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A Wave of Start-Ups Helps Small Companies Outsource Their Tasks

Leah Busque is the founder of TaskRabbit, an online marketplace that oursources small jobs and errands.
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Leah Busque is the founder of TaskRabbit, an online marketplace that oursources small jobs and errands.

Small-business owners are like Swiss Army knives: expected to handle dozens of specialized tasks without falling apart. But even the sharpest entrepreneurs have it tough this time of year — inevitably, some will outsource part of their workload to other enterprising people.

This season, dozens of start-ups are competing to take on your holiday headaches. Here are four time-gobbling situations and the young companies vying to eliminate them:

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CHALLENGE Your to-do list is crammed with tiny tasks. How can you delegate them cheaply?

ONE SOLUTION For $5 you could drink a large latte and work through the night. Or you could hire a minion at Fiverr, which bills itself as "the world's largest marketplace for small services." Starting at $5 apiece, tasks include designing business cards and letterheads, sending out handwritten cards, editing newsletters, making short commercial videos and throwing darts at a picture of your rival.

"Pretty much anything you imagine can be found on Fiverr," said the company's chief executive, Micha Kaufman, who set out in 2010 with Shai Wininger to build what Mr. Kaufman calls "an eBay for services."

"It's giving people the tools to do business with the entire world," he added.

Fiverr, with headquarters in Tel Aviv and offices in New York and Amsterdam, has more than a million active buyers and sellers across 200 countries, Mr. Kaufman said. He would not disclose revenue or the number of sales his site has brokered so far. Fiverr has raised $20 million in financing and has 60 full-time staff members. The company collects a 20 percent commission on each sale.

THE COMPETITION Fiverr's success has inspired an army of imitators, including Gig Me 5, Gigbucks, TenBux and Zeerk. Building and selling Fiverr copycat sites has also become a cottage industry for online software developers. Asked whether he took this as a compliment, Mr. Kaufman replied dryly, "One of my friends said, 'It may be flattering, but it's a very annoying way to flatter you.' "

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CHALLENGE You are overwhelmed by errands and other location-specific jobs that cannot be farmed out to the other side of the planet. You need an affordable gofer: competent, trustworthy, local.

ONE SOLUTION TaskRabbit is an on-demand service for handling quick jobs: assembling Ikea furniture, packing boxes, wrapping gifts, mailing invitations or even carrying awkward objects like Christmas trees. The company sends requests to a network of "rabbits" — errand-runners screened through video interviews and background checks — who bid for the work. Last month, 80 of them were hired to wait on Black Friday lines.

Leah Busque got the idea for TaskRabbit one night in 2008, when she was heading out to dinner and realized she had no food in the house for Kobe, her yellow Labrador. Envisioning an online service for dispatching errand-runners, she quit her job as an I.B.M. software engineer to build it. A year later, she won a slot in Facebook's now defunct incubator program. Shortly thereafter she moved her company, then called RunMyErrand, to San Francisco from Boston.

Now TaskRabbit has 60 employees at its headquarters, along with more than 4,000 freelancers wrangling tasks for customers in the Bay Area as well as in Austin, Tex.; Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York; Portland, Ore.; and San Antonio.

TaskRabbit has raised almost $40 million in financing, and revenue nearly quintupled this year, Ms. Busque said. She would not disclose sales figures but said the company typically charges users 18 percent on top of its freelancers' fees. Small businesses, she said, are her fastest-growing group of customers.

THE COMPETITION: Agent Anything, Exec., Fancy Hands, PAForADay and Zaarly.

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***

CHALLENGE You want to delegate complex, highly specialized tasks, but it's hard to find people whose expertise matches your needs.

ONE SOLUTION SkillPages connects skilled workers with those who want to hire them. The site showcases an array of specialists — beekeepers, tree surgeons, witches, clog dancers — along with professionals with more conventional business skills, like payroll administrators, social media marketers and typists.

Iain Mac Donald decided to start SkillPages after seeking a tree cutter online to do work in his yard. "This guy arrives with a huge truck, and he could have taken down a forest," Mr. Mac Donald said. "He was going to charge me $3,000. It just wasn't right."

Mr. Mac Donald figured there had to be a way to help make better matches. To that end, SkillPages identifies specialists whom users' families and friends may already know through social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Users can also view work samples online and contact members directly.

Based in Ireland, SkillPages went live in 2011 and opened an office in Palo Alto, Calif., this year. The company's 35 employees handle traffic from more than nine million users worldwide, 1.5 million of them in North America. The company has received $18.5 million in financing, said Mr. Mac Donald, the chief executive, declining to disclose sales figures.

SkillPages' basic services are free. To make money, it sells advertising space and offers premium memberships with stand-alone Web sites. Next year, Mr. Mac Donald plans to offer a paid matchmaking service for talent-seeking companies. He is also building a "targeted offers" program that will let niche vendors present deals on products and services to members with relevant expertise. The vendors will pay SkillPages a bounty for each sale.

THE COMPETITION Guru, oDesk and Elance also focus on skilled work. LinkedIn added a "skills" component to its profiles last year.

***

CHALLENGE Your business moved. In days of yore, you would just update the address in the local Yellow Pages. But now that information appears on myriad Web sites like Yelp, Citysearch, Yahoo and Foursquare. How do you adjust them all?

ONE SOLUTION Yext gives business owners a single dashboard for updating directory information and posting special offers across 57 listing sites. After Hurricane Sandy, about 2,300 users logged on to post closings and other storm-related messages, according to Yext's chief executive, Howard Lerman. "My favorite was one guy who put up a 24-hour elevator rescue hot line," he said.

Founded in 2006 in New York City, Yext, in its first incarnation, drove sales leads to other businesses on a pay-per-call basis. In August, Mr. Lerman sold that service, which he said was profitable and generating eight-figure revenue. He wanted to refocus on expanding Yext's fledgling directory information product, which came out in 2011. "I'm perfectly happy with the word 'gamble,' " he said. "You should only take big bets in technology."

Yext has raised $27 million in financing so far for its listings service, which passed the 100,000-subscriber mark this month and generates more than $30 million in annual revenue, according to Mr. Lerman. The full service costs $42 a month and also notifies users when new reviews of their companies appear on listings sites.

"To go to all of those sites individually and try to manage your information or update stuff would take hours and hours and hours," Mr. Lerman said. "Yext is all about businesses owning their own data."

THE COMPETITION Localeze, Express Update and CityGrid.

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