On-Demand Economy Notes, February 4, 2018

Every week sees a new “peak” or “maximally absurd” on-demand economy story, and this was no exception. As I rundown of recent news and data points of interest to on-demand companies, investors, and workers, I keep in mind that this transformation of our economy remains controversial.

It’s a commonplace to argue that “We get the society we’re born into,” but in this era, we can redesign society during our lifetimes. The vast majority of human generations have been stuck in their times because of the slow advance of knowledge and technology. The on-demand economy is only one aspect of a renegotiation of social value, and it can do far better than the first generation of companies if we keep worker retention based on fairness. We need to argue about this passionately and patiently to evolve a more sustainable and equitable economy in the era of technological acceleration.

Send your “Human Uber” instead of going yourself. New York Magazine points to the announcement that Japanese researchers have developed an iPad-based solution to sending someone in your stead. Dubbed a “human Uber” and announced at an MIT form, this may be the most ridiculous and dehumanizing gig economy idea yet, as proved by an Arrested Development running gag based on the idea during its first run on television.

Slapping an iPad over a person’s face to send them to be present for you is stupid and dehumanizing. The joke on Arrested Development revolved around a rich man sending a shlub to attend meetings while he was in prison. Telepresence, on the other hand, makes sense. Scott Hanselman, a former colleague at Microsoft, accomplished a proxy presence without subjecting a human to serving as a meat puppet. Scott worked remotely, sending “Hanselbot,” a rolling platform with a screen, to meetings in Redmond. We don’t need to subject people to this.

Doctors on-demand, that makes sense. Lexology has a good summary of the risks associated with on-demand approaches to healthcare. In addition to the employment risks, such as failing to validate citizenship of workers and changes to healthcare organizational structure, which the articles covers, the rigors of HIPAA compliance, medical privacy, and care standards for non-employee workers are critical to understanding this market. Accenture projected that healthcare investments in on-demand would eclipse $1 billion in 2017.

Josephine announced it will be shutting down in March. Founder Charley Wang, co-founder of the Oakland-based community cooking service, announced the move on the company’s blog Thursday. “We knew that Josephine was an ambitious idea from day one and, as you all know, there have been many highs and lows over the years,” Wang wrote. “At this point, our team has simply run out of the resources to continue to drive the legislative change, business innovation, and broader cultural shift needed to build this business.” Enabling neighbors to cook for one another, Josephine invested in changing California law to allow home-based cooks to sell their food. The site will operate for 60 days, free to the cooks. Wang also said Josephine will transfer cooks’ business information and recommendations for next steps to their members.

Centralized kitchens bets are growing. Kitchen United, a Pasadena kitchen designed to support restaurant delivery and catering services, raised additional funding this month, according to Pasadena Business Now. Combining food preparation with order and delivery infrastructure, the company offers kitchen space by the hour or month to restaurants.

For what it’s worth, the Global Online On-Demand Food Delivery Service Market Overview reports food delivery will grow 32 percent CAGR. 

Evernote CEO predicts multi-role software services for on-demand workers. In a short piece on Business News Daily, Chris O’Neill, CEO of Evernote, described an emerging software environment based on users with many work and organizational roles rather than one. He is betting his company on understanding small business’ use of services to establish networks of “products and services.” We wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy at Gig Economy Group. Integration of services will be essential to consumers, as well, because the prospect of managing multiple on-demand services through dedicated apps will be too complicated. “The biggest bid we’re making as a company is to make the product more powerful when you use it with other people, team settings, group settings, nonprofits,” O’Neill said.

African household labor market points to lower marketplace fees. Workclick, a U.S.-Nigerian startup said it will take only 20 percent of worker revenue as a fee for connecting them with customers. Workclick’s app is offered in the U.S., but the workers appear to be only in Nigeria, where it has about 5,000 people on the platform. Low-income countries may be where lower marketplace fees initially take hold in on-demand work. U.S. companies like Uber have taken between 25 percent and 30 percent of revenue. In an age when Amazon and Wal-Mart thrive on sub-10 percent margins, on-demand marketplaces should expect to see their share of revenue under pressure. In low-income countries, labor marketplaces will not support high fees. Workclick’s initial fee structure hasn’t gone that far, but it’s a step in an inevitable direction for on-demand companies.

