, moving and grocery delivery. The idea took off and Busque quit her job at IBM to dive into the project full time. She changed the company name to TaskRabbit, attracted investors, hired a few employees, moved to San Francisco, brought on a few dozen more people, and now the company is one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley. Whew.
So how did Busque, now 32 years old, achieve success in such a short period of time? I sat down with her to find out.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I grew up in Shirley, Massachusetts, population 4,000, no street lights, not even an intersection. In high school, I was the geeky math nerd. I had a great math teacher who had a big influence on me and turned me on to being a math major. I went to Sweet Briar College in Virginia and graduated in 2001. After college, I worked as a programmer for a small firm that was bought by IBM and worked there for seven years before founding TaskRabbit.
How did you get TaskRabbit off the ground?
I spent the first four months talking to anyone who would listen to me and was encouraged when everyone was supportive of the idea. Early on, I was incredibly fortunate to meet Scott Griffith, the CEO of Zipcar. He really encouraged me to see how far I could take the idea and introduced me to investors. In June 2008, I quit my job at IBM, cashed out my pension, and my husband and I agreed that I would give myself six months to focus on the project full time.
I locked myself in a room for 10 weeks straight to code the first version of the site. By the end of six months, we still hadn’t secured funding, so my husband and I agreed to give it three more months. Through Scott’s introductions, I found two angel investors in Boston and closed $150,000 in March 2009.
In summer 2009, I was chosen for a 12-week startup incubator program in Palo Alto, California, and that experience spawned another $1.8 million in seed funding. It was at that point that I started hiring people. I had five people on staff and had fallen in love with the Bay Area during my summer there and knew I wanted to grow the company out there. So I moved TaskRabbit to San Francisco in June 2010 and we’ve been growing ever since.
How does Task Rabbit work?
We are a closed community, so anyone who wants to be a TaskRabbit must apply online and go through a video interview. After that, we do background checks and give quizzes to pass people though. Then, if you need an errand done, you go on the site and post a job and how much you are willing to pay. TaskRabbits reply, you choose the one you want and you set up a time for task completion.
Who are these TaskRabbits?
Funny you ask. When I started the company, I thought only college kids would apply. But that hasn’t been the case at all. We get a lot of young professionals, stay-at-home-moms and retirees. Some people are making $5,000 per month doing two or three tasks per day. We have more than 2,500 TaskRabbits across the country.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced early on?
There was a huge learning curve from building a product to building a company. When I first started, I was just building the technology and platform. Quickly I needed to get a grasp on fundraising, marketing, financing and operations. I’d never even taken a business or economics class, so early on everything felt like a black fog; I didn’t know what was in front of me. It really helped to have mentors like Scott Griffith.
What were some of the high points in the early days?
I loved, and still love, to hear stories from people using the product. As soon as I had it up and going, people would tell me about how a TaskRabbit helped save their day. Everyone was so excited and that excitement has stayed with us.
How are things going today?
Things are going really well. We are up to 45 people on staff in San Francisco and will probably double that in the next 12 months. We are expanding to cities around the country and are now in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland.
Do you see yourself with TaskRabbit forever?
TaskRabbit is my baby. I’m 100 percent dedicated to seeing this baby turn into an adolescent and grow up to be its own person.
What advice can you give to budding small business owners?
Don’t be afraid someone will steal your idea; the reward is exponential verses the risk. Gather a good group of mentors and advisers early on. And if you have an idea you are really passionate about, see how far you can take it.
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