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Do It Ourselves: The Internet Paves the Way for the "Micro-Entrepreneur" 

Wednesday, Jul 17 2013

Antoine Naleau likes to keep his office perfumed. Scent from a hidden air freshener welcomes guests of the 19-year-old Marin College student, who can then use his free WiFi or peruse one of the magazines he's slipped into his seat pockets. This summer, Naleau will work entirely out of his own car through Sidecar, the crowdsourced mobile app offering rides from freelance drivers to the taxi-averse in the Bay Area and beyond. And he's part of a documented trend in the American workforce.

More than 25 million Americans are now self-employed, writes Daniel H. Pink in Free Agent Nation. That number will climb to 60 million by 2020, according to a recent report by software company Intuit. And self-employment rates in the Bay Area are the highest in the nation at 9.3 percent, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. Witness the rough evolution of the "micro-entrepreneur."

"What we're seeing is a sort of dis-aggregation of labor," says Eric Koester, cofounder of Zaarly, a virtual marketplace where customers can purchase craft goods and services direct from locals, be they vegan bakers or clock repairmen. "In the old days, commerce was all local; but over time you began to see an aggregation of goods, like with Wal-Mart and catalogs; everything under one roof.

"But now, with the Internet and mobile apps... these services let commerce happen wherever the person providing the commerce is. It's a trend, and San Francisco's at the forefront."

Koester concedes that freelance opportunities are flourishing, in part, thanks to the disappearance of traditional business opportunities. But, he says, there are more important factors at play.

"Consumers aren't looking for commoditized products anymore," he says. "They're looking for things that they can buy locally, like customized T-shirts."

Of course, the sites haven't seen perfect upward growth. Zaarly, for example, began in 2011 as a "reverse Craigslist" of sorts, where local buyers could request what they wanted from nearby independent sellers, before "pivoting" its focus to select artisans.

But in the world of micro-entrepreneurship, it pays to be selective. Take S.F.-based Taskrabbit, a site that outsources temp jobs and chores — anything from wedding photography to grocery delivery — to a carefully vetted labor pool. Most of Taskrabbit's 12,000-strong workforce earns a substantial living off the site, says marketing manager Johnny Brackett.

"Seventy-five percent of Taskrabbits are relying on our service to pay the bills, whether that's a substantial part of their income or all of it," Brackett says, adding that 10 percent of those earn a full-time living through the site. But Taskrabbit hasn't perfected this workshare system just yet: The company recently went through a round of layoffs.

Micro-entrepreneurship may be a solution to shifting economics, but "self-employment" is still only a negative online review or an unanswered e-mail away from "un."

About The Author

Susie Neilson


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