Careem, the Dubai-based competitor of Uber, Didi Chuxing, and Ola, among others, is profiled by Bloomberg Businessweek. Of note: Careem, currently worth $1.2 billion, is active in 80 cities across 13 countries. Four out of five Saudi Arabian women have used the service, which is training female drivers in the country. The story does a good job of exposing the difficulties of social transformation in the Arab World.

Ford takes Chariot to London. Engadget reports on the expansion of the carmaker’s first on-demand van service to the U.K. Focusing on South London, which is less well served by the Tube, with fares for daily rides between $3.41 and $2.27 after an initial two-week free offer.

Allygator Shuttle, a Berlin on-demand van service, has launched. Smart Cities World describes the service as a partnership between door2door and the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automil-Club, the German auto club and driver services company. The trial will consist of 25 vans running on Fridays and Saturdays only.

Speaking of auto clubs, Jrop wants to obsolete the monthly membership in favor of on-demand tow and roadside repair services. TechStartups.com has a summary. We think

Another flavor of robot. They are already wandering the sidewalk in many cities, and delivery robots are evolving into specialized breeds that will take to the streets. Robomart has a concept design for a fruit-and-vegetable delivery service that brings the produce department to the consumer’s door. Robomart’s concept is a problematic model for two reasons: 1.) It depends on the customer being at home and willing to walk to a van, rain or shine, to select their produce. On-demand services will not monopolize the customer’s time like this. 2.) The produce robot will suffer from the same problem consumers identify at the store, a lack of selection if the van has been picked over by previous customers. Optimizing routes to provide stock refreshment during a day will be challenging.

Crypto your tip? Finally, WIRED’s Zohar Lazar asks why Kudos, a blockchain-based system created by “Uber for buses” company Skedaddle to replace traditional tipping, makes any sense. With so many newly minted crypto billionaires, the solution to tipping isn’t to create a new currency to solve the problem, because the billionaires have a troubling habit of taking their cut first.


Solve the unbanked Americans problem at work, not at retail

Engadget today examined the question “Can Amazon Go help the unbanked go digital?” Writer Andrew Tarantola argues passionately that paper currency is on the way out:

As our economy embraces digital transactions while shunning cash, it’s the poor that will be most harmed.

Cash is not in retreat today. There is twice as much U.S. currency in circulation today than ten years ago. The St. Louis Federal Reserve bank tracks currency in circulation (see above). In fact, there is more cash in circulation now than at any time in U.S. history. Moreover, except for the months after the Web Bubble burst in 2000 and post-Financial Crash of 2008, the amount of money in circulation has not decreased at any time since the early 1980s. 

In the on-demand economy, cash transactions remain the primary challenger to home services marketplaces that offer to connect employer and worker. Homejoy, the defunct home cleaning service, for example, battled under-the-table arrangements between its maids and customers. Local maids willing to work for a few bucks less in cash payments often hijacked Homejoy’s national marketing to take the company’s customers away.

The unbanked — people without a bank account or credit cards — represent an important population whose participation in the economy will be someday be limited by digital-only currencies or a ban on cash at stores. We should all be thinking about their access to information, healthcare, or any purchase that is restricted to digital customers as an issue of economic growth and fairness. But cash is doing great. A total transition to digital transactions doesn’t appear to be imminent during the next decade (I could be wrong). As long as cash is accepted, it will be used. That will decide when and how the unbanked face a crisis.

There’s no doubt handling money digitally — in any form, not just the cryptocurrencies — is less expensive for banks and speeds many business processes. But consumers face ever-rising costs for digital banking services.  I imagine that if we asked an unbanked person to pay $2.90 in ATM fees to get $50 or $100 out of their bank that they would laugh at the suckers who cough up such fees. See what they think of the national average ATM fees for non-customer banks, which reached $4.57 in 2017, as an alternative to holding and using cash.

All an Amazon, Apple, Google, or Samsung can do is improve the perceived value of digital alternatives to cash. They cannot force anyone to use their payment systems. 

