MenuPages is a digital-age search engine with an old-fashioned analog problem. Of the thousands of restaurants it covers in eight metro areas, there are a few hundred eateries that have no website, no fax and no phone number. So how do you get their prices and menus?
For years, the website used Craigslist to hire college students who would pick up menus and snap photos—but the method wasn't too reliable.
"If you have someone collecting menus in Boston and it happens to be February, it might be they don't want to do it anymore. Then there's the spread-out nature of businesses in L.A.," says MenuPages director Tom Bohan. With students shivering in Boston and road-weary youngsters drained in L.A., MenuPages grew tired of the Craiglist approach. "It kind of got old," Bohan says.
A year ago, the company tapped a startup called Gigwalk Inc. to do the same job in a completely different way. The company breaks the job into tiny tasks—say to visit the unlisted restaurants in one neighborhood—and puts the assignment out to its crowd of more than 60,000 users, who grab the task and gather information with a smartphone. Upon completion, the "Gigwalker" gets paid a few bucks through PayPal.
Gigwalk is the latest entry in the slowly growing field of online labor exchanges, which are websites that allow organizations to connect with contract workers. These sites send your job to contractors you may never meet, or in the case of Gigwalk, people who may not even use their real names. Services like this only may work well for certain kinds of jobs and tasks. But if the fit is right, the exchanges offer opportunities for predictable and high-quality work.
Gigwalk is among those competing in the nascent field of "Giganomics": the economy of workers who perform part-time jobs for several employers in order to cobble together a living in these lean times. Gigwalkers are people who might perform their job on the fly, while doing personal errands or if they have a few minutes to kill.
"If you give me people who have a smartphone, you could get the same job done more cost-effectively and cover a lot more areas of the world," says Gigwalk CEO Ariel Seidman.
If users perform well, they qualify for more complex and higher-paid gigs. The hiring company can set whatever price it wants for a gig, though Gigwalk has guidelines that rise or fall depending on the task's complexity, urgency and the travel time required. Entry-level tasks taking five to 10 minutes pay between $3 and $6, while a harder job that might take an experienced Gigwalker two to four hours might yield $90. Gigwalk takes a fee when the job is posted and completed.
The company's early clients offer some signposts to the kind of assignments that work best. Microsoft Corp. is using Gigwalk to fill out local data for its Bing search engine, and GPS-maker TomTom International is using the service to remove hiccups from its car navigation database. Real estate developers use Gigwalk to check out properties, and clothiers use it to see if retailers are delivering on the store placement they promised. Some companies have hired people to come in and box up T-shirts. Newspapers have even hired Gigwalkers to photograph local sporting events. In each case, the task is simple and clearly defined.
And those limits tell Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, that transferring work from employees to online freelancers will only go so far.
"The reason these things have not set the world on fire is that work is a pretty complicated concept," Cappelli said. "It's hard to define requirements, to define performance standards, to establish rewards, and it's easy to cheat in many ways. If you don't have personal relationships, it's a hard thing to do online."
But Libby Sartain, a human-relations expert and former human resources head of Southwest Airlines and Yahoo, expects that online labor exchanges will continue to expand, with deep implications for both worker and manager.
"The power is transferred to the hands of the worker, and the worker is much more in control of the kind of work they do. People will get really specific about what they want to do and how much they get paid," Sartain says.
"It gets very challenging for the employer, though. We are geared up to hire people and pay them and not to manage a bunch of people doing gigs. We need to really rethink how we do work and how we manage [people] and how we pay them."
Gigwalk CEO Seidman says that in the course of completing over 100,000 gigs, Gigwalk has not had any issues with unprofessional or illegal workers. The company vets its gigwalkers for quality and accuracy and follows U.S. tax laws regarding contract employment, he says.
The services that have had the most success are ones like Gigwalk or Amazon.com Inc.'s Mechanical Turk that target very specific jobs that are easy to perform, or ones like Elance Inc. or Guru.com that have an audience of skilled and tech-savvy workers.
Bohan of MenuPages says that Gigwalk costs a bit more than Craigslist, but is worth it for the results. MenuPages gets the information it needs three or four times faster than before, and with less administrative hassle and more accuracy, even though it has never had a conversation with a single Gigwalker.
As the economy continues to falter and the bonds between employer and employee continue to weaken and shift, the prospects are bright for segments of the online work-for-hire economy.
David Ferris is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A summary of other online labor exchanges available to employers.
Elance, Guru.com and oDesk: Three major websites for finding skilled freelancers in a wide variety of fields.
Amazon.com Inc.'s Mechanical Turk: A site where people are paid tiny amounts to perform small, often brainless tasks that computers can't—for example, finding a product's item number on a Web page.
Craigslist: This friend to apartment-hunters and emptiers of basements also posts job listings for $25 to $75, depending on location.
TaskRabbit: This is a person-to-person exchange with a focus on local jobs such as delivering groceries, cleaning or assembling IKEA furniture.
Monster.com: Many people look for part-time and temporary work on this heavily used job board.