Not everything can be outsourced: a somewhat cautionary tale

There’s a category of apps on Jeremiah Owyang’s Collaborative Economy chart called Services. It’s split into two categories, Professional and Personal. Professional Services includes companies like ODesk and eLance that enable professionals all over the world to take on short-term freelance projects. But it’s Personal Services that have seen an explosion of new entrants with new ideas on how to make life easier and try to outsource every possible task. Mr. Owyang listed Instacart (to which I’ll add Google Express) for outsourcing grocery shopping, Shyp to easily ship anything, and TaskRabbit for almost any small task. To that I’ll add some I have recently heard of: Boost, to take your kids to their after-school activities, and Alfred, a “personal butler” service operating in major urban areas. I’m sure there are many more out there and more being created as I type and it’s tempting to think of what hasn’t been done yet.

My grandparent's marriage certificate, the Ktuba, written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish.

My grandparent’s marriage certificate, the Ktuba, written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish.

My task-sharing tale has to do with a project I took on after my grandmother’s death: I went through several boxes of old photos and fading documents to not only preserve them but to tell her story. I asked every family member to check their attic for more stuff, I scanned photos, front and back, in very high resolution, I researched the family tree to make sense of the portraits I found, I found people to read Polish, Yiddish and Aramaic (!) to translate handwriting for me, I interviewed family members to get stories, I tried to identity the people and the dates of as many photos as possible, and, finally, I put it all together in one digital album. The entire project took almost a year to complete. It was a lot of work.

When it was done, people immediately asked if I could do the same with their box of old photos, one that had been languishing in their attic for years. So I tried to price such a project by seeing how many hours I needed to get it done. As you can imagine based on the amount of work involved, that price ended up being quite high. When I did some casual market research to see if the same people who admired my work for my family wanted me to do it for their family their response was along the lines of “I didn’t think it would cost so much.” They just didn’t realize the amount of work involved, the sheer number of hours I had put into it.

People are willing to pay for a task when they can work out the cost structure, when the price “makes sense” to them. It’s a reason many Uber passengers are upset at Surge Pricing: they see that the service is exactly the same but because of factors beyond their control they are being asked to pay a price triple than what they’d like. It is easier for users to pay for a service when they either know what an equivalent service would cost (a taxi in Uber’s case) or how much effort it would take for them to do it (in Instacart’s case.) It’s also easier to outsource when the price is low. $2 for someone to collect my groceries and bag them for me to pick them up, thereby saving me an hour? Yes, please. But it is that tradeoff that users think about when they decide whether to try a service.

Bottom line: it won’t make sense to outsource every task, even when that task is onerous, but especially if that task is big. Plus, it helps if your users can understand it.



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