Treating cash as inherently less useful than digital money is a mistake because the anonymity of cash and the convenience of paying with money rather than by transferring bits remains attractive to ordinary people. We believe digital cash alternatives will rise with the adoption of on-demand work. An on-demand job will more than likely come with a digital payment solution. 

The unbanked consumer does face challenges, as Engadget concludes, pointing to the need to convert cash to use digital services as an inconvenience. The unbanked are also workers, and work is where the opportunity to bring them into the digital economy on fair terms lives. But marketers tend to drift to dreams of retail sales when they think about digital transactions because that is where marketers earn their pay. 

Think work-first to solve the unbanked Americans problem. On-demand companies can drive the adoption of digital payment systems more efficiently than Amazon because jobs pay people. On-demand workers should be studied as a subset of the economy to understand how to introduce digital payment models. Already, Uber, Lyft, and many other marketplaces are shifting to same-day payment via direct deposit or stored value card.

The workplace is where digital payments will rise to change the economy; then retail will benefit from its current investments in digital convenience. In the meantime, cash remains king.

SoftBank’s $300M dog-walking bet

SoftBank put $300 million into dog-walking services provider Wag! today. It barks like the go-go 90s investing SoftBank when people frequently asked, “Is Masayoshi Son nuts?” The Wag deal isn’t as ludicrous as it looks, though the valuation drove venture giants Kleiner Perkins and NEA away in recent weeks, according to TechCrunch.

Why might this make sense? First, Americans spent an estimated $69.3 billion on pets and pet supplies in 2017. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that households spend $528 on pets annually, or about one percent of income. SoftBank’s Vision Fund invests for international growth, which is far off in Wag’s case. The company will be made or broken in the U.S. market.

An on-demand service must have an audience that can afford additional services, as well as need for those services. One of the reasons to own a dog is to walk it, to play with it. So, most dog owners are not candidates for Wag! They play with their dogs instead of paying others to do it. At an average price of $20 for 30 minutes, Wag’s service is priced for urban professionals and not the typical dog owner.

The second factor in Wag’s success is the ability to win and keep a repeat customer. The company has struggled with quality issues. Dogs are more like family than a car; they are not handed over casually to a walker.

The entire professional workforce in the U.S. included approximately 61.6 million people in 2017, according to AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees. The number of Young professionals, 17.2 million in 2017, is growing by 350,000 workers annually. There is substantial growth among people likely to mix dog ownership, work, and an urban location. Several million people can afford to send their dogs on 3o minute walks three times a week, at the cost of $4,680 a year.

A $4,600/year price point is difficult and expensive online consumer branding challenge. We expect to see more services like Wag bundled and delivered by local intermediaries, as a benefit offered by companies seeking to attract and keep talent, or by concierge brands that span service categories. For example, Wag offers conveniences such as lockboxes to allow the walker into the home, but how many lockboxes are necessary for the customer? Some form of service interface consolidation is required.

Wag is currently recruiting walkers in 56 U.S. cities. Using 56 service locales as the basis for estimating how long it will take Wag to recoup the investment in topline revenue, it would require every city to see 733.8 walks per day delivered for a year. The actual distribution will vary. However, the 7.5 million walks delivered in a year gives us a basis for understanding how much Wag must grow just to earn back SoftBank’s investment. 

For purposes of this back-of-the-envelope calculation, if a walker averages two one-hour walks and four half-hour walks — a highly efficient pace — for a total of $120 in revenue, each city needs only  122 walkers to realize ~$300 million in revenue in a year. That is the ideal scenario, and it looks tractable.

The problem is Wag’s share of that revenue. The company pays walkers $16 for a half hour, retaining only $4 net for each half-hour walk.

In fact, Wag needs ~600 walkers in each of 56 cities delivering ~3,600 walks per day to reach $300 million in annual net revenue. Out of that share of revenue, the company must build software, recruit and screen walkers, provide transaction services, perform marketing functions, and pay its full-time employees.

That is a long walk to profitability. Wag! had raised $61.5 million before SoftBank’s investment. With a well-funded competitor, Rover.com, which has raised $155 million to date, Wag is a big bet by SoftBank that Wag can figure out and optimize the dog-walking market faster than Rover.

