Task Rabbits and Thunder Lizards: A Founder and Funder Story
When a founder’s vision sparks a funder’s interest, an idea can become an enterprise with the potential to reimagine the whole idea of community. That’s what happened when TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque and Floodgate venture capitalist Ann Miura-Ko joined forces. The two discussed their partnership growing one of the earliest companies of the sharing economy during a panel produced by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum (CHM) on May 16, 2018.
It all started with a dog. Or, rather, the fact that the dog was out of food on a cold, snowy night in Boston. Leah Busque wished there was a way to go online and find someone in her neighborhood willing to run out and buy some dog food for a fee. This was in 2008, and shortly after that cold night she quit her job as a software engineer at IBM, coded for 10 weeks straight, and launched the TaskRabbit website, a connected community of people trading errands.
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, Palo Alto native Ann Miura-Ko was pursuing her dream of becoming a venture capitalist. While enrolled in a PhD program at Stanford, she decided she wanted to found a computer security enterprise. She shadowed angel investor Mike Maples to learn more about business, and when he asked her to join him in founding a new venture firm instead of starting a tech company she immediately agreed. Ann completed her PhD while also searching for promising entrepreneurs.
Back in Boston, Leah had discovered a mentor. She’d founded TaskRabbit before there was a model for the sharing economy. There was no app store. People were not jumping into stranger’s Uber cars, or sleeping in their Airbnb houses, and Facebook was just breaking away from the college scene. But Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith let her use space in his office for free and suggested that Leah look into the Facebook Fund, an incubator program for new entrepreneurs that would prepare her to raise seed funding. That’s why she went to the West Coast for the first time in her life and got connected to Tim Ferriss, who connected her with Ann.
When Ann met Leah, it was love at first sight. “You know when you know,” she says. The two women talked over a very long breakfast, finding common ground in their computer science backgrounds and in their shared vision for TaskRabbit. Leah says that Ann “got it” and was hooked by Ann’s email telling her that she hadn’t stopped thinking about Leah’s idea since their meeting. But TaskRabbit had plenty of interest from other funders and for Ann this would be her first investment. She was determined to reel it in. Driven by her passion and persistence, she engaged her extensive network to convince Leah to partner with her.
Working together, the two women established a sound foundation for a new enterprise that was fiscally responsible, metrics driven, and reflected their relationship: mutual respect and a shared appreciation for “truth-seeking.” Leah credits Ann with valuable guidance, particularly in the early days, and Ann found Leah to be an extremely effective advocate for her company and for a sharing economy that did not yet have a name. Leah was a consummate storyteller, who could articulate the vision of TaskRabbit as a redefinition of community through her compelling stories of real people and real taskers connecting online.
But, like any new business, there were ups and there were downs. Leah built a strong and dedicated team, a strong brand, and a strong community. She encouraged big, audacious goals, even one suggested by an employee to get then-President Obama to post a task. (Leah did, in fact, get an audience with Obama, and she jokes that although he hasn’t yet posted a task, she still holds out hope that he will.) Then it came time to pivot. TaskRabbit, which had started out in 2008 as a web platform based on the Ebay marketplace model, needed to transition to an on-demand app in 2013–2014. Leah and her team decided to launch the new product in London, an entirely new market, to test it.
Though it worked out in the end, Leah says the pivot was “a complete disaster.” While the new product worked well in London, people in TaskRabbit regions like the US, including employees, taskers, and customers, were used to the old product. Leah navigated the tough decisions needed to push through the change. Ann notes that this pivot was very controversial internally, but that the data from London engaged new customers and showed it needed to happen. She credits Leah with being willing to throw out the hard work, long hours, and sacrifices it took to code and build the original platform to essentially start over. After that experience, Ann now talks to her other founders about how it is sometimes necessary, and courageous, to “fire” bad customers.
Thunderlizards are, in Ann’s words, audacious entrepreneurs that shoot laser beams out of their mouths and wreak havoc on the industry they have invaded. They are here not just to start a business but to start a movement. That description certainly applies to Leah, who scaled TaskRabbit in 40 markets and saw it acquired by IKEA in 2017, when she was serving as executive chair. Now Leah is following in the out-sized footsteps of her mentor and friend. She has become a venture capitalist too, on the hunt for thunderlizards of her own.
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About the Exponential Center @CHM
The Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum captures the legacy — and advances the future — of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley and around the world. The center explores the people, companies, and communities that are transforming the human experience through technology innovation, economic value creation, and social impact. Our mission: to inform, influence, and inspire the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders changing the world.