Leah Busque’s lightbulb moment happened in February 2008.
Busque was about to go out for dinner with her husband Kevin and some friends when she realised they’d run out of dog food for their Labrador, Kobe. ‘We’d already booked a cab to take us across town,’ says Busque, who was living in Boston at the time and working as an engineer for IBM. ‘I thought, "Wouldn’t it be nice if I could connect to someone in the neighbourhood – maybe someone who was in the store that very minute – and pay them to help us out?" It was such a simple problem. But there wasn’t a simple solution.’
She describes that time as the ‘Dark Ages’ of the internet. The iPhone had only just been realised. The App Store didn’t exist. And Facebook was only just breaking out of the college scene. ‘As a technologist, I was really excited about mobile, social and location – and here was an opportunity to combine all three.’
Before she left the house that evening, she registered an internet domain name for a new online errand-running business: RunMyErrand.com – the precursor to TaskRabbit. She then went out for dinner and told her friends what she’d done. One of them said, ‘You should talk to my mate Scott about your idea.’ Scott turned out to be Scott Griffith, the then-CEO and chairman of zipcar.
‘I emailed Scott and he agreed to meet up with me the following week. We hit if off straight away,’ says Busque. ‘What he was building at zipcar was very much aligned with my vision for TaskRabbit – connecting people in a neighbourhood to share resources to live more efficiency. He let me use the zipcar offices for free, he helped me find my first angel investors, and he told me about fbFund, Facebook’s 12-week startup boot camp in Silicon Valley. That one email to him – that one serendipitous connection – completely changed my life.
‘When you’re starting a business, don’t worry about others stealing your idea. Talk to as many people as you can. The reward far outweighs the risk.’
Today, TaskRabbit is valued at more than $100m and backed by investors including Founders Fund (led by tech billionaire Peter Thiel), Floodgate and Shasta Ventures. It’s in 30 cities across the US and expanded into the UK in 2013.
‘Ideas are everywhere – it’s just a matter of discovering them,’ says Busque. ‘I wasn’t the first person to have the idea for TaskRabbit; I was just the first person to execute it and do something about it.
‘If you’ve read Originals by Adam Grant, you’ll know about the concept of "vuja de". It’s when you look at something you've seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. It’s the opposite of déjà vu. I’d run out of dog food thousands of times but this was the first time I thought about the problem in an entrepreneurial way.’
Busque grew up in Shirley, a tiny town in Massachusetts with one school and a population of 4,000. ‘Even though no-one in my family was an entrepreneur – my father worked for the airforce and I had a stay-at-home mom – I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I started my own business at the age of six called Pollution Solutions so I could pretend to be a CEO and boss my little sister and cousin around.’ She studied maths and computer science and went on to be a programmer at IBM where she worked on Lotus Notes and Domino. ‘I loved my job but felt I was missing out on something – I just wasn’t sure what that was,’ she says.
She admits that making the leap from engineer to entrepreneur was tough. ‘It’s easy to get paralysed and worry about all the things that can go wrong. But you have to keep setting yourself big hairy audacious goals – the kind of goals you’re almost too ashamed to share with anyone because they’ll think you’re nuts – and then set yourself baby steps on how to get there.’
Leah Busque was a guest speaker at Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network Summit in San Francisco.