This is Uber growing up: Khosrowshahi calls for portable benefits

It will be surprising to many, but Uber is poised to become a mature and responsible company. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi today signed on to a letter from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and others asking Congress to create a portable benefits system for on-demand workers. The Hill reports that Khosrowshahi, investor Nick Hanauer, and the SEIU were strongly endorsed by Virginia Democrat Senator Mark Warner.

Ultimately, business and government will work together to address the vast changes to work, employment relationships, and the social safety net that allows the kind of labor mobility required in the emerging economy.

On-Demand Economy Notes, January 24, 2018

Lots of short notable goodness for your on-demand economy appetite today. News and thoughts follow.

ADP gets serious about on-demand. ADP, the Paterson, N.J. payment processing and payroll provider, acquired WorkMarket, a freelance management platform. The startup’s Work OS supports on-demand and full-time employee relationships that is integrated with Salesforce, among others. This marks the beginning of a serious experimentation phase for on-demand work models. 

Amazon isn’t perfect. Amazon Restaurants, the retail giant’s food delivery service, has laid off 50 staff in Seattle. It is not clear that means the group is under the knife, but it shows that food delivery services are still wide open markets.

The Institute for the Future released an important on-demand economy white paper, “Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach” to on-demand marketplaces. Their focus on governance, the rules of engagement between a platform and worker, as well as the way the platform ensures representative and transparent practices to minimize information asymmetries in their markets, is critically important. As a former Chaordic Commons trustee, I can attest to the difficulty in creating governing documents like the IFTF advocates. The IFTF framework is an invaluable contribution to this dialogue. Read it for yourself. Summaries won’t do it justice.  And there is a useful list of companies studied for the report.

Gig worker payments are shifting to day-of-delivery and direct deposit. Lots of interesting data points in this PYMNTS.com article. PayPal is the conduit for 35 percent of gig workers’ payments and 54 percent of workers use direct deposit.  Drivers use direct deposit far more than other categories. I imagine we will see a day when a job contract is a debit card.

Amazon may not have cashiers in its Go convenience stores, but Bolt, a San Francisco startup just coming out of stealth mode, according to TechCrunch, is angling to help the rest of the stores on Main Street catch up. The initial services focus on online commerce, from check-out to fraud and business intelligence. Transaction platforms like this will survive and thrive based on customer engagement. Bolt looks ready to attack the cart abandonment problem today.

Omnicom, the ad conglomerate, incubated Spry, an on-demand public relations firm, which launched this week. The business idea turns on the idea that editors make the press release professional, and freelancers can be called on to generate drafts quickly and cheaply. Content.ly for press releases is a wedge, but the agency faces competition from full service firms that can amplify the messages they create. Omnicom’s spin-out, Cision, and PRNewswire businesses will eventually play a part in Spry’s success.

Mastercard launched the Inclusive Futures Project to address on-demand transactions, government services, and smart cities experiments. Here is the plan and partner projects announced today, with this explanation of the focus: “Two commercially viable segments surfaced as areas in need of more dedicated focus and research: Struggling Middle Income consumers and Gig Economy workers. The reality is: all too many of these individuals and their families fight to achieve and maintain financial stability; and as such, consistently find themselves excluded, unable to reap the benefits of a growing economy.”

Drones are coming with your stuff. Dorado, a European on-demand delivery service says drones are two to six times cheaper and 1o times faster than current options. What is Dorado’s play? To raise $55 million through a ICO to fund its go-to-market strategy for home and business deliveries in Europe. The firm has raised $r million from Goldfish Fund, an ICO-centric institutional fund.

Fiverr tells Crunchbase News it acquired AND CO, a SaaS platform for freelancers and self-employed workers. A video release explains the deal. The company suggests this deal indicates consolidation is underway in the on-demand economy. It’s just the first wave. AND CO had previously raised $2.5 million.

GoDaddy doubles down on SMB social commerce

GoDaddy has acquired Main Street Hub, a social marketing tools and services company, for $125 million in cash with $50 million in  performance incentives, according to TechCrunch. This is interesting for several reasons:

  • SMB marketing must evolve to support on-demand and in-home engagement.
  • SMBs generally favor Do-It-With-Me and Do-It-For-Me (DIFM) models over Do-It-Yourself marketing services. Only 22.5 percent of respondents to the latest BIA/Kelsey survey of SMBs preferred DIFM services.
  • Scale in services is difficult to achieve, and at 10,000 SMB customers Main Street is at a tipping point that will determine if it can grow.

