Through The Fire: What TaskRabbit Learned From Its Big Backlash

“Right after we launched the new TaskRabbit, not everyone was happy.”

After years of being a CEO, Leah Busque knows to choose her words carefully. But speaking with her in person at a conference room in TaskRabbit’s San Francisco headquarters, it’s apparent in her voice and demeanor that she knows she’s making an understatement. It’s hard to imagine that there was anything happy about the backlash that occurred after TaskRabbit rolled out a dramatically different version of its platform on July 10, 2014.

Sitting across the table, Jamie Viggiano, TaskRabbit’s vice president of marketing who has been in the business for nearly 15 years, is more blunt. “The hardest part was the first four to six weeks after the launch,” she said. That’s when the response from longtime TaskRabbit devotees was called a “revolt” and a “rabbit revolution” in the press, and TaskRabbit customer support had to work overtime answering phone calls from confused and angry users.

“We were like, man, this is brutal. Those first four weeks were the most difficult part of my career.”

Making the change

What made it even harder is that no one quite saw it coming.

Though the new new TaskRabbit — referred to internally as TaskRabbit V. 3 — was a massive departure from how the platform had worked for years, it had been tested rigorously prior to its public debut, and seemed to be an ideal solution to supply and demand issues that had been plaguing the platform for months. The most marked change in TaskRabbit V. 3 was how it replaced the manual auction system that allowed people to browse and bid on jobs with an algorithm that automatically matched people with tasks.

“When we first thought of making these changes in late 2013, we didn’t take it lightly. We decided to test launch it in an international market where no one had heard of us before. So we went to London, threw away the old TaskRabbit codebase, and started from scratch,” Busque says.

In London the results were overwhelmingly positive: Virtually all of the company’s metrics markedly improved, and with the average amount of money that individual Taskers on the platform were taking home was soaring. Across the board, TaskRabbit V. 3 looked like a success, and right away, the company decided it needed to use this new version everywhere.

While the company’s engineering team worked on migrating the new system to the U.S., the marketing and communications department set about informing its user base about the changes: sending a series of detailed emails, conducting interviews with the press about the upcoming shift, and even embarking on a multi-city roadshow where TaskRabbit executives welcomed questions in a town hall-style format.

It all seemed to be going well — that is, until it wasn’t. At all. As soon as the launch actually went live, the protests and confusion started to pour in.

A crisis of communication

Looking back now, Busque says the biggest lesson she learned was that when you’re making big changes to a product, there’s no such thing as over-communication. “Just when you thought you’ve communicated enough, do it ten times more,” Busque says. “We did the roadshow, emails, and bunches of in-person meetings, but it wasn’t enough.”

Though the new platform worked wonderfully in principle and practice in London, the company underestimated just how strong the bidding and auction model was ingrained in its brand identity here in the U.S., and how that resonated emotionally with users. “That was one thing we didn’t get to test in London, and it was huge,” she says.

If she could do it all over again, Busque says she would have taken more time to explain the reasons behind the change, from top to bottom. She says the company also would have sought out a group of influential TaskRabbit clients and Taskers as an advisory council to help communicate the changes to the wider user base. “We previewed the influencers in our community on the changes, but once we did the launch, we didn’t really leverage them in helping us share the story.” The company has since assembled an advisory group to help consult on future product and feature launches.

“Just let it work”

Another lesson was in the importance of keeping faith in the metrics that spurred the change, even amidst the worst criticism.

“There was this very vocal minority that were very upset, but we had to remember that we built the product for the majority,” TaskRabbit’s marketing VP Jamie Viggiano said. “We knew this was going to work for the majority of people. We needed the time and space to just let it work. As someone in the trenches, that’s the mindset you have to have. You can’t disconnect or disregard [the criticism], but you have to know that you’ve done the right thing.”

The experience of TaskRabbit’s COO Stacy Brown-Philpot, an ex-Googler who led global operations on a host of top Google products, proved to be crucial through this time. “She would stand up at our meetings and say, ‘When we launched a new version of Gmail, people hated us, hated it, hated everything… but we felt conviction, and we came out so much better,'” Busque recalled. “She was a nice voice of experience for us and for the team.”

And after all, a bad response may be better than no response at all. “As a founder, to have created something people are that passionate about is better than making a change and no one cares,” Busque said. “The challenge is to take that sentiment and try to make it better.”

Taking feedback

To that end, TaskRabbit has incorporated some of the most prominent feedback it’s received over the past six months into the newest version of its app, which is launching today on iOS and Android.

The new app will feature a “Broadcast” function, which gives users the option to broadcast out a task request for a flat hourly rate to the wider Tasker community, rather than have it assigned to a certain Tasker right away. On the Tasker side, this means that Taskers will be able to scroll through available Broadcast tasks to pick up work at their convenience. Broadcast could bring back some of the most-missed aspects of the old TaskRabbit’s bidding and auction flow to the new model, while still keeping the balance of supply and demand at a more even keel.

TaskRabbit's new Broadcast feature

TaskRabbit’s new Broadcast feature

“Now a Tasker who isn’t scheduled for something or turned on duty can easily browse through available tasks and and say, ‘Oh I’ll pick this up, or I’ll pick that up,'” Busque says. That could provide more flexibility to Taskers, and keep friction low for clients.

The upside

Although the backlash was difficult, the changes now seem to have been worth it.

“We’ve been through the fire, but now, we’re at a point where we’ve never been growing faster, and our user sentiment has never been higher,” Busque contends. TaskRabbit’s Net Promoter Score — a figure used to determine public sentiment about a company or brand — has grown by 40 points in the past six months, she says, and the company’s revenue is on track to double by mid-year to become the highest it’s ever been. Meanwhile, the average job size on the platform has doubled under the new business model, and is now up to around $100.

“Under the old model, there were some elite Taskers that we could point to who were making $5,000 a month,” Busque says. “With the new platform, we’re seeing a lot of Taskers regularly making $6,000 to $7,000 a month.”

These kinds of numbers make Busque proud, especially in a world where the growing market of on-demand services with race-to-the-bottom prices are seeing more scrutiny from both regulators and the wider public. “80 percent of our Taskers have a college degree. Our average hourly rate is between $30 and $40. We provide things like discounted access to transportation and health insurance,” Busque says. “These folks are not low-wage workers.”

Too late, or right on time?

In the end it all sounds very positive, a “no rainbow without the rain” type of outcome. But while it’s convincing and makes a lot of sense, at the end of our meeting, I am left with the lingering feeling that there is a bit too much spin on the story. Surely there must be something that Busque would change, if given the opportunity? Were there any glaring mistakes that she’d take back if she could?

After thinking for a bit, Busque admits that there is. “I wish we had done this sooner. 2014 was really a year of rebuilding for us,” she says. “We would have gone through same things, but we’d be further along now.”

While that may sound like a small regret, it’s hard to overstate how important timing is in Silicon Valley, especially during a year in which much of the tech industry seemed to be soaring to new heights. Only time will tell if TaskRabbit’s rebuild came too late, or right on schedule.