Several years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills, I had a house deep in the bowels of Laurel Canyon. Set into the canyon wall at the bottom of Lookout Mountain, my driveway lay twenty meters and many steps below the house itself. Shopping day always meant hauling bags of groceries up the steps in relay fashion – from car to door, from door to kitchen – a good bit of exercise.
When I purchased a new refrigerator those steps became more problematic. The business which sold me the appliance happily got a workman to bring my new refrigerator up those steps, but, as I was not handing over my old refrigerator for recycling and resale, they left that one alone. I had two big refrigerators in my tiny kitchen, and needed to get the old icebox into my garage, but couldn’t move it myself, lacking both the equipment and the finesse to transport it without sending it crashing down the steps and into my driveway.
I decided to advertise my need on Craigslist, the web-based classified advertisements that since the mid-1990s have been connecting people in need to those who can fill those needs. About a day after I posted my request, I received an email from a Hollywood ‘best boy’ with a pickup truck, dolly, and the requisite training to guide my refrigerator into the garage. We agreed on a time, and I paid him fifty dollars for his trouble. Problem solved.
Before CraigsList, I could have put a classified ad in the local newspaper – the Los Angeles Times – but that would have taken so long it’s likely I would have just found another way around the problem. Only when it became easy to connect someone with a need to someone capable of fulfilling that need did this market appear. The need was always there, but it had been too difficult to bring the parties together. Craigslist created a common meeting point, aggregating people with needs, and people to meet those needs. Fostering that simple relationship had been practically impossible before the web. In retrospect, it appears completely obvious.
Now that markets are everywhere, everyone has the capacity to make a deal, but capacity is in itself insufficient for business. People need both capacity and a reason – they have to share some common interest, and they need some way to connect around that shared interest. Craigslist city-based websites and manifold categories provide that framework; the rest happens naturally, as people seek each other out.
At its core, every hyperbusiness defines a framework which creates a marketplace — often where none existed before. Craigslist creates the kinds of markets that upscale urban Americans need – reflecting its San Francisco origins. Every market has its own needs, and each requires a specific framework.
In Kenya, a vast number of people survive as casual labourers, going from one short-term job to another, always keeping their eyes open for the next opportunity. Although many employers need casual labour, that labour – especially when it requires some skills – has never been easy to find. To solve this problem, NGO Mobile4Good created Kazi560. ‘Kazi’ means work in Kiswahili, and 560 is the SMS short code for the mobile-based service. A labourer looking for work registers with Kazi560, advertising their interest in specific categories of jobs, such as cooking or nursing. Employers advertise their labour needs on Kazi560, and the service then sends a text message to labourers who have indicated their interest in fulfilling that need. If the labourer chooses to respond to the text message, they’re given the information necessary to apply for the job.
More than two-thirds of Kenyans own mobiles, so Kazi560 can effectively reach the majority of the nation’s labourers. Connecting employer to labourer around the framework of job categories, Kazi560 has created a fast, frictionless marketplace for temporary labour in Kenya where none had existed before. Aggregated, these labourers become attractive to employers, who turn to Kazi560 to fulfil their short-term labour needs. Kenyan businesses can now plan around the availability of short-term labour – something they couldn’t do before Kazi560, because the labourers were not connected to employers. It’s a true win-win: labourers get jobs, and businesses get the labour they need when they need it.
Two startups – one in America, the other in Australia – show how the pervasive market produced by the mobile can aggregate demand and supply. Zaarly and Airtasker have both released smartphone apps that allow anyone to post requests for labour – someone to pick up the dry cleaning, paint a fence, clean a garden, etc. That request goes out to every person in the locale who has advertised their availability to do some work. A negotiation follows, as the prospective employer gets a number of inquiries, vets candidates, and agrees to a price. All of this activity happens through these apps, so it transpires quickly – anywhere from minutes to a few hours.
Both Zaarly and Airtasker have transformed the mobile into an employment platform – providing labour or a job, depending on the intention of the individual. These tools could even be used in both modes simultaneously, allowing an labourer to bid on a job, then ‘subcontract’ parts of the task to other labourers. Everyone walking around with a smartphone is now a potential employer or employee – all they need is the right reason to connect.
Airtasker has stated the biggest problem confronting new users is decision paralysis: with so much potential, people get bewildered with choices. They’ve decided to produce some guided categories – simple errands and the like – that allow users to experience the value of their service, and help them to become accustomed to this new and very powerful market in aggregated labour. Soon, people won’t need any guidance to use the always-available pool of connected labor. We’ll think of it as an on-tap resource, like electricity.