GoDaddy’s 17 million U.S. small business customers must appear a ripe target for Main Street. GoDaddy, too, has searched for additional revenue from SMB customers. At some point in the negotiations, someone at the table must have said “Pitch [Main Street} to the 28 million SMBs in the United States, and we’re sure to generate a billion dollars or more in fees.” In fact, it would take 333,000 customers at Main Street’s current entry price to make that goal.

However, scaling up a services-centric business is much more complicated than automated services, such as website hosting or email marketing delivery. The cost of delivering marketing services rises with each client as that client adds services, scaling linearly, at best, or producing lower margins in many circumstances. When I worked on web hosting at hibu a few years back, the only viable way to deliver web sites was outsourcing to the Philippines, and even that was challenging.

The other factor to consider is SMBs’ tendency to bring services in-house once they feel they have a process they can reproduce. Main Street’s best customers are likely to migrate to automation and in-house resources if they succeed.

The next phase of marketing requires local familiarity, not simply marketing competence. This means people must be familiar with the culture they are marketing into, and that points to lots of U.S.-based consultants. That is not cheap, yet TechCrunch calls this acquisition a “perfect match.”

Main Street assigns an account manager to each small business client, with pricing starting in the $250/mo. range, or $3,000 a year. That’s a small market, representing a few million U.S. businesses, at most. Meanwhile, Salesforce, Oracle, Amazon, and others continue to move their services down-market, into direct competition for these companies.

GoDaddy is taking a big bet in an intensely competitive sector. It isn’t a sure thing, and requires additional features and local expertise that will be hard to scale.

Trust and Fintech: A people problem

Banks offer many more services, along with charging a lot more fees, than a generation ago. As virtual services grow, trust has fallen. Financier Worldwide looks at personalization, GDPR (learn it, know it), and the impact of social media. However, the customer relationship all comes down to trust.

Banks offer many more services, along with charging a lot more fees, than a generation ago. As virtual services grow, trust levels continue to decline. Only 32 percent of Americans trust their bank “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” according to Gallup’s 2017 polling.

Financier Worldwide looks at personalization, GDPR (learn it, know it), and the impact of social media on banking relationships from the Customer Experience (CX) perspective. However, the customer relationship all comes down to trust, which requires human interaction.

“An overwhelming majority of customers consider their banking relationship merely transactional and are seeking better experiences from banks,” suggests Fabrice Albizzati, a partner in EY’s FS advisory practice. “Customers are looking for service providers that know them, that  they can trust and, in turn, stay loyal to. FS institutions, therefore, need to optimise CX and implement a more personalised approach to recapture customer loyalty.”

Notice that customers want the bank to “know them.” Instead, banking and financial service offers bombard the consumer today, by direct mail, email, and SMS. Most of these offers are fishing for potential customers rather than providing targeted services that build trust. They scream indifference to the customer’s daily challenges. The cost to banks is a constant low-yield search for more customers, many of whom trade off between offers over time instead of settling into a relationship and increasing share of wallet with the bank. 

No matter how many technologies we invent, the person-to-person relationship cannot be replaced by pure digital interaction. “Recapturing customer loyalty” is a project that involves the right human interaction blended with digital services to create a sense that the financial company values the customer’s trust and money. Send people to meet people at the right time. Deliver great service and savings to banking customers, and be ready to demonstrate that value in-person, combining listening and empathy with data insights.

People will use technology to reweave trust. It’s a process we are many years into with diminishing returns on technical investments alone. Now, it’s time to help connect in order to rebuild trusting relationships.


Uber’s December EU court loss has global consequences

Lexology analyzes an important employment and regulatory decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union after the Spanish Asociación Profesional Élite Taxi, a driver’s union, challenged Uber’s operating model in Barcelona. The court, which is the highest in the E.U., sided with drivers.

Lexology analyzes an important employment and regulatory decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union after the Spanish Asociación Profesional Élite Taxi, a driver’s union, challenged Uber’s operating model in Barcelona. The court, which is the highest in the E.U., sided with drivers.

