Like Tinder, but for creative professionals: How Thumbtack is remaking the gig economy


Craigslist is old.

Angie’s List is strange.

But now there’s Thumbtack, which aims to remove the worst and weirdest parts of hiring skilled professionals, like a painter or dance instructor  — and, for said professionals, of putting your name out to get hired.

“Craigslist, Yelp, Angie’s List — all those are online versions of an offline product” like the yellow pages, said Marco Zappacosta, Thumbtack’s 29-year-old CEO and cofounder.

The site was founded in 2009 by Zappacosta and three other friends just out of college who had previously worked on a site to get students involved in Social Security reform. The project was successful, but they soon realized they liked the startup part more than the Social Security one.

Still, it wasn’t until last year that they devised the site’s current model, after realizing why all other listings sites were so bad.

“They hadn’t innovated on the underlying experience to make it better.”

Hiring for a gig, they realized, is more like trying to find the right person to date than it is like trying to decide where to eat. Zappacosta now compares the experience to finding a date on Tinder.

“It requires them saying ‘yes’ to you, as much as you saying ‘yes’ to them,” he said.

Here’s how Thumbtack works: You put in a request for a service — an electrician, a French teacher, an event planner, whatever. I recently needed a new headshot.

It then asks for my ZIP code, followed by a detailed set of follow-up questions.

The questionnaire is Thumbtack’s trump card, since it lets workers know what a customer’s needs are up front, and sends customers the best matches for their jobs. After collecting the responses, Thumbtack sends out alerts to professionals in my area letting them know what I was looking for.

In less than two hours, I received five offers:

The site comes at an opportune time given the state of the U.S. labor market. American workers with traditional clock-in jobs are being increasingly replaced by independent contractors and freelancers. According to Census and Bureau of Economic Analysis data compiled by the Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. (EMSI), workers classified as “employees,” which encompasses workers with set hours and wages, fell from 81 percent of the labor force to 77 percent between 2004 and 2014.

Meanwhile, Americans classified as “miscellaneous proprietors” has jumped to 18 percent from 13.5 percent. Miscellaneous proprietors mostly comprise independent contractors who enjoy more flexible work hours and on-the-job freedom but who can receive less than full wages and benefits. Adults aged 19-31 are seeing the same kinds of changes.

Some estimates of freelancers put the figure even higher. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that 53 million Americans, or 34% of the nation’s workforce, now qualify as freelancers, citing information from the Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization, and Elance-oDesk Inc., a company similar to Thumbtack that focuses on creative and administrative workers.

“There’s an atomization of work happening,” Zappacosta said. “The decline of the career job has long been chronicled — you and I aren’t working at GM for 40 years. Instead, it’s people becoming more independent, more on their own.”

Since the vision for the site stabilized, Thumbtack’s growth has been large, fast, and wide. Approximately 80,000 professionals have set up accounts, and Thumbtack has sent them $2 billion worth of business, Zappacosta said. Their biggest city, New York, only comprises 5 percent of the total volume, and their biggest category, housecleaning, represents just 6 percent of the labor that’s been provided.

The company has also gone through five rounds of investment that now totals $148.2 million, almost all of it coming in the past 18 months. Most recently, the company saw a $100-million round in August from a group that included Google Capital.

The model has been so good that Taskrabbit, a company that lets individuals to sign up for low-wage odd jobs, decided to junk its old layout and co-opt Thumbtack’s model.

And all this growth has come without much P.R. or advertising. Zappacosta said they’ve had so much demand on the customer side that they’re holding off on doing a full media blitz, because the site doesn’t have enough professionals to meet the need. It turns out that, despite their abundance, it is more difficult to corral independent contractors than it is to reach customers Googling for a handyman —  Thumbtack recently began reaching out via snail-mail to potential signees on the labor side.

“Unlike Uber, our ‘supplies’ are not fungible — they’re not commodities,” he said. “Your carpenter can’t be a wedding photographer, who can’t be a math tutor. We need professionals.”

There may be some overrepresentation in certain categories. Dom Minasi has been teaching guitar since 1963. Today, he says, the U.S. — and Thumbtack — is “inundated” with guitar teachers, and that he often finds himself too slow to make it into the five alerts users receive. He thinks that limit should be increased.

Still, he said, it’s an improvement over Craigslist, where he said he received zero customers.

“It’s been a positive experience for me.”

Zappacosta is agnostic about the implications of the rise in independent workers for the broader economy, saying the company’s goal is simply to create a site that assists those who find themselves in this situation.

“More and more people want to work for themselves, be their own bosses, and make money more efficiently,” he said. “It’s an antidote to the headwinds we see today, like the lack of growth in wages.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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