Uber selects the non-professional drivers to use their own vehicles and, without the UBER branded application: (i) those drivers would not be led to provide transport services to the fares, and (ii) those customers would not use the services provided by those drivers. Accordingly, looking at the nature and effect of the services provided by Uber and the control exercised by Uber, the CJEU ruled that it was providing transport services – not information society services. As such, it ruled that Article 56 TFEU and the laws under the E-Commerce Directive, and related legislation, did not apply to these circumstances. Moreover, the CJEU noted that as these taxi services amounted to non-public urban transport services and such had not yet become the subject of an EU wide common transport policy, it remained open for individual Member States to regulate the conditions under which these services were provided.

Slowly, Uber is being forced to acknowledge the reality of local government. If you follow labor law, this is a must-read. Government is designed to be slower than the economy, and is catching up in mobility markets.

Update: Scotland is coming after Airbnb, too: The Times of London reports that Patrick Harvie, a Scottish housing advocate said: “There is a huge difference between what’s generally called the collaborative economy of people putting a spare room in their own home up for short-term let, and the conversion of entire properties to effectively mini-hotels which operate without paying any business taxes and which are distorting the housing market in this way.”

Smart thermostats open the door to on-demand services

Parks Associates, an IoT and smart home research firm, released a report suggesting that 13 percent of U.S. broadband households (there were 106 million such homes as of 2016) have installed smart thermostats as of 2017. That’s up from 11 percent in 2016, an increase of approximately 2.1 million homes last year. What does this mean for on-demand services that can tap into smart thermostats (with consumers’ permission)? Let’s brainstorm.

Parks Associates, an IoT and smart home research firm, released a report suggesting that 13 percent of U.S. broadband households (there were 106 million such homes as of 2016) have installed smart thermostats as of 2017. That’s up from 11 percent in 2016, an increase of approximately 2.1 million homes last year.

What does this mean for on-demand services that can tap into smart thermostats (with consumers’ permission)? Let’s brainstorm:

Think of the ADT model. The security company monitors the state of a home and, when there is a break-in, alerts the police. A smart thermostat could provide live monitoring of a home’s temperature and furnace/air conditioning to deliver real-time service. Your furnace fails and before you realize it is not heating the home, a service provider shows up to fix it. With a digital lock in the scenario, consumer might not even need to be home to discover and fix a heating problem in winter. Feels like magic to the homeowner.

Home activity monitoring. Nest’s thermostats have been detecting activity in the home and adjusting temperatures when consumers arrive home. Water heaters cold lower their electrical or gas usage during the day. Tie activity monitoring to a meal-delivery service to trigger the arrival of dinner just after he customer comes in from work. 

Security. The smart thermostat can also detect unexpected entry to a home and signal the customer or a security firm when something is amiss. It may be just one more sensor, but motion/sound detection could replace traditional doors and window security monitors, lowering the price of home security installs and services.

On-demand work tracking. A smart thermostat linked to on-demand service providers’ networks could track when a housekeeper, dog-walker, plant watering service, or other labor enters and leaves the home. Consumers could have validation that their housekeeper worked the full time they were expected to, even when no one was home, from their smart thermostat.

On-demand companies need to anticipate and build business relationships around devices that extend the customer relationship. Smart thermostats, smart speakers, smart thermostat-speakers, electrical and water system monitors, smart refrigerators, smart phones, smart TVs, and myriad other devices can help identify consumer needs before they are detected by consumers themselves. However, these services must respect the customer’s privacy and act in service of their interests, or such tools will seem intrusive. 

Update: Chuck Martin at MediaPost discusses how companies are embracing IoT today, as well. Lots of very interesting results from a survey of 500 executives considering or actively investing in IoT-enabled customer experiences.




Google invests in Go-Jek

Google is reportedly part of a new $1.19 billion investment round at Indonesian ride hailing service Go-Jek. According to South Africa’s Business Report, Google could put as much as $98 million into the company, which also has investments from Tencent. 

The deal opens the way for adoption of Google’s Waymo autonomous car technology by Go-Jek, among other potential benefits. Go-Jek did not comment on the deal.